On December 17, 2013, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke out against the exclusion of Afrikaners from the funeral of former South African President Nelson Mandela. The crowning achievement of President Mandela was to bring together two warring sides into one South Africa. With racial, religious and ethnic conflicts on the rise around the world, President Mandela’s funeral should have been a celebration of his amazing accomplishment. The theme of inclusion and a demonstration of that inclusion would have been a fitting tribute and an example for others.
Instead, the world watched politicians from around the globe flooding into South Africa seeking to stand in the shadow of someone whom they do not understand and will never be. They all gave self-promoting speeches, probably written by others, in which each tried to outdo the other in praising President Mandela. The goal was form over substance. Then, after the obligatory tourist trip to Robben Island, they each then returned to their own country confident that they, as the “heirs” to Nelson Mandela, will be able to invoke the Mandela name in support of their own petty policies and programs. To use a phrase coined over a century ago by American author Ralph Waldo Emerson, these officials would have to enlarge themselves to even imagine someone like Nelson Mandela.
The world caught snapshots of these officials joking and clowning during the ceremonies, oblivious to the gulf that separates them from President Mandela. Each basked in the praise of the crowd, something President Mandela was uncomfortable with. This writer has a copy of a Mandela print entitled, “The Window,” depicting the view from his prison cell on Robben Island. It is a hauntingly elegant and simple drawing, by a simple man, with a simple dream that we are all God’s children.
Bishop Desmond Tutu is of the same substance. He tends to speak quietly, passionately and without malice. He can always be found at the front of any honorable cause. He does not conduct polls before he announces his position. He does not worry about his place in history. History will unfortunately find him to be a rarity. A truly gentle man, for whom honor trumps all else.
Bishop Tutu, who is 82, may also be concerned about his own funeral; one hopefully in the distant future. He is telling the world that it should not be managed by the African National Congress. He is likely also telling the world that opportunist politicians and self-promoting civil rights leaders will gain no legitimacy by attending his funeral.