Long before intersectionality became a prevailing concept which helped delineate the relationship between various marginalized and oppressed groups, late South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu said it all in a few words and in a most inimitable style. “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together,” he said.
Like other freedom and justice icons, Tutu did not merely coin the kind of language that helped many around the world rise in solidarity with the oppressed people of South Africa, who fought a most inspiring and costly war against colonialism, racism and apartheid. He was a leader, a fighter and a true engaged intellectual.
It is quite convenient for many in corporate media to forget all of this about Tutu, the same way they deliberately rewrote the story of Nelson Mandela, as if the leader of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement was a pacifist, not a true warrior, in word and deed. Tutu is also depicted by some in the media as if he was merely a quotable man who helped in the ‘healing’ of the nation after the formal end of apartheid.
There is no use to preach to South Africans, and those who knew Tutu well, to understand the great man’s centrality in the anti-apartheid struggle and in the shaping of a powerful narrative, which exposed and, eventually, demolished apartheid.
As a Palestinian, however, I think it is very important to emphasize the crucial role played by Tutu in linking the apartheid experience in his country with Israeli apartheid and military occupation in Palestine, and in influencing a generation of Palestinian intellectuals who have sagaciously tapped into the collective South African anti-apartheid experience and applied many of its valuable lessons to the Palestinian experience as well.
“When you go to the Holy Land and see what's being done to the Palestinians at checkpoints, for us, it's the kind of thing we experienced in South Africa,” Tutu told The Washington Post in an interview in 2013.
To be accepted into mainstream circles, activists of high caliber are often careful in the language they use and in the references they make. With weak and indecisive intellectual courage, they falter at the first challenge or in the face of abuse and attacks by their detractors. Not Tutu. When the man began making references to an Israeli apartheid in Palestine, Zionists and their friends were merciless in their accusations that the beloved spiritual leader, in the words of infamous American Zionist lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, was “evil”.
Dershowitz, hardly known for his moral fortitude and well known for his undying love for Israel, was one of those who used the opportunity to cowardly pounce on the great South African spiritual leader almost immediately after the news of his death.
“The world is mourning Bishop Tutu, who just died the other day,” Dershowitz said during an interview on Fox News on December 28, adding, “Can I remind the world that although he did some good things, a lot of good things on apartheid, the man was a rampant anti-Semite and bigot?”
Dershowitz also described Tutu as “evil”. Indeed, Tutu was also ‘evil’ in the eyes of the racist apartheid government of South Africa, as he was ‘evil’ in the eyes of Israel. Mandela, Che Guevara, Yasser Arafat, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were also ‘evil’ in the eyes of the racists, the colonialists, the Zionists and the imperialists.
Expectedly, Tutu did not back down despite years of pressure and abuse. “I know, first-hand, that Israel has created an apartheid reality within its borders and through its occupation. The parallels to my own beloved South Africa are painfully stark, indeed,” Tutu wrote in 2014, calling on US Presbyterians to impose sanctions on Israel.
In that same year, an interview with the South African news outlet News 24, Tutu said: “I have witnessed the systemic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces. Their humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government.”
It is such support by such great men and women like Tutu that gave the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement the needed impetus to build the foundation of its current success around the world.
Tutu went further. Instead of appealing to people’s consciousness, he also reminded them that making the wrong moral choice is a moral indictment of them as well. “Those who turn a blind eye to injustice actually perpetuate injustice. If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” he said.
In South Africa, in Palestine and all around the world, we mourn the death of Archbishop Tutu but we also celebrate his life. Particularly, we celebrate the legacy that this formidable intellectual and spiritual leader left behind.
Palestinians all over the world paid tribute to Tutu. Palestinian Archbishop Atallah Hanna, himself a great warrior for justice, said that Tutu “will always be remembered for his rejection of racism and apartheid, including in Palestine.”
Because of Tutu and his comrades, we have a roadmap on how to fight against and end apartheid, how to confront the racists and how to defeat racism; how to embrace our moral responsibility and how to strive for a better, more equitable world. And, because of Tutu, we are constantly reminded that Israeli apartheid in Palestine must be fought with the same ferocity, will and moral fortitude as that of South Africa.
Tutu will never die, because his words continue to lead the way, in Palestine as in South Africa. Equally important, we must never allow the honorable legacy of Desmond Tutu to be exploited, demonized or rewritten by his detractors or by those whose sensibilities cannot accommodate the courage of this black fighter, who will continue to lead the way, long after his passing.