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A New Look at the Life of Desmond Tutu

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

How did Desmond Tutu become the spiritual father of South Africa? Journalist John Allen, who's known the archbishop for 30 years, tells his story in the official biography “Rabble-Rouser For Peace.” Allen was given unprecedented access to Tutu's papers, his friends and family, even some of the people he sometimes had strained political relations with.

John Allen told NPR's Tony Cox that Tutu's impact grows partly from his enormous presence.

Mr. JOHN ALLEN (Author, Rabble-Rouser for Peace): I met Desmond Tutu 30 years ago in 1976. I was a young journalist in South Africa, and within months of meeting him and seeing him in action just off to the outbreak of the Soweto uprising in which dozen, scores of school children were killed by the police. His powers of compassion and passion - the way in which he could communicate with people - extraordinary power at the people was apparent. And even in those days I thought this man deserves a book one day.

TONY COX: You know, let's talk before we get into the Desmond Tutu that most people know about, the world figure. Let's talk a little about his life. He was a sickly child; developed polio, tuberculosis. Talk about how his early life impacted and transformed him into the kind of spiritual person and leader that he became.

Mr. ALLEN: Well, he and his family were typical of black South Africans. He was the only son in the family who survived. There were five children originally, two of them were brothers and they both died. And perhaps as a consequence of that, his mother poured love and attention into him. And so his mother was the principal formative influence over his life.

In addition to that, he grew up poor. He grew up barefoot, wearing his father's cast-off jacket as a young child even though he regards himself as somewhat privileged. His father was a schoolteacher, later the principal of an elementary school. And so he regards himself as privileged. He was the heir, if you'd like, to a tradition of missionaries educating black South Africans.

And so those are the two very formative influences on his life, that of his mother and that of the educational system established for black South Africans by missionaries from the churches.

COX: You know, the title of the book is “Rabble-Rouser for Peace.” And there are several excerpts, but one in particular that really I think epitomizes the point of Desmond Tutu as a rabble-rouser for peace, and I'm speaking now of his meeting with Botha, an incident that was very important at that time. Share that with us.

Mr. ALLEN: He had a power, a capacity to represent in a strong way where he was a peaceable person, a peace lover, a peacemaker on the streets. He had the ability to get really angry when he saw circles of ordinary people suffering at the hands of their oppressors, at the hands of the police. And that led him to be willing to express his anger. So that one of the ways in which he rabble-rouse in the streets was to whip people's feelings up and then channel it in a creative direction.

And he showed in this clash, memorable clash in 1988 with P.W. Botha, of course, who's recently died, he showed in this memorable clash that he was willing to - in Botha's office to express his anger, to get angry back at Botha when Botha began to abuse him. And they ended up - Botha was known in South Africa for his wagging finger, and he was known to drive even his own Cabinet ministers to tears. And Tutu in this memorable occasion actually wagged his finger back and said you won't treat me like a small boy here.

COX: How dangerous a situation for Tutu was that at that time?

Mr. ALLEN: Well I'd say in the book that he probably owes his life, in later life, when he became a prominent public personality, and in the words of Nelson Mandela, public enemy number one to white South Africans. I say in the book that he probably owes his life to the Nobel Peace Prize.

If the government had really wanted him killed, they would have had him killed. And to me the main explanation, and that's reinforced by what some security police men told me, the fear of sanctions which would have been brought down in the most extraordinary way on the South African government from around the world, economic sanctions, stopped them from allowing Tutu to be assassinated.

COX: There have been parallels drawn historically. I'm sure you are aware between Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King Jr. And one of the things that struck me is that when Martin Luther King moved away from pushing primarily and singularly for civil rights and began to talk about issues like the Vietnam War, his status changed.

And I'm wondering is the same true for Bishop Tutu as he began to move into the area of AIDS. He's gone out in favor of gay marriage and things of that sort. He's become involved in issues all up and down the continent of Africa. How has this impacted his reputation?

Mr. ALLEN: I think that it's perhaps similar - that's a fascinating and a very precipitous kind of a point which I probably hadn't taken into account enough in my assessment of it. And I think that's right to say that with the change in his focus he solidified his reputation among human rights campaigners and advocates, people whose kind of central mission in life is human rights advocacy that perhaps lost some support in some areas.

COX: What is this word, obuntu(ph)? And what does that have to do with Desmond Tutu's ultimate legacy?

Mr. ALLEN: Obuntu is the Nguni word, simply translated into English, talk about humanity, people's humanity. But the English word doesn't really represent the full meaning of the African expression of the words. It's based in the African sense of people not as individuals, not the individualistic Western view of people, but people as members of the community who live in a communal spirit in a communal life.

And really it is my wellbeing is tied up with your wellbeing. Your wellbeing is tied up with my wellbeing. Tutu used to say, you know, person is a person who's through other persons. Tutu used to say we wouldn't be able to talk or walk or think or be human beings without other human beings - solitary human beings are contradiction in terms. And that approach to our relationships with one another as human beings lies deeply embedded and behind Tutu's passion for reconciliation, that in South Africa black and white South Africans needed to find one another and become reconciled in a real way.

COX: John, thank you very much.

Mr. ALLEN: It's been a privilege. Thank you so much.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Tony Cox with journalist John Allen, author of “Rabble-Rouser for Peace,” the authorized biography of Desmond Tutu.

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That's our show for today and thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show, just visit NPR.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.