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All rise for Desmond

Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre must be one of the most uncomfortable venues in the world – at least if you end up sitting on the hard wooden benches up in the gods. But on Monday afternoon a full house was entranced by the words – and chuckles – of a true hero. Suddenly, a numb backside and aching shoulders simply didn’t matter.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu – the man needs no introduction. All of us will have seen and heard him on the television or radio. Even on screen, his vitality, enthusiasm and warmth are evident. In the flesh, small and unprepossessing in stature though he may be, he is mesmerizing. He spoke – often with humour, never with rancour – of life in Apartheid South Africa. Of the hypocrisy of the white minority that insisted that the black majority did not constitute ‘a nation’ because of the different ethnic communities within it (despite the fact that the white population was made up of people from France, Portugal, Britain and so on) and of the humiliating ‘comb test’ used to determine people’s race. A comb was run through the individual’s hair. If the comb got ‘stuck’, the person was deemed to be black. If the comb ran through the hair relatively smoothly, the person was deemed to be coloured. Such classifications drove some people to suicide. ‘Our dignity and humanity were callously trodden underfoot. You know, we too are human. A system is blasphemous when it can make a child of God doubt that he is a child of God.’

‘We had to laugh, in order not to cry’ over the absurdities of apartheid, he continued. Did we know that if a whites-only ambulance saw a black man dying in the street, it would drive past?

When Tutu himself required a travel document to leave South Africa (he was forbidden a proper passport), the ‘nationality’ field was filled with the words: ‘indeterminable at present’. When he later visited President Reagan at the White House and related this story to him, the President had the decency to ‘blanch’. 

The Archbishop is a truly remarkable orator. In the midst of narrating these horrors, he had us laughing. And his message was ultimately one of hope. He recalled the end of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela. If these things could happen in South Africa, he said, ‘then the most difficult situation is capable of revolution. No situation can be considered intractable. If those who are at daggers drawn can step back and take a deep breath, their situation can be resolved.’ Even in the Middle East, a resolution will – must – come, he continued. ‘The best kind of security comes not from the barrel of a gun, but when the inalienable rights of all are acknowledged and respected.’

With a trademark chuckle, he applauded us (‘we couldn’t have done it [abolished apartheid] without the help of international community’) as we applauded him. We streamed out of the Sheldonian, massaging stiff backs and necks, uplifted – and humbled – by what we had heard.

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