When South Africa celebrates the 20th anniversary of apartheid’s defeat on Sunday, one of its most famous leaders will be conspicuously absent from the national festivities: retired archbishop Desmond Tutu.
At a time when he is widely seen as South Africa’s moral beacon and the heir to Nelson Mandela’s mantle, Mr. Tutu finds himself in the political wilderness, shunned by the ruling party.
At the age of 82, he is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the most revered anti-apartheid fighter alive, following Mr. Mandela’s death in December. He played a crucial role in isolating the apartheid regime on the world stage, helping pave the way for its demise in 1994.
But today his breach with the ruling African National Congress seems irreversible. He was not even allowed to speak at the funeral of his close friend, Mr. Mandela, in December. It was a snub that hurt him deeply, he revealed on Wednesday.
At a meeting with journalists at the Cape Town cathedral where he served as archbishop for many years, Mr. Tutu used his characteristic blend of irreverent humour and childlike enthusiasm to defend South Africa’s democratic freedoms and to urge its voters to cast their ballots carefully in the May 7 national election.
“Don’t vote mindlessly,” he told South Africans in a tacit critique of the ANC electoral juggernaut. “Don’t be voting cattle.”
Despite faltering health, Mr. Tutu still has the same irrepressible giggle that made him famous in the 1980s, the same cackle of delight at the absurdities of apartheid and the same fearless streak of independence. He recalled the “spiritual” ecstasy of voting in the first free election in 1994 – an experience he likened to “falling in love” – and he giggled at the memory of apartheid policemen who peered through windows and checked the temperature of bedsheets to hunt for mixed-race relationships.
But for the first time, he spoke of the pain he felt when he realized that the ANC would bar him from speaking at Mr. Mandela’s funeral – even though he had given sermons at the funerals of nearly every anti-apartheid leader for decades.
“I was quite astounded,” he said. “I was very hurt. They have the right to say who would speak, but I think they shot themselves comprehensively in the foot in snubbing me. It was very sad.”
Mr. Tutu revealed last year that he will not vote for the ANC in the approaching election because of its tolerance of corruption and economic inequality. He repeated this on Wednesday, saying it was a decision made “with a very sore, very heavy heart.”
He had been close to the ANC in the past. In 1990, it was Mr. Tutu who introduced Mr. Mandela to cheering crowds in Cape Town when the ANC leader was finally freed from 27 years in prison. It was at Mr. Tutu’s official residence where Mr. Mandela spent his first night of freedom. It was Mr. Tutu who blessed Mr. Mandela at his inauguration as South Africa’s first democratically elected president and it was Mr. Tutu who coined the phrase “rainbow nation” to describe the liberated country.
His refusal to toe the ANC line, and his sharp criticism of the government’s corruption and human-rights abuses, has left him largely excluded from the 20th anniversary events. But his meeting with journalists on Wednesday showed he won’t be silenced.
He even praised the organizers of a “vote no” campaign that has enraged the ANC. The organizers, led by veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle, are merely asking voters to think carefully about their voting decisions, he said. The “virulent reaction” was proof that their campaign was working, he added.
He praised the government for its achievements in expanding basic services such as running water and electricity, and for bringing “relative” peace to the country. But it is “a disgrace” and “unconscionable” that many South Africans still suffer from hunger and poverty, he said.