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Desmond Tutu: The Stuff of Greatness

Education 10 Jan, 2022 Follow News

Desmond Tutu: The Stuff of Greatness

Dr. Livingston Smith is a Professor at the University College of the Cayman Islands. He is also Director of the CXC Education Volunteer programme

What makes for human greatness? Why is it that reasonable persons can identity this at an instance? It seems to me that in as much as Nietzsche suggests that these qualities are ‘subtle, manifold and difficult to comprehend’, when they in fact exist in an individual, that person stands out as extraordinary. Two main features would have to include a person’s character and achievements. Both go together and are inextricably connected. Some writers on the subject of human greatness suggest that these individuals challenge prevailing human norms especially those in their cultural environment; that they challenge all of us to allow our better angels to hold sway and that they possess self-mastery and the psychological strength and discipline to endure suffering.

Whatever the fulness of these qualities, when they are possessed, we instinctively know and without a doubt, Desmond Tutu was great.

South Africa would not have been able to survive its long and horrendous attempt to experience a society of freedom and human dignity, without Desmond Tutu. It is not that they have achieved this fully, but the contribution of Tutu is overwhelming. He was not placed on Robben Island, but while the other leaders were, Tutu was the voice of hope, asking the world to account, defending the right of existence of the ANC, and attacking the hypocritical and racial foundations of the apartheid state which was fully known to be propped up by powerful western democracies. What personal courage, what bold and defiant human spirit so possessed Tutu that he spoke truth to power whatever the color of those who have such power, while bringing hope to those under the barrel of the gun? The very stuff of greatness.

When apartheid eventually fell, Tutu was put in charge of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the attempt by Mandela to move South Africa away from the brink of what seemed to be certain bloodshed, toward racial harmony and the possibility of having what Tutu called a ‘rainbow nation.’ While history is written from the vantage point of time, we must never doubt the importance of what the South African government under Mandela achieved, and what Tutu did when he was asked to oversee the process of reconciliation.

For me personally, my admiration for the greatness of Tutu grew with his stern ongoing criticism of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Power in whatever context must be spoken to and reminded of why government exists, because in no time, if left unchecked, the human factor takes over, and the larger project of securing human dignity for each citizen is forgotten and replaced by selfishness and corruption.

The Arch is dead. His ash has been placed in the Cathedral in which he ministered for decades. The tributes have been many- some calling him ‘moral compass’, ‘iconic spiritual leader’, ‘patriot without equal’, “A man of extraordinary intellect, integrity and invincibility….’ and so on. I have read that one South African media caption said, ‘The Sun has gone down,’ which is very true, because Tutu was not only a voice in South Africa, his ‘moral fury’ as Andrew Harding, the BBC’s African correspondent described it, was for all peoples, oppressed and downtrodden, who face obstacles of all kinds to their full liberation.

While we will miss his capacity to show emotions, his sense of humor, his indomitable spirit, we also know that his contribution to the project of human liberation cannot be erased.


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