Flashpoint 1986. Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Nobel laureate, and freedom fighter was traveling to Cape Town from Jan Smuts International Airport in Johannesburg.
Hundreds of passengers streamed through the airport security checkpoint. None were stopped for secondary screening. But Tutu was.
Desmond Tutu, Secondary Airport Screening, And His Lasting Legacy
Was it his pectoral cross around his neck?
“Did they think it was a weapon?,” he asked a New York Times reporter traveling with him.
Apartheid authorities carefully searched him before he was allowed to go on his way. It was a reminder that despite his accolades and position as the conscience of a nation, he was still a second-class citizen in his own land.
As Alan Cowell reflects:
Maybe the cross itself was not a weapon, but the faith and belief it stood for provided the battle against white minority rule an overwhelming moral imperative that offered challenges as much to the archbishop as to his adversaries.
The episode at the airport-security desk unfolded several years before the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the beginning of South Africa’s progression toward democracy. It was a time of choices, dictated variously by the mounting and increasingly harsh protest of the segregated Black townships, the crucibles of revolt; by the obduracy of the white minority regime then led by President P.W. Botha; by growing international pressure for economic sanctions; and by what seemed an inexorable recourse to violence.
Tutu, who died on Sunday at the age of 90, was a complicated figure. We credit him as being as peacemaker, and that he was.
But what made him so worthy of respect, in my eyes, was was that his calls for non-violence were not limited to the oppressive apartheid regime, but also directed toward the disenfranchised majority, of which extremest elements often resorted to violence in an effort to accelerate change.
This violence was not only perpetrated against the power structures of the day, but against other blacks who were deemed to be traitors, often without any evidence. Tutu called for fundamental reform in South Africa, but also fought against vigilante justice, condemning the violent retribution of renegades performing the role of judge, jury, and executioner as they roamed the streets of townships looking for alleged traitors to the cause.
Who could possibly remain non-violent when nearly every right we take for granted was withheld? Who could possibly try to fix a system that was so broken? Tutu was one such person and deserves our great respect for helping to demonstrate the power of non-violence.
For his role in pursuing justice, we salute Tutu this day and give thanks for the positive impact he made to give every South Africa a fairer chance at life, liberty, and property. Even as his work remains unfinished, let us give thanks that Tutu remained a steadfast critic of the sin of racism, pushing back against hate with love and division with unending calls for unity.
image: United Nations