Desmond Tutu and NepalTutu’s death has become an occasion of soul-searching in tackling the multiple whammies.
The death of the South African Anglican bishop, theologian and apostle of peace Desmond Tutu occurred on December 26, 2021 at the age of ninety. Floods of responses that Tutu’s death has invited tend to dramatise the activity and the psyche of the world that is mired in uncertainties, violence, political polarisations and mutual mistrust. Those who are engaged in all these activities and fighting for peace, however desperately that may be, appear to be equally shaken by this news.
Therefore, Tutu’s death has become an occasion of significant soul-searching for the world that is tackling the multiple whammies at a time like the pandemic, political rivalries, instability, attacks on press freedom, and ecological disasters. The world is shocked not because Tutu would have shown them the light that they will not get any more, but because they face a sudden challenge to review their activities and the profound results of their actions.
Nelson Mandela, who died in 2013, was a very important visionary, not least for the South Africans who have produced narratives more about this leader’s life than about the South Africa that he created and showed the path to be taken. It would be appropriate to recall that Ramchandra Guha of India wrote the hefty tome entitled India after Gandhi (2007) to fulfil the same need.
Desmond Tutu, whose life in itself is a subject of several studies, worked on a model of action known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) created by the South African government that came in 1995 and was supported by Nelson Mandela and other political leaders. The purpose was to bring both the perpetrators and the victims face to face and create a condition of telling the truth, however harrowing that might be where the perpetrators could ask for pardon from their victims.
Tutu understood what lay in those open confessional sessions that were not something organised in the style of the Nürnberg trials, after which the Nazis were prosecuted variously incommensurate with the degree of their brutal action in World War II. Desmond Tutu opened the hearing with him present there in a theatrical style. He understood that nothing short of a performative mode of action would make that effective.
For people like us related to theatre, the performative power of that session holds great significance. As a matter of coincidence, I was preparing a seminar class for the PhD students of the Far Western University of Nepal on the theatrical role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when the sad news of Desmond Tutu’s death was reported.
I was going to introduce a brilliant article written by Tanya Goodman entitled Performing a “new” nation: the role of the TRC in South Africa” for discussion. In this setting, Goodman describes, Desmond Tutu was “dressed in flowing red religious robes, many sessions began with a prayer and ended with a press conference.” That was very theatrical and performative. The testimony of one person named Malgas, who was sitting in his wheelchair, has become famous in the history of the Commission’s hearing. Moved by the suffering of Malgas, Desmond Tutu became so emotional that he openly wept, laying his head on the table. Everybody wept. Tutu saw in such confessional sessions an opportunity for the whites to correct their image and for the blacks their chance to show that they have the strength to put their case. Such hearings were held all over the country.
Desmond Tutu’s openness, sense of justice, resistance, non-violence, confessions and compassion generated the energy. In the words of Tanya Goodman, “Mandela’s charisma and expressed lack of bitterness combined with Tutu’s vision of the ‘rainbow nation’” created that condition. This process continued in similar settings from 1996 to 1998. Creating the theatrical mood and context required a great sense of opening and honesty. Tutu thought this would be possible in the rainbow nation.
But after the release of the final instalment of the TRC report on March 21, 2003, the action part dismayed Tutu. The question about truth and healing remained unanswered. Tutu saw that his appeal was falling on deaf ears. Tutu said it failed to fully attract the white community to participate in the TRC process.
Countries like Chile, Guatemala, Argentina, East Germany, Uganda, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Niger, and Togo held inquiries under this model. Nepal too jumped on the bandwagon. Nine years after signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the Maoists in 2006, Nepal passed the Truth and Reconciliation Act 2014 and formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on February 10, 2015. Nepali experts and political scientists also visited South Africa to learn the process in the early phase.
This statement of Desmond Tutu that “There is much truth that the nation still needs to know if our healing and reconciliation are to be lasting and effective” sounds more relevant today. If the countries understand Tutu’s warning that they are missing the historical opportunity given by the TRC and act that will be a great tribute to him.
In Nepal, the TRC is slowly becoming a metonymy of reiterative textual ritual. It seems we are losing the urgency and need to face the truth and work towards the resolution. The only way to regenerate the energy of that is to understand and follow the message of Desmond Tutu; it requires great courage and vision to be honest and open up the narratives of suffering and listen to them and follow up actions like confessions, forgiveness and punishment in the extreme cases.
Desmond Tutu’s power lies in the poetry of reconciliation, confession and forgiveness. For us at the university academic sessions and in theatre, Tutu’s message lies in the theatricality and the performative power of the hearing and sharing. The message of Desmond Tutu for Nepal and the stakeholders like those of South Africa and other countries is that the TRC has given a significant opportunity for them to grab and use before it becomes late for them. Truth, suggests Desmond Tutu, is a flexible, theatrical, poetic, political and malleable phenomenon that continues to speak. For these qualities of truth, it is difficult to ignore its message.