After Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, Archbishop Desmond Tutu became one of his informal political and personal counsellors, who supported, admonished or otherwise expressed strong opinions on matters both national and domestic, both great and small: when to suspend the armed struggle and sanctions against apartheid; the government’s decision not to close down the apartheid armaments industry, and high salaries for cabinet ministers; even what to wear at funerals.
He also ministered to both Madiba and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela over the breakup of their marriage – Madiba was “a broken man” and “a lonely figure” after their divorce, he later said.
He was thrilled when Madiba found happiness with Graça Machel and publicly put pressure on them to marry.
When they did so, on Madiba’s birthday, “the Arch” was one of a handful of witnesses to their wedding, which was conducted by Mvume Dandala, the Methodist Church’s presiding bishop at the time.
Some of Tutu’s disagreements with Madiba were amusing rather than serious: when the archbishop said the president ought to wear a jacket and tie at funerals instead of the loose, colourful Italian-made shirts he loved, Madiba reportedly retorted that the remarks were rich, coming from a man who wore dresses.
But they clashed more fiercely, and memorably, over the arms trade and the high salaries awarded to ministers in the first Mandela cabinet, with Tutu criticising the government publicly and the president giving as good as he got, accusing the archbishop of being a populist playing to the gallery.
My own experience of Madiba at odds with the Anglican Church came during a stormy two weeks early in 1998.
I was still in Sophiatown when Bishop Duncan Buchanan asked me to join Bishop David Nkwe of the Diocese of Matlosane, in North West province, and about nine other clergy for lunch at the presidential residence in Pretoria. A few weeks earlier, on the eve of the president’s annual address to the opening of parliament, the Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane had criticised the government for a number of failings, including neglect of the poor.
Referring to the president’s reputation for bringing about change, he had told a Cape Town newspaper: “Madiba magic won’t be solving our problems.”
We prayed with Madiba, had a lovely meal, and then he tore into our archbishop.
My impression was that because Njongo had been imprisoned on Robben Island as a young man in the 1960s, not for the ANC but for its rival, the Pan-Africanist Congress, Madiba suspected him of party political motives.
What shocked us most was that the president went behind Njongo’s back. It was as if he wanted to set the record straight about this archbishop of ours, and now that he was in power he was behaving like PW Botha, the notorious apartheid president of the 1980s, metaphorically wagging his finger at us and telling us: “Ostracise your Archbishop.”
Duncan was furious and wrote to Madiba afterwards that “we all came away with a clear sense that you were trying to isolate us from our Archbishop, and equally that in spite of what you said to the contrary, you and your government are in fact extremely sensitive to criticism”.
Madiba had said he would be having further meetings with religious leaders, so Duncan, in another letter, wrote warning them that the president would “attack Njongo very forcibly without any chance for discussion or reply . . . What came through from the President was that: you are bigger than the Archbishop – keep him in order.”
Archbishop Njongo followed up by asking for a meeting with the president to clear the air. I did not attend but for an insight into Madiba’s thinking, the notes he made for the meeting in his diary, which is now in the archives of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, are instructive.
Defending the government’s record, he cited its achievements, praised the role of past bishops, accused Archbishop Njongo of identifying with the opposition in parliament and underlined his own allegiance to institutions of faith: “My generation are the products of religious institutions,” Madiba wrote:
“Religion is in our blood.”
Two months later, along with Archbishop Njongonkulu and about 3000 others, I again experienced the feisty side of Madiba’s nature. We were holding a memorial service for Trevor Huddleston in St Mary’s Cathedral in May 1998, shortly after he had died in Britain.
Speaking as head of state, the president had delivered a eulogy in which he said that in Huddleston “we see exemplified in the most concrete way the contribution that religion has made to our liberation”.
Then, at the end of the service, the congregation sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.
But we didn’t sing the words of our newly adopted national anthem, with its Afrikaans verse incorporated from the previous national anthem and its new concluding verse in English. Instead we sang the hymn in isiXhosa, Sesotho and isiZulu, as originally composed and developed in the early 20th century as the national anthem of black South Africans.
Madiba, in his drive for reconciliation between black and white, wasn’t having any of it. Dismayed, he reprimanded us and made us sing it again, this time using the new, official anthem.
Despite these experiences, there was no question over how I would respond to Mrs Machel’s request in 2009 to pray with them in Cape Town.
Apart from my involvement in the Release Mandela Campaign, I remember my father fondly speaking of Madiba in the late 1960s and early 1970s, seeing him as a younger brother. Dad had prayed, in vain during his lifetime, for Madiba to be released from prison.
I remember as a student yearning really to get to know him. I had bought Fatima Meer’s biography of him, Higher than Hope, and found it useful, but it didn’t quench my thirst to know more. So of course I agreed to go around there with my wife, Lungi.
Thus began a deeply enriching experience in our lives, which lasted until Madiba’s death, in which either I on my own, or both Lungi and I would sporadically visit either Madiba, or Me Graça, as I called her, or both of them together, to pray and talk.
Between the visits, which most often happened when Madiba went through health crises, we exchanged a steady stream of text messages in which I tried to keep ministering to them even if I was travelling – a sort of “ministry by SMS”.
There are pastoral confidences around some of the visits, especially the text messages, which I cannot disclose but I can share a number of the interactions that inspired me.
Thabo Makgoba is the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town. He is chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, an outspoken spiritual leader, activist and driver of civil society protests against corruption, abuse of power and inequalities. Faith and Courage – Praying with Mandela (Tafelberg) goes on sale at good bookstores on Monday