A Farewell to the Bishop

Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu – October 7, 1931 – December 26, 2021

The Bishop was ecstatic. He rejoiced, leaping and skipping around the room. It was the first really good news he had received in a long while for it was a tense time on the African continent. Although, it could be reasonably asked, when are times never tense on the huge land mass?

The continent covers six percent of the earth’s surface and twenty percent of its land area. Africa’s name came from ancient Romans, scholars believe, perhaps from the Latin aprica, meaning ‘sunny’ or from the Greek aphrike, meaning ‘without cold.’

Africa is where science says humans first evolved. Some anthropologists surmise that early in its development Africa consisted of ten thousand different states, tribes or clans with different languages and customs. History has proven where you find humans, you find conflict. From tribal conflicts to the Boer Wars with the British Empire, to the kidnapping of millions of Africans forced into slavery in the New World, Africa seems to have been in eternal turmoil.

But the closing years of the twentieth century’s eighth decade brought with them breath-taking events in southern Africa. South Africa’s apartheid, the government’s much reviled policy of racial injustice, was on its last legs. 

In 1985, the white population in South Africa was put at less than five million. The black population was estimated at around nineteen million. That number, however, was little more than an extrapolation because the white government eliminated census figures from the South African Bantustans, or black homelands, during apartheid. Nevertheless, Blacks and Coloureds, people of mixed race, outnumbered whites by nearly five to one.

Violent resistance by anti-apartheid activists, internal political strife and global pressure in the form of economic sanctions drove apartheid to its knees. Among the most vocal opponents of the government’s segregation polices was the Bishop.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an Anglican cleric, actively took part in South African civil disobedience. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his “role as a unifying leader figure in the campaign to resolve the problem of apartheid in South Africa.”

Tutu was the Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg during the time I came to know him. He eventually became the Archbishop of Cape Town, the first black man to hold either position. Outspoken as he was, Archbishop Tutu had an infectious sense of humor. He laughed easily and enjoyed a good joke. But, when it came to racial inequality and other human rights matters, his tongue could crack like a whip. He would often say, in various versions, “We don’t want apartheid improved. We want apartheid dismantled! You can’t improve something that is intrinsically evil.” 

Covering South Africa as ABC News Johannesburg Bureau Chief for four years, beginning in 1985, I encountered Bishop Tutu on several occasions. He was unfailingly energetic and unflinching in his crusade to tear down apartheid. The Bishop was relentless in his mission to have Nelson Mandela released from prison. As leader of the African National Congress, Mandela was arrested in 1964, accused of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government, and sentenced to life behind bars.

Bishop Tutu was among several anti-apartheid figures, black and white, who participated in long negotiations with the government to secure Mandela’s freedom. Painstakingly, they made some progress. In the fall of 1989, Tutu and a few other activists met with South Africa’s new president, F.W. DeKlerk. Tutu came away from that meeting apparently impressed that their message fell on receptive ears. 

Not long after that meeting, I sat with the Archbishop in his Soweto home outside Johannesburg for a quiet talk. I had no camera crew with me. This was not so much an interview as it was a conversation, a background briefing, of sorts. During our chat, his phone rang in another room. Excusing himself, Tutu got up to answer it. I could hear him become increasingly excited as he spoke to whomever was on the other end. Hanging up, the Bishop burst back into his living room, his eyes wide and bright, a huge smile on his face, and announced, “Nelson is coming home! He’s coming home!”

He had just learned that the government had finally agreed to set Mandela free. It would be many weeks before that actually happened, but for the Archbishop it was as good as done. He began to literally leap and dance around, joyously whooping and hollering. He reached down to grab my hands and pulled me up out of my chair and, together, we danced in his living room. It was an incredible moment.

Many years later, I related that story to an old friend, Chuck, who lives in Columbus, Georgia. I had gone to Columbus for a reunion with colleagues I hadn’t seen in almost forty-five years. I had worked there as young reporter at WTVM-TV in the early 1970s. Columbus has changed dramatically since my time in the town. It had become a bustling and vibrant city. 

My friend proudly drove me around to see all the impressive developments, such as the old mills that had been turned into delightful lofts and condos, a pleasant riverfront walk along the Chattahoochee River, and gleaming headquarters for national corporations. As we drove, touring the sites, I wondered out loud what my career would have been like had I not left Columbus and had settled in as a resident and reporter. Chuck answered quietly, “You never would have danced with the Bishop.”

That simple phrase struck me like a thunderbolt as the perfect metaphor for what my career became. For nearly half a century, I had danced with events and phenomenon that changed the course of history. Some, indeed, now fill entire chapters of history books. I had danced, metaphorically, with presidents and dictators, with kings and saints, with good and with evil, with police and perpetrators, heroes and villains, with freedom fighters and terrorists, with fame and famine, with fortune and failings, with ordinary people with extraordinary stories, with war and with peace. 

I had also danced with technological developments in broadcasting that ranged from clunky black and white film to video tape to computer driven digital images and sound.

It was a dance that, at times, was smooth, like a waltz. At other times, it was more frenetic, like a jitterbug. But it always had a compelling rhythm.

Sadly, Archbishop Desmond Tutu died today, the day after Christmas at the age of 90. His passing makes my heart sad. I shall never forget our dancing together. Bishop Tutu was a lion in the fight for equality. He was a leader for a society in turmoil. His faith in humanity was unparalleled. He was an inspiration. He was a friend. 

Published by J. Paul Hickey

Author, Bass Player, Retired National Correspondent for ABC News - 32 years with the network - Retired in 2012. Narrates Audiobooks. Volunteer at Fort Sumter National Park. Holder of two university Honorary Doctorate Degrees, Distinguished Eagle Scout, former SCUBA diver.

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