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The time when Archbishop Tutu was searched at the airport

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The time when Archbishop Tutu was searched at the airport

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Alan Cowell was the South African bureau chief of the New York Times from 1983 to 1987, when the apartheid government kicked him out of the country.

At Johannesburg’s main airport, around 400 people were preparing to board flights to Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. Almost all passed security scanners without incident on their way to the departure lounges.

All but one – Bishop Desmond M. Tutu.

It was December 1986, and Archbishop Tutu was the leader of his country’s Anglican believers, black and white, and one of the most respected figures leading the fight against apartheid, his center of gravity. spiritual. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his courage and commitment.

No one could have known who he was and what he stood for.

Yet of all the passengers on the line, he was the only traveler subjected to the indignity of a body search. It seemed intended above all to remind him of his chromatic status in the apartheid nation.

Perhaps, he thought, his metal pectoral cross had set off an alarm.

“Did they think it was a weapon? ” he asked me.

Sometimes it’s the little moment you blink and you missed it rather than the headline that reminds reporters of the essence of the story they were commissioned to cover.

That moment stuck with me because, given all that had happened and all that was to come to his tortured land, the point behind his rhetorical question deserved more than fleeting consideration.

Perhaps the cross itself was not a weapon, but the faith and belief it represented provided the battle against white minority dominance with an overwhelming moral imperative that posed so many challenges to the archbishop than to his adversaries.

The episode at the airport security counter took place several years before Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990 and the start of South Africa’s advance towards democracy. It was a period of choice, dictated variously by the growing and increasingly harsh protest of the segregated black townships, crucibles of revolt; by the stubbornness of the white minority regime then led by President PW Botha; by growing international pressure for economic sanctions; and by what seemed an inexorable resort to violence.

In all of this, the Archbishop’s promotion of his Christian struggle for peace might have seemed doomed, a lonely voice in a bloody wasteland.

“I am surprised that radical blacks are always ready to say that we are their leaders,” he said at a press conference in January 1985. “What do we have to show for all our speeches on peaceful change? Nothing.”

Yet he was not silenced, neither in his opposition to apartheid, nor in his rejection of the most extreme forms of violence.

In those years, execution by fire had become an emblem of the struggle, inflicted by black militants on accused traitors. Iconic images of the accused burned alive have been deployed in the propaganda wars that have presented the struggle of blacks, according to the storyteller, as barbaric or imbued with its own formidable justice.

Typically, a person identified or accused of being an informant for white authorities would be run over and immobilized by an automobile tire around their upper body. Then the tire would be sprayed with gasoline and ignited. The ritual was called the “necklace”.

In an episode in Duduza Township in July 1985, I saw then-Tutu bishop and another clergyman, Simeon Nkoane, struggle and fight to save a man who had been nominated for such punishment, accused , despite his denials, of being an undercover police officer.

The passions of the moment were intense. It seemed at one point that the man was destined for death. He had been severely beaten up and his car set on fire to provide what one activist called “his funeral pyre”.

“It undermines the struggle,” shouted Bishop Tutu as he sought to shelter the man.

“No, that encourages the fight! Shouted a member of the crowd at the bishop, who was dressed in purple robes after officiating at a politically charged funeral, another totemic feature of the days when dozens of people died and their funerals became the scene of protests more and more intense.

Finally, that day, in Duduza, the bishops won their case and the alleged informant was kicked out.

It had been a potentially reckless act of courage on the part of the clerics when their only shield against the wrath of potential tormentors were the crosses of their faith.

But this was by no means an unusual example of the bravery we have witnessed.

On another occasion, Bishop Tutu interposed himself between the demonstrators and the police, producing the image of a little priest standing firm against the armed power of the apartheid security machine.

When Mr. Mandela took over the presidency in 1994, the Archbishop relied on other valuable sources to preside over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s inquiries into rights violations that have challenged even the worst. expectations of human behavior and questioned the possibility of redemption.

Throughout the years of struggle, clerics were at the forefront, waving their banners – Methodist, Catholic or Anglican – against white authorities who sought a biblical justification for apartheid in the teachings of the segregated Dutch Reformed Church.

But there was always another weapon in the Archbishop’s armory besides his pectoral cross: humor.

Once, during a fundraiser in the early 2000s in the presence of the Archbishop, a participant offered to tell a joke to lighten up the debate, but warned the audience that he often twists the punchline.

“I will laugh,” the Archbishop promised, shouting.

And there were laughs.

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