Letter from America: What I learnt from Bishop Tutu: There is no neutrality in a fight with evil

The most singular lesson I learned was that in a fight with evil, there is no neutrality. But let me start with the memorable stories of his life. Tutu had just been appointed Bishop of Johannesburg in the 1980s. He went to register for a vote. Of course, he was denied. He asked a simple question.


Compare to what awaits us, the universe in which Bishop Desmond Tutu operated was very simple and straightforward. Both oppressors and the subjects agreed as to what was right and what constituted wrongdoing. Therefore, the moral arch of the universe, though long, usual tilted towards justice.

When one has the privilege to meet such a great man, the wisest thing to do is to let the old man speak while the shisya (Hindu for learner) listens attentively. I had a privilege to sit at the feet of Bishop Tutu twice in my life.

The most singular lesson I learned was that in a fight with evil, there is no neutrality. But let me start with the memorable stories of his life. Tutu had just been appointed Bishop of Johannesburg in the 1980s. He went to register for a vote. Of course, he was denied. He asked a simple question.

“How is it that common Johannes Van Tonder there, a white truck 28-year-old driver can qualify to vote while I, a Bishop of the universal Episcopal Church cannot?” Of course, there was no answer. He went further.

“In your scheme of things, do you hold Johannes to be wiser than a bishop of the universal church?” Of course, there was no answer from the commissioner.

In another incident, Bishop Tutu went to register at the Nationalities Registration Commission. He was asked to what nationality he belonged. Now, if I remember correctly, there were only nine nationalities recognised in South Africa at the time. He was ear-marked for one of the Bantu nationalities, Xhosa, Zulu, Venda and Sotho.

He wrote the name “human” under the title nationality. The Boers in South Africa were renowned for their stupidity. The commissioner “took that under advice” and returned a reply. “After some consideration the commission has ruled against your application, there being no such nationality as or tribe called humans.” Now my group was up in tears with laughter. Bishop Tutu remained serious in countenance. Then he would retort.

“That is how ridiculous these people were. They missed the whole point I was trying to make. There is only one race. All of us are humans.” Tutu’s eyes would protrude out of their sockets as if to emphasize the point.

Singular lesson

The most singular lesson Tutu taught us was that when fighting evil there are no neutral bystanders. He illustrated it this way. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

On the other hand, taking a position in favour of justice always costs something. There is no freedom without costs. Usually, the people who oppress others have vast resources at their disposal. Taking a position against British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war and suggesting that Blair be tried for genocide was costly for Tutu. He was disinvited by the British Broadcasting Corporation, which until then had been on friendly terms with him.

Furthermore, his greatest contribution to humanity was his philosophy of forgiveness and Ubuntu. His book, Reconciliation: Ubuntuism (1997) emphasized what Bantu etymology had long emphasized that wrongdoing cannot escape the spiritual forces that supersede the physical world.  By releasing the apartheid criminals, Tutu was certain that living with shame was more severe a punishment than any physical incarceration would have done.

This philosophy will work where participants are in someway ennobled by conscience. Tutu often repeated a story of an English anthropologist who asked three Tanzanian boys ages 5 to 7 to run a race. The winner would enjoy a bunch of bananas, The three boys threw their arms across each other’s shoulders and proceeded to the goal post so that they arrived at the same time.

The anthropologist was astonished at their lack of competitiveness.

“What would be the point of eating all the bananas when my siblings remain hungry. In any case, we can share the bunch, so each one of us has something.” They spoke in unison.

The threat from China

Tutu’s opponents were largely of European descent and despite their racism, their Christian background allowed them a common moral universe.

The entry of China into Africa changes the equation. It has escaped the African sluggards who rule over us that the Chinese have only one universe; that universe begins and ends in China.

No moral arguments will suffice with them. In August 2018, the Macro Police Region in Peru which polices the Las Bambas Chinese Copper Mining area was paid US$1.2 billion. The police “receive logistical support, food, lodging and legal advice” (Reuters, December 15, 2021).

Here are the complaints of the Peruvians.

They say that this contract with Chinese mining companies and their law enforcement compromises the sovereignty and impartiality of the law enforcement agencies.

Secondly, the Chinese “habits and practices” bypass the natives and, therefore, the wealth of the country disappears into foreign countries.

Whenever the natives file complaints against the company, the Chinese tell them that they have no rights.

The Chinese do not provide jobs for the locals.

President Pedro Castillo, who came to power with the support of the rural communities and tribesmen is alleged to have signed secret treaties with the Chinese whose details are not open to the public.

The issue here is that the world in which Tutu lived was very simple. The oppressors and the subjects spoke from a common platform. What was wrong was wrong, and right was right. In the new world of Chinese domination, all roads lead to China and our leaders have been bought.

Lithium is the new gold standard in the world as the world moves towards electric cars. Zimbabwe registers as number two in the availability of this mineral after the Congo. Having sold out the Marange diamonds to the Chinese Anjin Company, we are on the verge of repeating the same mistake.

Parliament should demand to see the terms of these lithium agreements.

  • Ken Mufuka is a Zimbabwean patriot. His books can be found at kenmufukaooks.com in the wider world and at Innov Bookshops in Zimbabwe.

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