South Africa: the great debate; Desmond Tutu vs Thabo Mbeki.

Position:Open Forum - Archbishop Desmond Tutu - Cover Story

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, well-known for his anti-apartheid credentials, delivered the 2nd Nelson Mandela Lecture in Johannesburg at the end of 2003 and stirred up a hornet's nest in the process.

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Part of his speech certainly touched a government nerve, forcing President Thabo Mbeki to hit back in his weekly online "Letter from the President" column that he writes for the ANC web-based journal, ANC Today. His response has since opened up a huge debate in South Africa--with Archbishhop Tutu's supporters, particularly in the white-controlled media, praising his speech, whilst the ANC, though trying to calm tempers as the ruling party, has said Mbeki's statement "reflected the views of the organisation on the matters raised by Archbishop Tutu".

Mbeki had told the archbishop, in part: "It would be good if those that present themselves as the greatest defenders of the poor should also demonstrate decent respect for the truth." Tutu took this to mean having been accused of lying. "Thank you Mr President for telling me what you think of me. That I am a liar with scant regard for the truth and a charlatan posing with his concern for the poor, the hungry, the oppressed and the voiceless. I will continue to pray for you and your government by name daily as I have done and as I did even for the apartheid government," Tutu said.

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The ANC was compelled to step in to calm the waters. But its spokesman, Smuts Ngonyama, told the archbishop: "Neither the ANC nor its president regards you as 'a liar with scant regard for the truth', but we do recognise that even someone like yourself has the capacity to err ... We will continue to regard you as a respected leader within our society whose contribution to the life of this country is highly valued ... The archbishop should [however] remember that a debate is two sides talking and he must not cry when the ANC is talking back."

Ngonyama admitted that there was "definitely" a need for debate but there should be cordial relations in the way it was conducted. "We are very cautious in the manner that we express ourselves, because we know that some things can negatively affect perspectives about our country. It is very important to actually show maturity and integrity in all things [and] we must be truly serious when we get into things that are factual. If not, it calls for a response. The archbishop is not saying these things for the first time, but we decided now to give a comprehensive response. We hope he is not taking these things personally and we are very thankful to him for raising the issues."

When the war of words appeared to get out of control, the South African Council of Churches and other organisations and personalities joined in to call for calm. Others, however, chose to keep the heat on.

One of them, Steven Friedman, a research fellow of the Centre for Policy Studies, said Archbishop Tutu had every right to be "an independent source of moral guidance". Friedman added: "The president is being edgy because Tutu can't be dismissed as a racist or as someone who wants the new order to fail. The message that the president should be sending out is that public criticism of government actions should not only be tolerated but encouraged, and it's a pity he is being defensive."

Adam Hess, writing in the Cape Times, took the debate to even hyperbolic levels: "Tutu's criticism of the ANC officialdom's sycophantic party-line manner must be loudly applauded. This fawning behaviour is a sword in the side of our democratic ideals. The good bishop's views on Aids, black economic empowerment and the government's policy on Zimbabwe was a ray of light at a time when the clouds of political mediocrity are increasingly blocking the sun. South Africa should at least be grateful that we still have patriots like the archbishop who has never wavered in his criticism of those who believe power bestows on them the right to act with impunity. For this I salute him. If only there were more noble spirits like him."

Tony Leon, the parliamentary opposition leader, then demanded that parliament should "arrange six key debates" on the issues raised by Tutu. "The government wishes to encourage South Africans to take up the issues that [the] archbishop raised, which can only be healthy for our democracy. The Democratic Alliance [his party] wishes to take the ANC government by its word by debating these six issues in parliament ... We believe that President Mbeki should open each of these debates." In view of the importance of the debate and the issues raised by both Archbishop Tutu and President Mbeki, New African has decided to run their texts in full, on the following pages, to encourage our readers to join the debate in one of Africa's most influential nations.

Tutu 'look to the rock from which you were hewn'

"Remember some of our most influential values spoke about 'the people shall share'. We were involved in the struggle because we believed we would evolve a new kind of society. A caring, compassionate society. At the moment, many, too many, of our people live in gruelling, demeaning, dehumanising poverty. We are sitting on a powder keg. We really must work like mad to eradicate poverty," said Desmond Tutu in his Nelson Mandela Lecture. We print below the full speech.

"What a great honour to have been invited to give this year's NelsonMandela Lecture following on the inaugural lecture by President Bill Clinton. I must make a confession, I really am a snob. I make out that I am modest but in fact I am an inveterate name-dropper--quite seemingly casually remarking, "You know when I was lunching with Madiba, etc."

Did you hear the story of the Englishman who was very good at name-dropping. A friend of his asked once, "John, why are you so fond of name-dropping?" and without batting an eyelid he responded: "That's strange, yesterday, when I was in Buckingham Palace the Queen asked the same question."

I fondly thought that Madiba was my friend and so, like a good friend, I told him I wasn't impressed with his sartorial taste and his penchant for these gaudy shirts. Do you know how he treated this friendly advice? Well, he retorted: "That's pretty thick coming from a man who wears a dress in public."

Now can you beat it? No, I am glad to have been asked and I think he probably, on his better days, probably acknowledges that he just might like me a little bit.

We are celebrating 10 years, a whole decade of freedom and it is an opportunity for us to look back to assess our achievements and note our failures as we stride purposefully into the glorious future opening before us. That is why I have chosen as my title, words from the Prophet Isaiah, "Look to the rock from which you have been hewn."

What have we achieved?

You know that I am repetitive if anything at all. You heard the story of the brilliant physics professor who went around delivering a superb and erudite lecture, mercifully not at the same venue. One day he told his driver that he knew that he was giving a splendid address but he was getting bored repeating himself so much. His driver then surprised him by saying he had heard the lecture so frequently he now knew it off by heart.

When the professor tested the driver, sure enough he was word perfect. So they decided to swap places--the professor became the driver and the driver was to be the professor. They agreed that he would speak for only so long and there would be no questions afterwards.

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The driver-turned-professor gave an outstanding address. Unfortunately, he had left some time over for questions and there will always be those awkward persons who want to trip up the speaker, and so this person got up and asked the most convoluted question. The driver-turned-professor said in reply: "Is that all. Even my driver at the back can answer that question."

Yes, I am repetitive. I have been saying that we South Africans tend to sell ourselves short. We seem to be embarrassed with our successes. We have grown quickly blase, taking for granted some quite remarkable achievements and not giving ourselves enough credit. The result is that we have tended to be despondent, to seem to say behind every ray of sunshine, there must be an invisible cloud--just you wait long enough and it will soon appear.

Of course we have problems, serious, indeed devastating problems; but can you please point to any one country in the world today that has no problems. No, I think we should change our perspective. If we are forever looking at our shortcomings and our faults, then the mood will be pervasive and pessimistic and in a way we will provide the environment that encourages further failure.

Don't they say give a dog a bad name and hang him? If you have low expectations of someone, then don't be surprised if they don't rise above those low expectations. Many people have excelled almost only because someone had faith in them, believed in them and so inspired them with a new self-belief, a new self-confidence, a new self-esteem.

The same is surely true of a nation, which is an aggregate of individuals. Hey, the world has still not got over the fact that we had the reasonably peaceful transition from repression to democracy that we experienced. Have you forgotten so soon how we were on the brink of comprehensive disaster, when most people believed we were going to be overwhelmed by a ghastly racial blood bath?

Have you forgotten so soon what used to happen on our trains when no one could guarantee that if they went off to work in the morning, they were going to return alive in the evening, when we had indiscriminate killings on the trains, in the taxis and buses?

Do you recall how when they announced the statistics of the previous 24 hours and they said 6 or 7 or 8 people had been killed, do you recall that we would often sigh with relief and say well only 7 or 8 have been killed?

Things were in such a desperate state--do you recall the...

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