Nicolas Stebbing CR remembers a remarkable Mirfield Man


With Desmond Tutu’s passing, we lose one of the great Christians of our time. Desmond was a great priest, a hard working bishop and a very brave man. From the 1970’s he was the main voice of the African people in South Africa in their struggle for justice and freedom. 

Desmond was born in 1931 and came under the influence of the Community of the Resurrection (CR) when he moved to Sophiatown at the age of 14. He liked to tell of his astonishment when Fr Trevor Huddleston raised his hat to his mother in the street. A white man raising his hat to a black servant! Soon after that Desmond got TB and spent over a year in hospital during which Fr Trevor visited him every week. It was no surprise that after a few years teaching he decided to become a priest. It quickly became clear that he was very intelligent and very well-read. He studied in England, became a theological college lecturer and gained a sound knowledge of Liberation theology.

In 1975, Bishop Timothy Bavin brought him back to Johannesburg to be Dean. From there he moved to Lesotho as Bishop and in 1978 returned to Johannesburg as General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches. By now the churches generally had set themselves against apartheid and loudly denounced it. Desmond was a perfect choice for this role. Most of the Black leadership were in prison, or silenced by banning orders. Desmond spoke out for them all. He spoke out for the poor, the unjustly treated, the homeless, all who suffered from apartheid. What he said came from his heart and was deeply convincing to anyone who listened. The Minister of Justice said ‘Bishop Tutu, you talk too much’. His wonderful wife Leah agreed! Nelson Mandela said later said that when Desmond went to heaven God would hear him coming long before he saw him, talking, laughing, totally irrepressible.

People accused Desmond of mixing church and politics. They were right. Nazism taught the Church that politics and theology must be mixed. Desmond was a priest first, never a politician. He loved God and he knew God loved us, all of us, regardless of our skin colour. He loathed apartheid because it was blasphemy. To treat a black person, or any person, badly was not just wrong; it was sacrilege! You were abusing someone God loved.

So he spoke out everywhere he could. The government tried to silence him and failed. He ignored threats. He trusted God and he said what was true. The eighties were a time of much violence. Young blacks demonstrated constantly against apartheid. The police and army responded with violence. Many students were killed. Their funerals became occasions of further protest. More were killed. There were terrible tragedies. On one occasion two young servers were chased into a toilet and shot dead by the police. Desmond wept; he pleaded; he negotiated with the police. He often stopped the violence. He once prevented a suspected informer from being ‘necklaced’ (burnt to death) by the mob. 

During all this time he was a Bishop. In 1985 he became bishop of Johannesburg and in 1986 Archbishop of Cape Town. He was a key figure in the negotiations to bring about a change in Government. Nelson Mandela spent his first night out of prison at Desmond’s house in Cape Town. Desmond stepped back from the limelight, but when, a few years later, the ANC government began to go down the road of corruption, ignoring social injustice, he denounced them. He denounced leaders in other African countries, including Zimbabwe, for their corruption and injustice. Like the great Old Testament prophets, and like Christ he was never afraid to speak up for the poor against the rich, whoever the rich were. Robert Mugabe would not allow him into Zimbabwe because of that.

He was also enormous fun. Every interview with him on YouTube shows him laughing. He would laugh with you or cry with you. He would sit on the floor barefoot and leave the chairs for others. (I saw that.) And he used humour to deflate people’s anger.

On one occasion we asked Desmond to confirm some young people at a White boarding school we cared for. Their parents were outraged. A Black, ‘communist’ bishop confirming their children! When we processed into church the atmosphere was electric, the anger palpable. Then Desmond began to preach: ‘I’m very pleased to be here, very pleased indeed. In fact, if I were a different complexion, I could say I was tickled pink’. The church exploded with laughter. From that moment, everyone sat on the edge of their seats listening as this great priest spoke of the sacraments of confirmation and holy communion.

Yet he was not a show man. He was a devout and humble priest. He rose every morning at 4am to pray, meditate and prepare himself with God for the day ahead. He went to mass every day, even once saying mass in the dining car of a British train because he hadn’t managed to get to a church. He came every month to our Priory in Johannesburg for a quiet day and to make his confession. When Desmond was in Oslo receiving the Nobel Peace Prize he phoned up our Community house in Johannesburg. I took the call. Desmond wanted to book in for a quiet day of fasting and prayer. Fame never turned his head. Desmond never forgot that God came first. Hamba kahle, go well, Desmond.