This may sound either arrogant or forgetful, but I could not possibly remember the number of times I was in the same room or at the same protest as Desmond Tutu. And the main reason I know he was there is because I was there listening to him speak, often from a distance of not more than two meters or so. I say this not to associate myself with the great man — though I’ll forgive you for thinking I’m a terrible, narcissistic name-dropper — but just to be sure we all know this all really happened, because I saw and heard it.
It seems very important to mention, because of the way this man is already being remembered by the world’s pundits and politicians. As anyone could have predicted, Tutu is being remembered as the great opponent of apartheid in his native South Africa, who was one of the most recognized and most eloquent leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle there, for most of his adult life.
Being a leader in the movement to end apartheid in South Africa was probably the greatest achievement of the man’s life work, and it should come as a surprise to no one that this is the focus of his many obituaries, along with the Nobel he was awarded in 1984. After Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, he was remembered by the establishment in much the same way, as a leader of the movement against apartheid in the US. The fact that he had become one of the most well-known and well-loved voices of the antiwar movement in the United States and around the world at the time of his death has largely been written out of the history books, a very inconvenient truth.
But as with Martin Luther King, many of the same political leaders commemorating Tutu today would have been unlikely to mention him a day earlier, lest Tutu take the opportunity to speak his mind. This is certainly why he was not invited to commemorate his friend and comrade, Nelson Mandela, at Mandela’s funeral eight years ago.
Like King and so many others, we can be sure that all the praises of Desmond Tutu as the great moral compass of the world will be made safely, after he’s dead. Before then would have been much too dangerous, and he was best ignored until then — at which point his passing can be used as an easy way for liberals and conservatives alike to talk about how they also opposed South African apartheid, eventually.
Looking back at Desmond Tutu’s life, searching for various references to protests I recall him speaking at, there’s a headline from the Washington Post on February 16th, 2003 — “thousands protest a war in Iraq,” in New York City the day before. There were at least half a million people at the rally, on one of the coldest winter days anyone could remember. What I recall most vividly is being behind the stage, which was even colder than most anywhere else at the protest, because it was also in the shade. Huddling amid the frozen metal scaffolding were a variety of leftwing luminaries, including Desmond Tutu, Danny Glover, and Susan Serandon, who were getting all the attention from the media, allowing me to hang out with Pete and Toshi Seeger, since no one else wanted to talk to them, or me.
The following year there was a rally in Copley Square in Boston, Massachusetts against Israeli apartheid. It was very windy, and there were hundreds of people filling the area in front of the big church there on Boylston Street. I don’t remember who else spoke, but Tutu was the main speaker, and he spoke at length, after I sang “They’re Building A Wall” and other songs related to the anti-apartheid struggle in Palestine, as it was an event in solidarity with Palestinians. Being such a well-known leader in the struggle against South African apartheid, when he would compare Israeli apartheid to the South African version, this was just the kind of support the movement to boycott Israel needed, and Tutu did his best to provide it, over and over again.
There were three overlapping social movements in the early 2000’s that I was involved with as a musician, all of which Tutu was deeply involved with. I apologize for speaking of these movements in the past tense, but none of them are anywhere near as big or active as they were in the early 2000’s. I’m talking about the global justice movement and the movement to cancel debt in the Global South, the movement against Israeli apartheid, and the movement against the US/UK invasion of Iraq.
At the time I wondered how it was that Desmond Tutu was showing up at so many of the same protests, conferences, and other events I was attending, promoting, or singing at. There was a lot going on, and at the time I didn’t know Tutu was actually living in the United States much of the time in the early 2000’s, as a visiting professor in both Georgia and Massachusetts. There were a lot of other South African radicals at so many of the rallies, especially around the global justice movement, such as representatives of the South African trade unions. The South African poet, the late Dennis Brutus, was everywhere back then as well.
Journalism, they say, is the first draft of history. The journalists, when given the job to cover Desmond Tutu, generally did so when it had something to do with South African apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which he chaired, etc. The journalists aren’t present elsewhere. Their bosses didn’t send them to cover the protests Tutu was speaking at in Boston or New York, for the most part.
Lots of other drafts of history are then rewritten, for the text books, and for the obituaries, when once again Desmond Tutu’s centrality to the struggle against South African apartheid will be highlighted, with most everything else papered over or ignored entirely. Others will recall Tutu’s service to the global social movements that arose in the decades after apartheid, to which he gave the full weight of his moral standing — whether these movements were covered by the corporate press or not, whether most of us knew these movements existed or not.
Yes, for those of us who were involved with the social movements that were active when Tutu was a spry young man of 70 or so, we will remember him as a fierce critic of capitalism, of Israeli apartheid, and of US and British wars of aggression. And we know why he is being praised now by media outlets and politicians who have had no time or space for him since 1998 or so.
Desmond Tutu failed to remain in his historical place. Had he played his cards differently in the post-South African apartheid period, he could have been a very rich and even more venerated man, winning lots more awards and schmoozing with the world’s power brokers. Instead, before his official retirement from public life at the age of 79, he spent his seventies campaigning around the world as part of social movements for equality, dignity, and peace, and being a thorn in the side of so many of the rich and powerful people praising him today.
Dead people can’t speak out in their own defense, which makes them much less dangerous than when they were alive (especially if they died of natural causes). So it’s up to those of us who are still here to speak, and to remember. Long live Desmond Tutu. Long live Desmond Tutu’s vision of a world free of oppression — a world in which so many of the politicians praising him today would be in front of a truth and reconciliation commission tomorrow, if Tutu were calling the shots. Amandla awethu. Our time will come.