Archbishop Desmond Tutu, well-known for his anti-apartheid credentials, delivered the 2nd Nelson Mandela Lecture in Johannesburg at the end of 2003 and stirred up a hornet's nest in the process.
Part of his speech certainly touched a government nerve, forcing President Thabo Mbeki to hit back in his weekly online "Letter from the President" column that he writes for the ANC web-based journal, ANC Today. His response has since opened up a huge debate in South Africa--with Archbishhop Tutu's supporters, particularly in the white-controlled media, praising his speech, whilst the ANC, though trying to calm tempers as the ruling party, has said Mbeki's statement "reflected the views of the organisation on the matters raised by Archbishop Tutu".
Mbeki had told the archbishop, in part: "It would be good if those that present themselves as the greatest defenders of the poor should also demonstrate decent respect for the truth." Tutu took this to mean having been accused of lying. "Thank you Mr President for telling me what you think of me. That I am a liar with scant regard for the truth and a charlatan posing with his concern for the poor, the hungry, the oppressed and the voiceless. I will continue to pray for you and your government by name daily as I have done and as I did even for the apartheid government," Tutu said.
The ANC was compelled to step in to calm the waters. But its spokesman, Smuts Ngonyama, told the archbishop: "Neither the ANC nor its president regards you as 'a liar with scant regard for the truth', but we do recognise that even someone like yourself has the capacity to err ... We will continue to regard you as a respected leader within our society whose contribution to the life of this country is highly valued ... The archbishop should [however] remember that a debate is two sides talking and he must not cry when the ANC is talking back."
Ngonyama admitted that there was "definitely" a need for debate but there should be cordial relations in the way it was conducted. "We are very cautious in the manner that we express ourselves, because we know that some things can negatively affect perspectives about our country. It is very important to actually show maturity and integrity in all things [and] we must be truly serious when we get into things that are factual. If not, it calls for a response. The archbishop is not saying these things for the first time, but we decided now to give a comprehensive response. We hope he is not taking these things personally and we are very thankful to him for raising the issues."
When the war of words appeared to get out of control, the South African Council of Churches and other organisations and personalities joined in to call for calm. Others, however, chose to keep the heat on.
One of them, Steven Friedman, a research fellow of the Centre for Policy Studies, said Archbishop Tutu had every right to be "an independent source of moral guidance". Friedman added: "The president is being edgy because Tutu can't be dismissed as a racist or as someone who wants the new order to fail. The message that the president should be sending out is that public criticism of government actions should not only be tolerated but encouraged, and it's a pity he is being defensive."
Adam Hess, writing in the Cape Times, took the debate to even hyperbolic levels: "Tutu's criticism of the ANC officialdom's sycophantic party-line manner must be loudly applauded. This fawning behaviour is a sword in the side of our democratic ideals. The good bishop's views on Aids, black economic empowerment and the government's policy on Zimbabwe was a ray of light at a time when the clouds of political mediocrity are increasingly blocking the sun. South Africa should at least be grateful that we still have patriots like the archbishop who has never wavered in his criticism of those who believe power bestows on them the right to act with impunity. …