More than a decade after Desmond Tutu helped end apartheid, he shows no signs of slowing down as he turns 77 Tuesday, and is still an outspoken advocate for justice in South Africa and around the globe.
The retired archbishop will spend his birthday with fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter in Cyprus, to encourage reunification of the divided island.
Since the end of apartheid in 1994, Tutu joined negotiation efforts from the Middle East to Sudan and Kenya, while also speaking out against human rights abuses in Myanmar and Zimbabwe and in support of gay bishops.
He once called Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe a “caricature of an African dictator”, sparking a war of words with Mugabe, who called Tutu an “evil little bishop”.
At home, he spent the week before his birthday launching a campaign to end discrimination against the disabled, and speaking out about the political turmoil within South Africa’s ruling party, which he says has left him so disillusioned that he might not vote in next year’s polls.
In an interview with AFP, Tutu said that his old friend Nelson Mandela –South Africa’s first democratically elected president — was “hurt by some of the things that happened after he stepped down”.
“Some of the things that have happened have not been the kind of things we imagined happening,” said Tutu.
He pointed particularly to recent statements by the leader of the youth league of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which said that it would “take up arms and kill for” party chief Jacob Zuma.
Zuma and former president Thabo Mbeki have feuded for years, culminating dramatically last month when the party chief forced Mbeki to step down as president.
“They have had some very strange leadership in the youth league,” Tutu said. “It is very distressing to think that is the body that did produce some of our upstanding leaders.” “I wish they would learn to engage in discourse that is civil. My father used to say: ‘Improve your argument, don’t raise your voice’,” he said.
Affectionately known as “The Arch”, referring to his title in the church, Tutu explained why it is so important for him to give of himself to others.
“It is not because I am modest that I say I am so much aware of how much I owe to other people,” Tutu said.
“I know I owe a great deal to my mother who was not very educated, and was a domestic worker … she was such an incredible woman, very caring,” he said, remembering that she always cooked more than the family needed just in case “someone may come who is hungry”.
Although he played a key role pressing the white-minority government to bring about democracy, Tutu maintains he became a leader “by default” as he became the Anglican Church’s first black dean of Johannesburg.
At that time, leaders like Nelson Mandela were imprisoned, and others were either exiled or dead.
Tutu opposed the apartheid government at every turn, supporting disinvestment which pressured the regime into dismantling the race-based political system.
Later he chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is widely credited with helping smooth the country’s transition to democracy.
Tutu says most of his life has “been a bonus”, after he survived an illness believed to be polio as a baby, and later battled tuberculosis as a teenager and prostrate cancer more recently.
Although he retired as archbishop of Cape Town in 1996, a full retirement from public life is not in the cards.
“Don’t ask that question. My wife sometimes probably wants to strangle me a little bit,” he said.
“I was going to, three years after officially retiring, to wind down but I am afraid … no,” he said, his voice trailing off as he shook his head.
Earlier on Monday Tutu visited the Milnerton Primary School in Cape Town where pupils presented him with hand-drawn birthday cards.
The pupils, who illustrate the school’s newspaper Learn The News, got the opportunity to meet a newsmaker themselves. There is mention of a famous person´s birthday in every issue. Learn the News carries stories ranging from the recent presidential saga to the Olympic Games. Stories are sensitively selected to avoid the horror but important events and issues are told by introducing them, using carefully-chosen angles.
“So many people want their children to know what´s happening in the world but they don´t wish for them to read everything,” said Duncan Guy, editor and founder of the newspaper, which is produced by the SA Press Association (Sapa) and funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.
“There are many wonderful things in the news from which one can extract educational value.”
The newspaper has gone out free of charge since its inception nearly four years ago when Guy made a newspaper for his child while working as a reporter at Sapa.
“Most subscribers are schools and parents but anyone´s welcome to receive it,” said Guy.
Each issue carries a request to more or less 2,500 subscribers to make an extra print-out to pass on to fellow South Africans without access to e-mail.
“The campaign is gaining momentum. Staff at a Pretoria HIV clinic take it home; farmers give it to their workers; it reaches township schools through employers giving it to domestic staff who pass it on to their children,” said Guy.
“We talk about bridging the digital divide in this society where there is such a far-too-huge gap between the `haves and the `have-nots´. “But a little goodwill from subscribers can go some way towards doing this – and what´s nice is that people are doing it.”
In schools, teachers and librarians use Learn the News in comprehension exercises, as reading matter, for projects and to display on boards around a world map.
“I´ve had wonderful feedback about how it has improved general knowledge,” said Guy.
That fulfills one of the newspapers main aims, the others being to encourage reading and an interest in current affairs.
Learn the News is partly translated into Afrikaans and isiZulu. Once a week, a worksheet goes out, in English, containing exercises based on current news stories.