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‘Touched many of us’: South Africans mourn Desmond Tutu’s death

Dec 27, 2021

Cape Town, South Africa – A general gloom has settled over South Africa as tributes – and some criticism – pour in following the death of anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

An ethnically diverse group of mourners gathered on Sunday outside St George’s Cathedral Church in Cape Town as they laid wreaths and paid their final respects to the 90-year-old Anglican priest.

“The passing of the Arch has touched many of us. Even those who did not always agree with him politically are paying their last respects to the old man,” Tsweu Moleme, whose father was taught by Tutu at Munsieville High School at the height of the apartheid regime, told Al Jazeera.

Memorial services are being organised across the country’s main cities of Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Pretoria, as tributes pour in from African leaders and the international community for a man who was instrumental in building a democratic South Africa.

However, a section of South African society remains critical of Tutu.

Modibe Madiba, who runs popular alternative media platform, the Insight Factor, told Al Jazeera young Black South Africans “continue to live with the consequences of how leaders like Archbishop Tutu handled the process of nation-building” in the country.

“I feel impacted by the legacy of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I live in a country where there is racialised inequality. This is what Tutu, who fought against apartheid, allowed us to inherit from the apartheid regime in the end,” he said.

“The world must remember the fight against apartheid was not a fight to cast votes. It was a fight for justice, for economic opportunities, for lives lost senselessly, and for people dispossessed of their land by the apartheid regime.”

Nobel laureates Nelson Mandela, left, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, centre, arrive for the 70th birthday celebrations of fellow laureate and ex-President FW de Klerk, right, in Cape Town [File: Mike Hutchings/Reuters]

After the end of apartheid, Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was set up to unearth atrocities committed by the white-minority government from 1948 to 1991 when apartheid laws were repealed.

The hearings, which formally began in 1996, ended with many apartheid regime leaders walking away with blanket amnesty – a historical fact that has now sparked debates about how the archbishop should be remembered.

“Archbishop Tutu must be remembered for denouncing apartheid and later being part of a Black elitist group that abandoned the Black majority to enjoy the material comforts of the post-CODESA era,” Madiba said, referring to Convention for a Democratic South Africa, an umbrella group of nearly 100 groups that negotiated the end of apartheid rule in the country.

‘Pivotal role’

Jason, a 29-year-old resident of Pretoria, said while the TRC “should have done more” to achieve justice for South Africa’s Black, coloured and Indian community, Tutu’s legacy is “untainted” by the outcomes.

“Archbishop Tutu adopted the restorative justice approach, and rightly so, because bloodshed was not the answer at that time,” Jason, who goes by a single name, told Al Jazeera.

It is a sentiment strengthened by Tutu being honoured with a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his non-violent efforts to end racial segregation and white minority rule in the African nation.

Sikhumbuzo Mgxwati, 32, is among the growing voices of young South Africans who are ambivalent about the legacy of the country’s last surviving Nobel Peace laureate.

“Growing up, we were fed the idea of apartheid heroes as people who liberated Black people, but today, you realise that they just assimilated to the same system that kept us oppressed, living precarious lives and without opportunities,” he told Al Jazeera.

Archbishop Tutu chairing South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission [File: Mike Hutchings/Reuters]

Mgxwati said he will not attend a local memorial service for Tutu. He said the history of anti-apartheid activists like Tutu is “often watered down” to fit a certain narrative.

“I am sad for his family’s loss, but I want him to be remembered as a colonial tool,” he said.

Mgxwati refers to Tutu’s public criticism of anti-apartheid activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who he had urged to apologise for her role in an armed struggle to end racial segregation during one of the TRC hearings.

However, following Winnie’s death in 2018, the archbishop released a statement in which he said that “on reflection, her (Winnie’s) courageous defiance was deeply inspirational” to him and to generations of South African activists.

Lungelo Nkosi, a 27-year-old postgraduate student, said he wants the country to focus on the good that the late archbishop did.

“I am in mourning. He played a pivotal role in pushing for sanctions against the apartheid South Africa,” he told Al Jazeera. “After all is said and done, he was a true beacon of morality and we must mourn him.”

“Amongst a host of other amazing contributions to the liberation of South Africa was his call for transformation of the South African Rugby Union,” Nkosi said.

Melissa Bingham, 24, said she plans to post multiple messages of condolence on the government’s memorial page that has been set up for the late archbishop.

“Forgiveness was his ideology, not perfection. He never wavered in his quest to build bridges that were torn down by injustices everywhere, and for that, he deserves a lot of grace.”

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