(Reuters) – My earliest memories of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu come from newspaper clippings and video recordings of foreign news reports smuggled into South Africa by dissidents to evade censorship.
As an activist allied with the African National Congress, the Archbishop was banned from the heavily controlled white minority government media.
In the smuggled tapes, I saw the Archbishop looking majestic in his mauve robes praying at the funerals of activists and protesters killed by apartheid police, or pleading with people to end the violence .
As a young woman during this tumultuous time in my country, I saw him as a man of God fighting for our freedom, a man imploring the world to end apartheid, an elder whom we hoped could one day help restore peace – although we weren’t always so sure that it would one day happen.
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Of course, I had no idea then that I would one day be doing my own clippings on “the Ark,” as it’s affectionately called here. As a photojournalist, I was able to meet him regularly in the democracy he helped to establish.
Before all of this, one memory stands out from 1985. I was 9 years old, participating in an anti-apartheid demonstration in our neighborhood on the Cape Flats, an area designated as “non-white” under the segregationist Group Areas Act.
As a family of mainly Indian origin, our movements have been restricted by law and our schools have been closed by the government under the state of emergency. The police fired tear gas at us – yes, at a group of primary school children and their teachers! And my eyes were stinging with pain.
But the main protest was on the road at Alexander Sinton High School. My father was a teacher there; my sister a student. They staged a sit-in protest to demand the opening of schools, and police fired tear gas and dragged students out of their classrooms. My father and my sister were arrested and released a few hours later.
The next day, Tutu went to school to comfort the students. A black-and-white photo shows him in his tunic and glasses, a halo of white hair circling his forehead and his two hands affectionately cupping a student’s cheeks.
On February 11, 1990, I sat on the Grand Parade opposite Cape Town City Hall with my family awaiting the arrival of Nelson Mandela, who was to be released from prison after 27 years. The sun had already begun to set when Mandela emerged onto the balcony with Archbishop Tutu by his side.
We were delighted. We knew the democracy my family had fought for was coming, but the joy was marred by a sense of loss, the sacrifices we had made and the abuses we had endured.
Almost 20 years later, I had my first opportunity to photograph the Archbishop in this house. At the time I was too shy to interact with him much, but over the next decade I had the privilege of photographing him many times for Reuters and his foundation, so I learned how to better to know him.
His courage to stand up for social justice, even at great expense, always shone – and not just during apartheid. He has often argued with his former allies in the ruling ANC over their failure to address the poverty and inequality they promised to eradicate.
At St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town on April 23, 2014, I photographed Tutu who was still angry and hurt four months after the ANC tried to exclude him from Mandela’s funeral. The party had relented only after a public outcry.
“I won’t vote for them,” he said of the ANC.
“I say this with a very sore heart. We dreamed of a society that really made people feel like they mattered. You can’t do that in a society where there are people who go to bed hungry, where a lot of our children still go to school under the trees.”
I have always been fascinated by the way Tutu greets people equally whether they are heads of state or homeless on the street. He regularly visited a nursing home, taking away cakes and treats for the residents. I watched him as he shook hands with about 40 of them.
When I had to cancel an appointment with him because my son had appendicitis in 2016, Tutu had a gift box sent to the hospital.
His wife Leah told me a story over tea of how, when he was young, he gave up his jersey to another child accompanying a blind man, shivering in the cold, knowing he risked a reprimand for to have gone home without him.
It was the Tutu we all knew and loved.
To me, all of these things show that the Ark was sincere when talking about “Ubuntu,” a Zulu word representing a belief that all human beings are bound by a universal bond that demands sharing and compassion.
“We were meant to exist as members of one family, the human family,” he once said, adding that when we don’t act accordingly, “we do so at great risk to ourselves”.
Archbishop Tutu took many risks in his life, but this was not one.
(Reporting by Sumaya Hisham; Editing by Tim Cocks, Andrew Heavens and William Mallard)
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