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Desmond Tutu’s life a prime example of transformation

Anglican priest Father Trevor Huddleston, centre left, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, centre right, share a joke. Fr Huddleston helped Archbishop Tutu to become a priest in the Anglican church.

The tradition of making resolutions for a new year dates back four millennia. This is evidence that reflecting on the circumstances and outcomes of past events and considering alternative options for moving forward is an ancient wisdom-practice.

It’s arguable that the benefits of resolution-making have been somewhat lost as the practice is trivialised in our hyper-consumer culture. In light of the same, evidence suggests that exchanging resolution-making for the broader approach of vision-making offers more leverage in fostering personal and collective transformation.

Reflecting on the recent past, globally, might prove to be painful. The unprecedented multiple crises have understandably elicited fear, as we focus on the “danger”. However, “crises” also harbour “opportunities”. We all have experienced the benefit of addressing challenges in our personal past; when we were able to “transform lemons into lemonade”.

Noted psychiatrist and best-selling author M Scott Peck points out that the quintessential characteristic of human beings is our ability to transform ourselves. As social beings, we learn from each other, from birth; with walking and talking, but so much more. One practice that leverages self-renewal is nurtured through the tradition of storytelling; both biographical and fictional.

The recent passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us of his potent story of overcoming personal circumstances that may inspire renewal. Raised under the inhumane apartheid system, his life is a classic example of transforming challenging circumstances into stepping stones to benefit oneself and the wider community.

Born in a mining town in South Africa in October 1931, his middle name – Mpilo – means “Life”. His father was a teacher and his mother worked as a domestic maid. Young Desmond helped his mother and did some odd-jobs, including selling oranges along the roadside. However, he maintained a love of reading and learning.

Tutu’s mother was active in various faith communities. One priest that they encountered – Trevor Huddleston, a British national - became a transformative mentor for the boy.

Young Desmond experienced a number of health challenges; including polio which disabled his right hand. At 15, he was hospitalised for 20 months with tuberculosis, and Huddleston visited him regularly, offering encouragement as well as inspiring reading material.

These challenges inspired Desmond to seek to study medicine. In spite of his extended sick leave, he was one of the few Black students to secure admission to medical school. However, since no financial aid was provided, Tutu opted for a teacher-training programme, graduating as an English teacher.

He taught for three years, but in light of new apartheid laws in 1953 impacting education, he resigned from his teaching post. With the facilitation of Trevor Huddleston, Tutu secured a trainee-priest post in the Anglican Church, which included a further education programme that accommodated his new family.

Desmond’s life underwent a transformation that had personal and societal implications. Since the apartheid regime operated a police state, the vast majority of activists were either imprisoned, killed or exiled; leaving a vacuum. Tutu’s abilities resulted in his speedy promotion within the Anglican Church, and he mindfully fostered leeway to provide a platform to promote the democratisation of South Africa.

Tutu promoted collaboration across non-governmental organisations, nurturing community cohesion. Notwithstanding brutal police crackdowns in the mid-Seventies, through the courageous involvement of many, the tide turned, by the early 1980s. The galvanising of solidarity across South Africa and the planet propelled the movement towards democracy. Notwithstanding substantial dangers, by 1994, South Africa voted- in its first democratic government. Tutu led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process that was key in promoting post-apartheid healing across their devastated society.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Desmond championed the rights of all global citizens, until the end.

The recipient of various honours, including the Nobel Peace Prize and numerous citations from various countries, Tutu retained his humility and humour. Snapshots that offer some glimpses of Desmond’s character include: calmly facing down armed police during a peaceful protest; protecting a police-spy from angry protesters; crying profusely after hearing about police torture; and laughing and dancing “at the drop of a hat”, expressing his unbridled joy for life.

The 2020s are putting the matter of personal character under the microscope. As we consider fostering personal and communal renewal, Tutu’s life offers some pointers for the eight billion of us, sharing the stewardship of our planet.