South Africa's Tutu walks a political tightrope over apartheid

Most people in South Africa keep safely within the limits of political dissent that the government has established and rigorously enforced over the past 36 years.

Black clergyman Desmond Tutu is an exception. He walks dangerously close to the line the white government has drawn, and at times he appears to stick a toe on the other side - almost as if testing both the terrain and the government's reaction.

Once again Bishop Tutu is testing and the government is warning him to back off. Many here see the conflict as part of a generally intensifying confrontation between church and state. At issue is how far certain Christian churches should go in opposing the government's policy of apartheid.

Bishop Tutu is general secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), which represents some 12 million Christians. That makes him spokesman for most of the nation's Christian community, most of which is black.

Tutu works relentlessly to undermine and change the government's racial policies. Since assuming his SACC office in 1978, he has tried to push his member churches into ever more active opposition to government policies.

Tutu preaches nonviolence. This year his work earned him his third Nobel Peace Prize nomination. But he is regarded as a sinister figure by the South African regime.

Last year the so-called Eloff Commission was appointed to investigate the SACC. The commission recently found that the SACC had opted for a ''revolutionary'' process of change and has supported civil disobedience, avoidance of military conscription, and disinvestment in South Africa. Specifically, the commission urged the government to pass a new law making ''economic sabotage'' an offense in order to punish groups like the SACC which, it alleged, support disinvestment.

''Let them pass their laws,'' said a defiant Tutu. ''I will continue to say what I believe to be necessary.''

South African Minister of Police and Prisons Louis Le Grange reacted sharply in Parliament: ''I want to seriously warn (Tutu) and the SACC that they are not above the law and that I will not allow any wickedness under a cloak of religion.''

Religion has played an important role in South African politics and the development of apartheid.

The dominant church among the ruling white Afrikaners is the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC). It has given apartheid moral legitimacy in the minds of many Afrikaners by stating that the Bible allows for a ''nation'' like the Afrikaners to have their own separate existence.

The SACC and the bulk of the non-DRC Christian community oppose apartheid. The SACC says it is ''committed to the sharing of resources and power sharing in a unitary system of government.''

Tutu, who spends weekends serving as parish priest at small church in Soweto, is a feisty figure. Tutu is popular among blacks, seeming almost to have risen above the political divisions that divide the black community. He speaks at the rallies of so-called black consciousness groups as well as those of opposing groups aligned with the tradition of the banned African National Congress.

But Tutu also has detractors among blacks. Some feel he is too moderate. And some resent that he lives in a posh home (by Soweto standards), and see him as a celebrity figure not sufficiently immersed in ''the struggle.''

Tutu has enemies among the churches in the SACC, including his own Anglican Church. Many whites in these churches see him as too active in politics and needlessly encouraging a confrontation with the state.

Some believe the main objective of the Eloff Commission was to drive a wedge between most white English-speaking Christians and the SACC by making the SACC look too ''radical.''

Tutu is undaunted. He continues to press for more church activism.

He got in trouble in 1980 when he spoke while abroad of the need for outside ''economic pressure'' against South Africa. Eventually, his passport was confiscated; he now travels only when given a temporary travel document by Pretoria.

Tutu appreciates the legal difference between ''supporting'' something and ''advocating'' it.

It is illegal to advocate that South African men resist military conscription. But when asked, Tutu will testify in support of conscientious objectors by expounding on the theological justification for such a stance.

Last year he took several church leaders to the black village of Mogopa. The villagers were being uprooted and relocated to a new community that would be incorporated into the ''homeland'' of Bophuthatswana, 1 of 10 generally resource-poor areas to which the government is relocating blacks.

The church leaders held an all-night prayer vigil with Mogopa residents resisting relocation. (They have since been moved.) Advocating civil disobedience in South Africa is illegal. Recognizing this, Tutu said the SACC had merely responded to a request for support. ''We would not seek to influence them in any way,'' he said.

Tutu says his opposition to apartheid is born of humanitarian, not political, motives. When the government said tension over the Mogopa removals was being exacerbated by outside forces, Tutu retorted, ''We are not engaged in scoring points, it has nothing to do with politics. We are concerned with people.''

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