Desmond Tutu writes a letter to his younger self

If you could write a letter to your 16 year old self, what would you say and what advice would you give? South Africa’s beloved Archbishop Desmond Tutu picked up his pen and took a trip down memory lane.

Desmond Tutu
The Big Issue UK

As a teenager I looked like my mother – stumpy with a large nose. She was not very educated but was a wonderful, compassionate, caring person. I have always hoped I resembled her in this. I was the only boy in my family, with two sisters one older and the other younger. I was delicate, healthwise. In fact, at 16 I went down with tuberculosis and was in hospital for 20 months. So I was maybe pampered at home.

We had fun in my family. I did a few household chores, fetching water, making tea for the grownups. I liked reading. My father was headmaster of our school and encouraged us to read. He let me read comics, Superman, Batman & Robin unusual this, since conventionally most teachers didn’t like us to read comics. This fed my reading appetite. But I wasn’t a bookworm as I also liked playing. We had tiffs with white kids because we lived in segregated areas and there was a hostility between the races. We tended to be the ones who got the rough end of the stick.

I think I would rather like my younger self if I met him now. This guy was rather fun. I was probably rather bright in class. I had some special friends. One became editor of a big South African magazine, Drum. We enjoyed playing football with tennis balls. I had many friends and one or two girlfriends!

God has a funny sense of humour. Ha ha! I wanted from an early age to become a physician and at 16 I was even more determined because I contracted TB. I wanted to find a cure for this scourge. I would have been in seventh heaven to qualify as a doctor. Black people did not then have a wide choice. For instance, you couldn’t become an engineer or a pilot or even a train driver. These were jobs reserved for whites. That is why I said God must have a sense of humour. Quite frequently when I’m sitting with heads of state in their imposing
offices or residences, I have to pinch myself and say, hey, this is the segregated township urchin and look at him now! Never in my wildest dreams had I ever imagined that we would be where we are.

Despite my passion for becoming a doctor I could not take up my place in medical school because my family could not afford the fees. So I went to train as a teacher. I enjoyed teaching until the apartheid government introduced Bantu Education, a deliberately inferior system meant to prepare black children for perpetual serfdom. Leah, my wife, and I resigned our posts. She went to train as a nurse. I did not have too many options and you could say I became a priest by default. But perhaps growing up in a Christian family meant one absorbed certain things unconsciously.

I was influenced by some remark- able people as well as my mother, the most important influence of all. The first Anglican priest I met was an amazing man, Fr Zachariah Sekgaphane. I might be idealising him now, but I really don’t recall ever see- ing him angry. When he went to take services on the farms, he was usually treated like a big chief. He had his own rondavel, or hut, and was served a sumptuous meal after the service. I recall that he never on those occasions sat down to his meal without first checking that we lesser mortals had been provided for. I think, looking back, I wanted to emulate him for his caring for the unimportant.

Another major influence on me was Trevor Huddleston, the English Anglican bishop known for his anti- apartheid activism and ‘Prayer for Africa’. During my 20 month stay in hospital with TB he really was amazing, visiting me every week or sending someone else. Wow! What that did for my self-esteem is incalculable that a white priest could take time off regularly to visit a black nonentity was mind boggling. I have I think tried to emulate him in his concern for justice and standing up for the downtrodden. He made me feel important and affirmed me.

“My teenage self would be amazed to hear about my first visit to Britain. What surprised me most was being treated as a human being.”

My teenage self would be amazed to hear about my first visit to Britain in 1962. What surprised Leah and me most was being treated as a human being, courteously. We were bowled over when a London bobby addressed us courteously, ‘ma’am’, sir’.

It was such a novelty that we would accost a police officer (a white one at that) to ask for directions even when we knew where we were going, just to savour being addressed as ‘ma’am’, ‘sir’! When you are right, as we were in opposing apartheid, it is easy to become self righteous. I depend on the love and prayers of so many and when the size of my head is in danger of swelling, Leah and my children are quick to bring me back to terra firma.

Leah has a noticeboard that used to be in our bedroom, which reads: ‘ You are entitled to your wrong opinion!’ But, more seriously, I think I was more strident than I need have been, forgetting that we catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Perhaps I could have won over more whites had I been more conciliatory.

The Anglican Church is like any other denomination, God’s Church, and ultimately nothing will prevail against its true teaching. We will recover our true vocation as servants of the Kingdom, remembering that we exist ultimately to advance God’s kingdom of righteousness, love, compassion and caring, to be there on the side of the poor, the hungry, the despised exactly where our Lord and Master was and is.

My younger self had dreams, but what has happened in our lives and in the lives of all who were oppressed and now are free has exceeded all of them. And in a real sense all of us black and white, disadvantaged and advantaged, oppressed and oppressors (willingly or unwillingly) all of us are now free. The repulsive caterpillar has become a gorgeous butterfly that could host one of the most successful football world cups last year. Our beautiful land, which was a pariah internationally, has metamorphosed.

PHOTO/REUTERS/ MARK WESSE

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