Tutu Remembered: a heart big enough to hold the world

The Elders, May 2011, photographed by Jeff Moore.

Today one of my heroes died. I feel so lucky to have got to know him and spend time with him. I am not religious, but this archbishop, Archbishop Desmond Tutu became as much a mentor as anyone I have ever known. I got to know him through the creation of The Elders – he was our first chair.

When Richard Branson and I first began discussing the idea of a group of independent global elders with Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel, Mandela made clear that he would found and launch it, but needed someone else to lead it. The person he asked was his old friend Tutu.

With Mandela, Tutu and then Kofi Annan on board we had the foundation to bring this dream to life. Soon we had a really inspiring group who had all said yes to Mandela and we could not have imagined a better chair than the Arch. The Elders influence was based on the currency of respect, earned from living extraordinary lives, but as their chair, he would always encourage them to be bold – to speak truth to power as he had done throughout his life, to plough through any obstacles. ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.’

He led all our meetings with a clear vision and a mischievous sense of humour, and as Mary Robinson, our current chair, reminded us, he would relish the chance to tick off these former presidents and UN Secretary General, when they arrived a couple of minutes late. Whenever people were suffering and the situation was looking hopeless, it was the Arch, who would never give up on human nature and push way beyond what was expected.

When he led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to open up and begin to heal the horrors of the apartheid years in South Africa, Tutu talked about opening the curtains, opening the windows and letting in fresh air and sunlight. Listening to the accounts of torture and murder he would weep alongside grieving families. But for many of us lucky enough to know and work with him, he was himself that vehicle that brought the fresh air and sunlight into our own lives.

The ‘Voice of the Voiceless’ is an overused cliché, but Arch was the real thing. Whenever you were trying to help someone or a group, that had been turned down everywhere else, you knew there was one person who would not turn their back, who would never be afraid to speak up and speak out. He was no sanctimonious saint, he was extraordinarily human and approachable and he didn’t mind letting you know when he was tired, irritated or grumpy. But his belly laugh and kind twinkly eyes were never far away, he was the master of forgiveness. Any transgressor who showed a genuine change of heart was welcomed like a lost family member. He was also wonderfully direct when speaking for those being mistreated or abused, which in turn got him arrested and interrogated earlier in his life. There were so many instances when his fiery colours would appear, when he would show his fierce passion particularly against injustice, whether in Palestine, Northern Ireland, Tibet or even challenging his friend Aung San Suu Kyi for the appalling treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Any country which was abusing its citizens or its minorities had to expect the righteous wrath of Archbishop Tutu.

He was never blind to suffering and his heart seemed big enough to hold the world. From the outset he taught us the Zulu concept of Ubuntu, by which he lived – you exist in relation to others, in how you connect with and respond to others. There was no doubt that his most important human connection was his 66-year marriage to his fellow activist and campaigner Leah. The warmth and generosity of their love was an inspiration to all of us who spent time with them.

We, The Elders and their Advisory Council, were with him – at Mandela’s memorial when it seemed some of Zuma’s officials were trying their best to stop him entering the stadium for the service, scared perhaps of what truths he might expose. They didn’t succeed any better than any of the others who had tried to silence this great man. With the help of Zelda La Grange, Mandela’s amazing PA, he was smuggled in and got his time on the microphone. He used it to make a wonderful speech – to properly remember his great friend Madiba, the liberator of his people, who had inspired South Africa and the world with the creation of the Rainbow Nation – Tutu’s concept.

In some African countries, those in same sex relationships are increasingly in danger. Tutu spoke up for the rights of the LGBTQ community. ‘I would rather go to hell than to a homophobic heaven. If anyone is lucky enough to find love in this life they should have the right to enjoy it.’ He was a tireless champion of human rights regardless of who that put him in conflict with.

This man was the embodiment of the power of love and laughter all wrapped up in one extraordinary human being.

What an honour to have been able to spend a little time with this person – what a teacher, what a heart, what a man.

– Peter Gabriel


Archbishop Desmond Tutu, born 7 October 1931; died 26 December 2021.


Photo: Michael Collopy.