Desmond Tutu (1931–2021)
A polite critic of imperialism, a resolute opponent of revolution
30 December 2021
Tutu played a vital role in Mandela’s policy of reconciliation
The death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu has led to outpourings of grief and commemoration among sections of the South African working class and among the great and the good across the globe. However, the different groups are celebrating different things.
Workers and activists celebrate his role, alongside Nelson Mandela, in bringing down the evil structure of apartheid and white minority rule in South Africa. The fact that after white rule ended, he opposed the growing corruption of the ANC leadership, the militarism of the Obama government and that he labelled Israel an apartheid state all helped preserve his legacy.
The leaders of global capitalism celebrate something quite different. They celebrate his Christian moralism and pacifism that helped to narrow and confine the struggle to the removal of apartheid, while leaving all the structures of imperialism and white economic power in place. The hypocrisy is so rank the Sir Kier Starmer of the British labour party was able to lavish praise on Tutu while ignoring the fact that his current pro-Zionist purge would have barred Tutu from membership of the Labour party.
Tutu's role helped limit change to the recruitment of a black subaltern class who swiftly enriched themselves. The limitation of struggle was reflected in an early conversation between Tutu and De Klerk. Asked to speak honestly, De Klerk said that his main fear was black revenge. From then on the conversation was about assuaging white fears, at the cost of reparation for those they had abused.
South Africa is now the most unequal country on the planet, with appalling infant mortality and very low life expectancy.
The ANC were rewarded. Mandela died with $3.2 million, Umbeki reached $10 million, Zuma $20 million and now Ramaphosa, the butcher of Marikana, has in excess of $500 million.
But Tutu is best known for his Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The killers and torturers of the apartheid era were asked to admit their role and apologise in return for pardon. This was seen as an absolute betrayal by revolutionary activists, led by the family of prominent anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who was killed by the security police. Biko's family described the TRC as a "vehicle for political expediency", which "robbed" them of their right to justice.
Here the story of Tutu intersects sharply with the story of modern Ireland. The Irish peace process was in part modelled on the South African peace process, aided by intervention from the South African government and drew upon the stages theory of the South African Communist Party to sharply limit the solution to one with which capitalism was content.
As in South Africa, there was a concentration on reassuring the British and their allies. As in South Africa, the cost was borne by the victims of the British Army and the death squads deployed by them.
In Ireland, with a capitalist class already fully in support of British proposals, there was less need for pretence. Sinn Féin's suggestions for a TRC were brushed aside. An attempt to buy everyone off with an Eames-Bradley report was rejected by the unionists. A long history of legacy proposals to resolve outstanding crimes is now being brought to an end by British proposals for amnesty - aimed at providing impunity for their state forces not only in Ireland but across the world, not only for past crimes but for those looming in the future. The responsibility for this betrayal rests with the many mini-Tutus involved in the Irish process.
When an historical figure leaves the stage we should try to provide a rounded view. Desmond Tutu was a major figure in the fight against apartheid. He was also a major barrier to the further advancement of the working class. He continued to criticise elements of imperialism, but in so polite and saintly a tone that the imperialists forgave him (with the exception of Israel, unwilling to accept the apartheid label). With the lens of history we can see that apartheid was going to fall. A stronger and more independent workers movement could have overcome the enormous damage done later by Ramaphosa and his ilk. Tutu helped block that possibility.