ON October 7, 2006, In Nelson Mandela, world-renowned freedom fighter and the first president of a democratic South Africa, was the keynote speaker at Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 75th birthday.
This is what Mandela said about a man who was both his friend and confidante.
“I cannot describe the joy and satisfaction I derive from being able to invite Desmond Tutu to the real club of old men. He has this habit of publicly pretending to be young. Just the other day there were newspaper pictures of him kicking a soccer ball like a young boy. Tonight I can officially say to him: you are an old man, and please act your age.
“Seriously though: it is exactly that almost youthful exuberance that has marked the presence of Desmond Tutu in South African public life. As a religious and spiritual leader, he has succeeded in keeping our spirits alive even in the most difficult and darkest circumstances. His faith manifests in this indomitable optimism, in the belief that things can and will improve with commitment and dedication to the task.
“Desmond Tutu has often spoken about the God in which he believes as a being with a great sense of humour. What he himself brought to our national life is that uplifting touch of lightness and humour amidst the most serious messages and teachings.
“And what serious messages and teachings he has brought us over many decades! His is the pre-eminent voice of conscience in our nation – a voice that has spoken with consistency and integrity no matter how the political conditions might have changed.
“From prison and exile we watched and listened as he chastised the apartheid regime. His words and teachings were translated into deeds of courage and commitment as he confronted the might of the apartheid state and its agencies. In those dark days when our organizations were banned and its leaders in exile, prison or underground he stepped in to give leadership and guidance.
“Our religious leaders were in the forefront of keeping the spirit of resistance alive amongst our people in those days when repression intensified and took on horrendous proportions intended to cow the people into submission. “Desmond Tutu was a towering figure amongst them. He had that remarkable ability to bring people together – people of different faiths, races, backgrounds and persuasions. It was he who could pray for the President of the apartheid government, demonstrating that he was a spiritual father to the entire nation.
“There was, therefore, no doubt in our mind about who should lead the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when we established that body to help our divided nation on the road to healing and reconciliation.
“Desmond Tutu as chairperson of the TRC became the symbol and embodiment of our nation’s striving to rise out of the horrors of our divided past and to unite around our common humanity. Under his leadership, the TRC became an example and a source of inspiration to the entire world.
“South Africa continues to be an example of what can be achieved in circumstances of conflict if there is the will and commitment to finding peaceful solutions. We are in spite of our differences and tensions a remarkably reconciled nation. And for that the TRC and its chairman must take great credit.
“Desmond Tutu continues to speak to us with that voice of conscience and moral authority. We know that he often anguishes about the moral state of our nation, wondering whether the values we thought we were struggling for are being abandoned now that we are politically free. We do take courage and hope for our nation exactly from the fact that his voice is still there and continues to be raised in the manner that he does it.
“If there is one birthday wish we may have for Desmond Tutu it would be that his example is followed by more and more South Africans. His moral courage and unflagging integrity are the attributes we need for all our people, and especially those aspiring to be leaders.
“We have achieved enormously in the political and economic arena. Our challenge is to build a nation that is caring and decent and based on values of human solidarity. We have no better example to emulate than that of Desmond Tutu.
“Happy birthday, Mpilo. Continue to be our voice of conscience.
“I know that you have sometimes allowed that conscience to lead you a little bit astray as, for example, when you ventured moral judgments on the clothing habits of others while you yourself were going around in a frock. But we can forgive you these lapses; it only proves that even priests are not perfect.
“May you enjoy happiness and good health and many more years with Leah and your family. Thank you for a life dedicated to the public good and the moral health of our nation and our people.”