University Chancellor and Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Mpilo Tutu
by Beverly Lindsay
A few weeks ago, thousands of individuals around the globe expressed sorrow at the passing of Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, the Nobel Peace Laureate who, in 1984, was the fourth Black person to receive this distinction. In political and public policy spheres, he was known for his incredible decades of work in struggling and pushing the White South African government to abolish the harsh laws and inhumane conditions of apartheid. Over 50 years, he remained at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and in neighboring countries – although many forget that countries such as Namibia and Zimbabwe were governed by forms of apartheid.
Nevertheless, it is often overlooked that his career began and concluded in education. Following his father’s footsteps, young Desmond graduated from Pretoria Bantu Normal College and taught high school English and History in the 1950s – thereby setting the path for blending the humanities into his professional life. Ironically, his early teaching occurred when the South African Bantu Education Act became official in 1954, thereby further restricting and segregating Asian, Black, Coloured, and White education. [Notably this was the same year the 1954 Brown v Board of Education eliminated de jure school segregation in the United States.] Tutu further resolved to become an Anglican priest and was officially ordinated in the early 1960s. He completed his BA degree from the University of South Africa and his BDiv from Kings College London, writing a thesis on Islam in West Africa. At various points, he held combined academic and chaplain portfolios at universities such as the then University of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland and University of Fort Hare (the alma mater of Nelson Mandela.)
In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, he was at the center of abolishing apartheid and its effects on all ethnic and racial groups, including conditions at colleges and universities. While his primary foci entailed that of formal de jure government policies, he also strived to mitigate ethnic and tribal discriminations and violence – resulting from historical realities and violent and non-violent strategies. He combined the concepts of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism with college and public addresses to numerous audiences. Captivatingly, he was a fluent polyglot and frequently used languages in part or in whole in his communications.
Although I did not meet him during my initial professional trips to South Africa in the early 1990s, I was exposed to his university endeavors at the University of the Western Cape (UWC)– the foremost Coloured university. As part of multiple multi-million dollars United States Agency for International Development (USAID) contracts to the then Academy for Educational Development (AED), I was what academicians would term Co-Principal Investigator for the four types of demographic universities. UWC faculty and students were continually involved in anti-apartheid demonstrations and policy articulations. As customary in the British university tradition, the university chancellor is often an esteemed person, with limited participation in academic affairs. In essence, it is regularly a ceremonial position. [The rector is the equivalent of an American university president.] However, this was not a very accurate description of Chancellor Tutu who served for approximately 25 years, beginning in 1987. His prior African public school, college, and university portfolios enabled him to comprehend the multiple roles of education. Moreover, he was a visiting fellow or professor at Kings College London, University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill, and Emory University (among others).
For a decade, he was both the Archbishop of Cape Town and UWC Chancellor in the Cape Town Province – often referred to as the Coloured Province since large numbers of Coloureds resided there. Interestingly, as a Black African, he held prominence among Coloureds. Via an invitation from a Vice President of a Pennsylvania university to attend a public lecture and then to a select private discussion reception in the 2000s, I was honored to meet and converse with Chancellor Tutu. I briefly shared some of my several university engagements at South African universities, where I had been seconded to the AED [as a full professor and academic associate dean at the University of Georgia] to investigate and help pose policies and paradigms for merging multiple university systems. A bit of cultural levity occurred when voicing (to Chancellor Tutu) how assorted UWC students and faculty learned that some of us graduated or had been professionals at American Historically Black Colleges and Universities. When we used the term HBCUs, the UWC individuals thought it meant “Historically Black and Coloured Universities.”
As an educator, priest, Archbishop, and Chancellor, he encouraged diversity before the term was in vogue. While a bishop, he ordained and appointed gay priests and women – when this was taboo in many African nations. As Chancellor, he was involved in polices to include diverse ethnic, racial, and gender faculty and administrators. He was often credited with coining the term “Rainbow People or Rainbow Nation” to encompass and include fairness for all demographic groups. He threw himself upon the body of an African man, from a different African ethnic group, to prevent necklacing the man, who was accused of being an informant to the White government. [Necklacing involved hanging a gasoline filled tire around someone’s neck and setting it on fire.] Singing and speaking in one of his five languages at university educational and political events was a salient mode of inclusive diversity. At his 1984 Nobel Peace speech, he and his family began and concluded with his leading tenor voice singing in his indigenous language. To paraphrase, he often voiced that yesterday’s oppressed can become today’s oppressors, resulting in exclusion by new power groups in a post-apartheid era – rather than authentic diversity and fairness.
Beverly Lindsay, PhD, EdD held two of her Fulbrights in universities in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, neighboring countries to South Africa. She is Co-Director and Principal Investigator of a multi-year Ford Foundation Grant on Women and University Leadership in Post-Conflict and Transitional Societies (University of California) – that works with South Africa and other nations. She is senior author of Higher Education Policy in Developing and Western Nations (Routledge, February 2022).
In 2008, the Fulbright Association awarded the Fulbright Prize to Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, for his tireless work for peace in South Africa and elsewhere, for his courage in speaking out against injustice, and for his efforts to achieve a democratic and just society without racial division.