A significant event last week in South Africa has led to reflection by some on the past iniquitous system of apartheid in the country, and it is a reminder of the power of forgiveness and reconciliation in an increasingly troubled and violent world.
The occasion concerned was a special thanksgiving service to mark the 90th birthday of Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town and anti-apartheid icon, who was the first black holder of this senior position in southern Africa’s Anglican hierarchy. The service was held in the city’s St George’s Cathedral. He retired in 1996 and after a period of ill health withdrew from public life a decade ago.
While the whole world revered Nelson Mandela, who became President of South Africa as a new democracy in 1994, Archbishop Tutu is less well known outside his own country even though he was praised internationally for his anti-apartheid activism as a prominent campaigner in opposing it. But he believed in non-violent and peaceful action – and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. He later played an important role alongside Mandela in steering the transition from white minority rule and apartheid to a multi-racial democracy.
For younger readers perhaps unfamiliar with South Africa’s relatively recent history, apartheid was introduced by the Afrikaner-dominated National Party following its election victory in 1948. It is defined as the separate and parallel development of people according to their colour and race. This was in a country where whites made up some 14 per cent of the population but owned almost all the wealth including the best land. Black people were stripped of their rights as citizens and were dispossessed of land and homes while being banned from living or working in areas designated for whites, except to provide cheap labour. Worldwide condemnation of apartheid quickly followed, and for many years it made headline news. It was regarded as being morally repugnant and unacceptable, and it was also opposed by many within the white community in South Africa itself.
Over the years, such international opposition and growing domestic unrest and violence increased the pressure for reform. Working at the British Embassy during the period, one of our tasks was to convince political leaders and other opinion-formers that apartheid had to end. Meanwhile, of course, in 1985 The Bahamas hosted an important Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in which British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was isolated in her stand against economic sanctions which she believed would damage most severely the poorest people in South Africa. But, during this period, she was engaging in a direct dialogue with its leader, President P W Botha, urging him to announce specific steps to end apartheid including release of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. This fascinating correspondence was highly classified at the time but can now be found online.
In the mid-1980s, the South African government accepted the need for fundamental reform. By 1990, the apartheid laws were scrapped and Mandela was released which set off a chain of events that led to democratic elections in 1994.
Archbishop Tutu worked in close harmony with Mandela in negotiating the total abolition of apartheid and the introduction of democracy, often acting as a mediator between rival political indigenous factions. Despite fears of a racial bloodbath, this transformation was achieved peacefully. It is generally recognised that this was because both of them preached racial harmony and unity. Historians consider that their strong renunciation of violence was a defining moment in the new political process and for such an achievement Mandela earned – jointly with the outgoing president, F W de Klerk – the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
For Desmond Tutu, the story did not end there. In 1996, he was appointed to chair the newly-created Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mandela was said to be determined not to allow anger over past crimes and human rights abuses to influence the future path of the nation. The Commission investigated these and gave vent to grievances. But Tutu was mainly responsible for preventing retribution and trials of former state figures. He advocated what he termed “restorative justice” as he worked for forgiveness in the form of a legal amnesty from prosecutions while also providing for some restitution, with perpetrators of human rights abuses making amends to their victims – and it was he who is said to have invented and popularized the sobriquet the “Rainbow Nation” as a metaphor for post-apartheid South Africa!
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been widely praised because people saw that he cared deeply about his fellow citizens and was a champion of peaceful opposition. What a boost it would be to world peace if people elsewhere could learn from his example when settling disputes. Like Nelson Mandela he was able to forgive and start the process of reconciliation for the good of a new South Africa – and, in such circumstances, is it any wonder that he was greeted so warmly and by so many on his 90th birthday?
QUEEN LAUNCHES COMMONWEALTH GAMES BATON
What a pleasure it was to watch The Queen undertake last week her first official engagement after returning from her annual break at Balmoral in Scotland. As Head of the Commonwealth, she set in motion the 16th global baton relay for the 2022 Commonwealth Games which will be held in the central England city of Birmingham from 28 July to 8 August. The launch, also attended by Prince Edward as vice patron of the Commonwealth Games Federation, was the first major event at Buckingham Palace since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The baton, in which a strand of platinum has been incorporated in recognition of The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022 – the 70th year of her reign – has thus begun its epic two-month journey around the world to all the 72 countries and territories participating in the Games, including, of course, The Bahamas. It will travel 90,000 miles and be carried by 7,500 baton bearers before being returned to Birmingham in time for the opening ceremony.
As a top class athletics contest, second only to the Olympics which includes competitors from the whole world, the Commonwealth Games – formerly known as the Empire Games – are held every four years in different Commonwealth countries. They are seen as fostering friendship and social ties and are thus judged to be a unifying force for the 54-member voluntary association of independent states that supports international co-operation across-the-board and strengthens, in particular, trade and investment links among its members.
Unlike the recent Tokyo Olympics that were subject to strict coronavirus restrictions, the organisers of the Birmingham event say that, judging from the number of ticket applications already received, they are looking forward to capacity crowds and they hope to emulate the successful Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. After the horrors of the pandemic over such a long period, what a happy prospect that is – and everybody will surely hope that the baton will be returned safely after an incident-free global journey.
MOURNING THE LARGER-THAN-LIFE IVAN JOHNSON
The extraordinary outpouring this past week of grief, affection, love and appreciation for Ivan Johnson, the founder, owner and editor of The Punch, will surely have come as no surprise to anyone who was fortunate enough to have known him. His sudden passing has come as a terrible shock to so many, and I should like to take the opportunity of this column to offer my own tribute.
It was both sad and heart-warming to read in The Punch published last Thursday the forty pages of eloquent tributes and messages from his countless friends and admirers, together with photographs chronicling his life and times. Only someone so charismatic, interesting and likeable could have inspired such a huge range of accolades. He was described as kind, generous, caring, gregarious, compassionate, empathetic, loyal, bold, fearless – and intelligent, knowledgeable and worldly while also down-to-earth, unpretentious and a great conversationalist. He was, of course, an accomplished all-round sportsman, a gifted writer and a fine investigative journalist who, thanks to his experience of working in London and with the Murdoch publishing empire in Australia, knew everything there was to know about newspapers.
Judging from the positive comments of members of his staff at The Punch, he must also have been an excellent boss, manager and mentor demanding of them, but obviously kind and generous as well and he inspired their loyalty.
While I do not pretend to have known him well, we had the occasional lunch together over the years and I recall a bruising encounter on the squash court in the far-off happy days when the club was owned and managed so well by Keith Parker. Incidentally, while his success in first-class cricket in England – playing for the county of Worcestershire – was covered fully in The Punch on Thursday, another snippet I heard a while ago was that at his well-known boarding school, Malvern, the cricket coach had rated him the best schoolboy cricketer there of his generation. Years ago, I also knew his father, Basil Johnson, who distinguished himself during service with the RAF in the Second World War and, in 1944, was awarded a DFM (Distinguished Flying Medal).
But, to many, Ivan Johnson’s greatest success was his prowess as a newspaper proprietor, first-rate journalist and wordsmith par excellence. Provocative and controversial, he exposed corruption and injustice and the wrongdoing of the rich and powerful and those in influential positions of authority in a bid to hold them accountable. As everyone knows, his writing was concise, incisive, lucid and punchy with no frills, designed to get a message across without nuance or qualification – and he was a master of the art of the penetrating style of tabloid journalism.
Those who feared his critical probing will now be spared and no doubt relieved to be let off the hook. But, for so many, his passing is a cause of extreme sorrow and sadness – the end of an era and, as a larger-than-life character of such tremendous accomplishment, his like may never be seen again. May his soul rest in peace.