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Archbishop Tutu And South African Black Theology: A Tribute [MUST READ]

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[dropcap]A[/dropcap]t the beginning of his crusade and struggle against the Apartheid System and White Minority Racist Government in South Africa, the late Archbishop Tutu observes:

[pull_quote_center]“I want to declare categorically that I believe apartheid to be evil and immoral, and therefore, unchristian. No theologian I know would be prepared to say that the apartheid system is consistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” – (D. TUTU, Press Statement of October 11, 1979, in reply to minister Le Grange’s attack on SACC (South African Council of Churches); the statement is reproduced in Tutu, The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness, London, 1982, p.35.)  [/pull_quote_center]

Speaking further on the religious front of South African Black theology of liberation, Archbishop Tutu says:

“The perplexity we have to deal with is this: why does suffering single out black people so conspicuously, suffering not at the hands of pagans or other unbelievers, but at the hands of fellow Christians who claim allegiance to the same Lord and Master.” – (Ibid.)

The concerns in South African Black theology, largely rests on this religious interpretation of the Apartheid System by late Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In that sense, Archbishop Tutu merits the title of “Father of South African Black Theology.” His seminal religious interpretation of the evils of the Apartheid System and White Minority Racist Government and Ideology in South Africa, was very pivotal in the development of South African Black theology of Liberation.

In the present article, we want to honor this great son of Africa and icon of South African anti-Apartheid Crusade, who died on December 26, 2021, by highlighting, though briefly, this aspect of his contribution to the growth of African theology. That is, in the area of South African Black Theology of Liberation.

Many, no doubt, may remember him primarily, as a courageous and outstanding Anti-Apartheid Crusader, (Black) African Anglican Archbishop during the struggle against the Apartheid system and White Minority Racist Government in South Africa. Archbishop Tutu is remembered also for his ardent political activism, religious and moral authority of first hour, in his struggle and agitation for racial equality and social justice in South Africa; his public agitation and consistent protests and civil disobedience for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. Many also may remember him, especially, as recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, as well as a renowned world acclaimed public speaker and lecturer, and finally, as Chairman of post-Apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

However, not many may be familiar with the enormous influence of Archbishop Tutu in the birth and development of contemporary African Christian theology, especially, the influence of his religious and theological thoughts and writings in the development of South African theology of liberation, during and after the Fall of Apartheid in South Africa. This is why it is necessary that we highlight that aspect of his life and contribution as an African theologian of first hour. Archbishop Tutu remains an inspiration to many, especially, for a good number of young Africans in theological scholarship, in the areas of the meeting of the Gospel with the ever-changing socio-cultural, religious, political, and economic reality of Africa.

Moreover, Archbishop Tutu remains a model to emulate for many African Church leaders today, as the continent is in dire need of real and true authentic religious leaders with deep spirituality, moral probity, authority, and public trust, to guide their respective countries and people to a true social, moral and spiritual renewal, for a new Africa to emerge.

Above all, the Archbishop has a message to the emerging freedom fighters of our day, especially, the young people in Africa. That is, those who have started to engage in freedom fighting and struggle for self-determination or second independence of their different ethnic-nationalities from the domineering ethnic-group/groups in their respective European colonial created African nation states. These young Africans are to remember that for any freedom fighting movement or agitation for self-determination to be meaningful, it must be well-grounded on authentic spirituality and theology to match.

Background to Archbishop Tutu’s African Theology  

Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu (7 October 1931 – 26 December 2021) was a South African Anglican Archbishop and theologian, known for his work as an anti-Apartheid icon and crusader for racial equality, civil rights, and social justice. He was a powerful voice for non-violence in South Africa’s anti-Apartheid movement, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. His sense of good humor, inspiring message, and conscientious work for civil liberties and peoples’ rights have earned him international accolades and admirations.

Archbishop Tutu’s theological methodology and perspective borrowed a lot from the African Philosophy of “Ubuntu” – ‘I am, Because We Are.’ This John Mbiti’s classic phrase “I am because we, and since we are, therefore, I am’, captures a key feature in the Archbishop Tutu’s “Ubuntu” philosophy. “Ubuntu” is a South African (Bantu) phrase, meaning, “humanity”, or ‘I am because we are.’

The African philosophy of ‘Ubuntu’ which forms the basis of Archbishop Tutu’s African approach and interpretation of the South African reality of his time as a Christian theologian and Church leader, is an explanation of the African cosmology that places God and God’s basically good intention in the creation of human beings and the universe, above every other consideration. In the African worldview and spirituality of “Ubuntu”, ‘humanity’ (individuals and community) is at the center of consideration.

In general, African spirituality is based on this centrality of human beings presently living in the concrete circumstances of life this side of the grave. It consists of their attitudes, beliefs, and practices as they strive to reach out toward the super-sensible realities. God, the spirits, and the invisible forces in the universe. The central concern is how to make sense of this life and ensure that it is meaningful, harmonious, good, and worth living. The outcome of the project of life depends on how successful and beneficial the relationships are between the living and the invisible world.

For the traditional Africans, ‘humanity’ is first and foremost the community. In the first place, is the extended family based on blood kinship or on affinity through marriage, and then the clan, the tribe, or the nation (ethnic-nationality). Kinship and affinity create a special kind of bonding within which mutual rights and duties are exercised unconditionally. Individuals acquire their basic identity through these relationships, and enjoy a feeling of security in life as long as the exchange of these rights and duties is guaranteed.

This is the background for appreciating Archbishop Tutu’s love with the African philosophy of ‘Ubuntu’ (humanity-community). It is often said that where Descartes said, “I think, therefore, I am” (cogito ergo sum), the African would rather say, “I am related, therefore, we are” (cognatus ergo sum). In other words, in African spirituality, the value of interdependence through healthy inter-human relationships comes high above that of individualism, segregation, and personal independence. By the same token, the practice of cooperation is more relied upon than competition.

Moreover, in the African worldview on which Archbishop Tutu’s philosophy of Ubuntu took its inspiration, the relationship between the human community and the rest of the universe was not conceived of as a project of struggle where human beings would look at the world or fellow human being, as an object or an adversary, whose nature and working should be investigated and reduced to formulas so as to master and exploit. Rather the universe is seen as a common heritage, its diverse components as potential partners in the shared project of existence. There is, therefore, a feeling of mutual dependence among the different parts: human beings, the animal world, vegetation, the elements, the heavily bodies, the departed as well as the diffuse forces, visible and invisible, that circulate all around.

All these help us to put into perspective Archbishop Tutu’s African philosophy of ‘Ubuntu’ that guided his theological approach and understanding in fighting the Apartheid system and White Minority Racist Government in South Africa to a standstill. In one of his famous speeches, that is, at the height of the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, he said:

“If you think you can stop us from becoming free, you are going to be stampeded. … For unless we are free, no one in this country is going to be free.”

We see the same Ubuntu philosophy guiding him as the Chairman of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

“In a bold anthropomorphic vein, I can picture God surveying the awful wrecks that litter human history – how the earth is soaked with the blood of so many innocent people who have died brutally. God has seen two World Wars in this century alone plus the Holocaust, the genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda, [the pogroms against Biafrans in Nigeria], the awfulness in Sudan, Sierra Leone, the two Congos, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East, and the excesses that have characterized Latin America. It is a baneful catalog that records our capacity to wreak considerable harm on one another and our gross inhumanity to our fellow humans. I imagine God surveying it all, seeing how His children treat their sisters and brothers. God would weep as Jesus wept over the hard-hearted and unresponsive Jerusalem, where he had come to his own people and they would not receive him.” – (Desmond Tutu, “No Future Without Forgiveness”, p. 124.)

South African Black Theology in Historical Perspective  

The Nigerian theologian Justin Ukpong, has observed that South African liberation theology (commonly known as Black theology) is such a special case that it should perhaps be treated separately as a third theological perspective on African scene. But what Ukpong does not specify is the fact that this theological movement too is not homogenous. It has, as David Bosch says (himself a South African theologian) many “currents and crosscurrents.” Therefore, one should be very careful not to draw conclusions.

David Bosch identifies five currents in South African Black theology; firstly, he speaks of those who agree essentially with North American Black theology and opt for a more anthropological approach to the South African situation; secondly, those who are interested in African cultural identity and so develop a cultural approach. Between the two major currents are other three currents, which attempt to interpret in various ways the intimate connection between politics and culture in the South African context. – (Cf.  D.J. Bosch, “Currents and Crosscurrents in South African Black Theology”, in G.S. Wilmore & J.H. Cone (eds.), Black Theology: Documentary History, 1966-1979, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 1979, pp.223-229.)

 However, for our present article, I shall outline here only some of its common characteristics. The first characteristic to bear in mind is that South African Black theology emerged out of the context of the racist system, “apartheid.” In the words of John Parratt, South African Black theology “is essentially the theological response to the dehumanization of Blacks that resulted from the ideology of apartheid.”

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines apartheid as official government policy of racial segregation, separating Europeans from non-Europeans – as practiced in South Africa. David Bosch calls it separate development of races, established by a White minority of European settlers in South Africa, which reduced the majority Black population to non-persons and strangers in their ancestral land. Hence, Bosch says that South African Black theology is “pre-eminently a protest movement”.

However, it is not our purpose here to go into the philosophy and practice of apartheid, but some brief allusion to those circumstances is necessary if the South African Black theology is to make sense. (A useful source material on the philosophy and practice of apartheid may be found in the United Nations Centre against Apartheid, special issue, Publications List and Comprehensive Indexes 1967-1983 (October 1983).

While apartheid only became a formal doctrine in 1947, political life in South Africa had been moving in that direction for some long time before this date. From 1652, when Europeans began to settle in South Africa, to 1994, when the first multi-racial elections were held, the Blacks were systematically robbed of their fertile lands and its rich mineral wealth, and reduced to cheap labor. The system was enforced by acts of a White parliament. For instance, the 1983 referendum gave some political rights to Indians and Coloreds, but not to Africans, who constituted 80% of the population By these acts the Whites were able to secure a firm hold on the great wealth of South Africa, while the majority Black population languished in abject poverty.

Furthermore, these acts legally permitted the White constituted government to detain suspects or rather opponents of the system indefinitely without trial and without access to solicitors, courts, or even their families (Suppression of Terrorism Act, 1967). They also forbid political meetings (Riotous Assemblies Acts, 1974 amendment); and to silence the media, organizations, and individuals, the Internal Security Act of 1976 was enacted. Indeed, the opponents of the system suffered a lot of torture and humiliation. While many of them were imprisoned or “banned”, others had their passports refused or confiscated. Moreover, one of the most frequent methods of silencing or attempting to discredit opponents was to accuse them of association with the infamous Communist party, and accusations of this kind were made against Nelson Mandela, and also the South African Council of Churches in 1979.

The Pass laws were designed to restrict Black Africans to the 13% of the poorest land, under a veneer of political independence, which had little meaning as the areas were politically and economically unviable. Under these Pass laws -Black Africans were compelled to carry passes, which allowed them into White areas for limited periods. Furthermore, within those white areas – in which economy was concentrated – Blacks had no rights of residence or ownership; they were compelled – if they found work, to live in townships or in officially illegal shanty towns, which were, according to John Parratt – like Crossroads subject to government clearance. Wives and children of workers had no legal rights to join the family wage earner, and had to live in the restricted area or risk the husband and the father being charged with “illegally harboring” his family.

The segregation was very much found in the area of education. The education system provided separate and grossly unequal facilities for Blacks, and those who did gain qualifications could expect to earn significantly less than their white counterparts.

To crown it all, the White Afrikaner Churches, particularly the Dutch Reformed Churches, whose members benefited from the apartheid system, developed a theology to justify the subjugation of the Blacks to the White minority. They argued that racial segregation was the will of God, because God created different races. Thus, racial integration was against the will of God. Consequently, these Churches banned inter-racial marriages. In this context also, the supporters of the apartheid system maintained that God gave the White minority a special vocation to civilize and Christianize the other races in South Africa.

For many African theologians, this is one of the unhappy sides of the missionary expansion into Africa. A missionary endeavor that was too often characterized by a curious paradox in that, while preaching equality of all before God, it nonetheless tended to elevate White Christians into superior beings – thereby tainting Christianity with racism. In South Africa, this hardened into a political dogma, which found its religious mythology in the conception of the Voortrekers of themselves as the elect of God, set apart to possess the ‘Promised Land’ by dispossessing the Black Africans, and it had its ecclesiastical outworking in the separate racial units that constituted the Dutch Reformed Church.

This was the situation in which South African Black theology operated. This situation was made all the more poignant for Black Christians – in that this inhumanity to man was perpetrated by a ruling White minority that professed to be Christian upon a subjugated majority that is also embracing the Christian faith with full vigor.

However, the Blacks refused to accept apartheid and its systematic distortion of the Gospel, designed to condemn them to perpetual slavery on their own land, and so they reacted both politically and religiously. The political front actually, began when the South African National Conference was formed in 1909 to defend the rights of Blacks and to promote their cause. This movement became the African National Congress in 1912, and gave South Africa its first Black president in 1994, Nelson Mandela.

Perhaps, the biggest single factor in the development of South African Black theology was the emergence within South Africa itself of “Black Consciousness Movement”. The movement was foreshadowed in the work of the University Christian Movement in 1969, and found its eloquent spokesman in Steve Biko. Two years later, Biko founded the South African Students’ Organization. Its political arm was the Black People’s Convention. As a leading proponent of Black Consciousness, Biko explains that the philosophy of the movement was to defend the human dignity of the black race by combating the racist situation in South Africa. Biko was arrested and detained by the racist regime in August 1977 and died a month later, after being kept in custody naked and manacled and subjected to repeated beatings. He was thirty-one. His writings, together with a memoir by Aelred Stubbs, have been collected in I Write What I Like (London, 1978).

These movements within South Africa itself were also influenced by similar emphases elsewhere on the continent – Kwame Nkrumah’s African Personality, for example, and Senghor’s Négritude – as well as founding encouragement from gains attained by Blacks both in civil rights movement in America and in the various liberation movements elsewhere in Africa.

The Specific Path of South African Black Theology  

Although, South African Black theology may bear many features similar to South American theology of liberation, and in some cases with North American Black theology movement, South African Black theology has nothing to do with founders of those movements or their ideologies, and even less with Black Power as a political ideology.

For instance, exponents of South African Black theology do not see their theology as primarily racial affair. In other words, they are not saying (as some exponents of Black liberation theologies in the Americas seem close to saying) that God is on the side of the black people simply because they are black. Rather, “Black” to the South African theologians such as Archbishop Tutu, is less a racial designation than a socio-political symbol: it is primarily a synonym for oppression and exploitation (See B. Moore, “What is Black Theology?”, in: Black Theology, the South African Voice (Papers from various conferences held in South Africa, 1971), London, 1973, p.16).

Put in its historical perspective, South African Black theology is said to have emerged as a coherent theological force as a result of conferences held in 1971, the papers of which were published in book form in the following year. However, the book was immediately banned, but eventually reprinted in London in 1973, and edited by Basil Moore. Other shorter contributions to South African Black theology appeared in Pro Veritate, the Journal of the Christian Institute. This was in turn banned in 1977, in the repressions following the demonstrations that took place on Biko’s death. Prominent among the contemporary exponents of South African Black theology are – Desmond Tutu, Manas Buthelezi, and Allen Boesak.

The primary objective of South African Black theology is to refute the arguments of the racist theology which presented the White claim to racial superiority as the will of God. South African Black theologians affirm that the Blacks, like all races, are created in God’s image and therefore have the same dignity as all children of God, Whites included. The theologians also, identify the God of Jesus Christ as a God of Exodus and therefore a liberator, on the side of the oppressed. However, in the words of Archbishop Tutu, “the Whites in South Africa also need to be liberated, because they dehumanized themselves by oppressing the Blacks.” – (D. Tutu, “Black Theology/African Theology – Soul Mates or Antagonists?”, in G.S Wilmore & J.H. Cone (eds.), Black Theology, p.489.)

From the above context, Mokgethi Motlhabi, another South African theologian argues that South African Black theology is an effort to “relate God and the gamut of religious values to the Black man in his situation in South Africa”. Its concern is with Blacks in the totality of the dilemma of oppression of which racial prejudice against them is of paramount concern. But at the same time, the latter is found to be the root cause of other forms of dehumanization and oppression Blacks have continued to suffer at the hands of the whites. As such, it is emphatically a theology of Black liberation – the liberation of the whole experience – economic, social, political as well as religious.

But at the same time, South African Black theology has as its focus on the entire Christian community, the Blacks as well as the Whites. Its essential aim is to provide the guidelines for a Christian praxis by which all the Christians in South Africa can partake in the liberating activity of God in Christ. (Cf. B. Goba, “Doing Theology in South Africa: A Black Christian Perspective”, in: Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 31(1980), pp.22-35.)

This involves analyzing the social and political situation in which Blacks find themselves, in order to expose the contradictions within that society and deal with the racial conflicts inherent in it. In this way, the role of the theology is to bring about social change, and it is only insofar as members of the Church become involved in this process of change that its praxis is relevant.

In fact, for Bonganjalo Goba, such a process for change is intrinsic to the Christian Gospel. Religion is not a private matter, observes Goba, “but is a public praxis of the Christian faith, which seeks to transform the existing situation”. Therefore, the Church has the obligation to involve itself fully in transforming the political and social structures that oppress and dehumanize the Black population of South Africa. In this way, theology becomes a “Christian communal praxis”, a theology of Christian community wrestling with concrete problems as well as providing alternatives in the process of liberation. It is in this context that Christ may be described as “Black”; Christ liberates because he shares our common humanity and shows that “God, in his forsakenness, suffers with us as the one who is crucified”.

It must be emphasized that Goba’s analysis brings together a number of themes that are characteristic of South African Black theology. Its central concern is humankind itself, suffering under an oppressive and dehumanizing system, and an ideological rationalization that has reduced one race to the status of an animal. The theology grapples with the problems of liberation and the use and abuse of power and human intelligence. But the most positive aspect of it all is that South African Black theology has the Scripture as its base, since it seeks to relate the Gospel to the Black socio-political situation or rather racial oppression. Apart from Archbishop Tutu, these themes have received their most extended treatment in the writings of two leading South African Black theologians, namely, Manas Buthelezi and Allan Boesak. (See for example, B. Moore (ed.), Black Theology, the South African Voice (1973); A. BOESAK, Farewell to Innocence (1977); J. PARRATT, Reinventing Christianity: African Theology Today (1995).

However, given the collapse of apartheid and communism South African Black theology is becoming more and more affiliated with liberation theology in other parts of Africa. Authors of the theology, as we have seen in the thoughts of Archbishop Tutu, have started to draw inspiration also from African traditional and contemporary reality and wisdom. Moreover, they now focus more on the themes of justice, civil rights, reconciliation, integration, and acceptance of one another.

These are the strands of thoughts and understanding one finds in the South African Black theology, developed during the Apartheid era. And the one that came from it after the Fall of Apartheid. It is a kind of a ‘protest’ theology against racist ideology and Apartheid regime and system in South Africa. This is what distinguishes the South African Black theology from the other currents of African liberation theology developed in other part of Africa (including the African Women liberation theology.)


The model and exemplary life of late Archbishop Tutu reminds us how important religious and theological fronts are in any freedom fighting and agitation for liberation and self-determination, worth its name. The Archbishop’s life, work, and social activism in bringing about the Fall of Apartheid system and White Minority Racist Government in South Africa, is a challenge to many Church leaders today in different African countries whose people are still living under the bondage of tyrannical and dictatorial regimes, discrimination, marginalization, oppression, conflicts, and wars.

More significantly, Archbishop Tutu’s extraordinary commitment to reconciliation process in post-Apartheid South Africa, the ably way he chaired the post-Apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which President Mandela had assigned to him, remains a challenge to match. At the conclusion of that assignment, Nelson Mandela said of him in this regard: “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa has put the spotlight on all of us … In its hearings Desmond Tutu has conveyed our common pain and sorrow, our hope and confidence in the future.”

In his award-winning book, “No Future Without Forgiveness” (1999), Archbishop Tutu himself argues that true reconciliation cannot be achieved by denying the past. But neither is it easy to reconcile when a nation “looks the beast in the eye.” Going further, he writes:

“You are devastated by the fact that it could be possible at all for human beings to shoot and kill a fellow human being, burn his body on a pyre, and while this cremation is going on actually enjoy a barbecue on the side. What had happened to their humanity that they could do this … How was it possible for them to return from such an outing to their homes, embrace their wives, and enjoy, say, their child’s birthday party?” – (Desmond Tutu, “No Future Without Forgiveness”, Image, Doubleday Publishers, New York 1999, p. 130.)

Be it as it may, rather than repeat platitudes about forgiveness and pains of the past, Archbishop Tutu represents for us today, a man of bold spirituality that recognizes the horrors people can inflict upon one another, and yet retains a sense of idealism about reconciliation and Ubuntu. With a clarity of pitch born out of decades of experience, the Archbishop has demonstrated to us how to move forward with honesty, truthfulness, justice, equity, compassion, and love to build a newer and more humane society and world.

Francis Anekwe Oborji is a Roman Catholic Priest. He lives in Rome where he is a Professor of missiology (mission theology) in a Pontifical University. He runs a column on The Trent. He can be reached by email HERE.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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