Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Image: Benny Gool

The late archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu leaves behind a legacy of speaking truth to power.

That is according to veteran journalist Mathatha Tsedu. 

“The archbishop represented what I would call the highest form of bravery and ethical behaviour. He was also fearless to not pull back but speak out,” he said.

Desmond Mpilo Tutu, who passed away on Boxing Day – 26 December 2021 was a South African Anglican bishop and theologian, known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist. 

He was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent stance against South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime in 1984. Tutu was saluted by the Nobel Committee for his clear views as he spoke  “truth to power” in the face of great danger when the regime punished voices preaching freedom and equality.  

“One of the legacies that he leaves is that you have to stand up to power. And for us, as journalists, it means besides cultivating those voices and amplifying those voices that are calling out or calling us out as a nation around issues where we are really losing it,” said Tsedu.

During Apartheid the media at times was used to spread regime propaganda and what was known as the alternative press lead the way in representing anti-apartheid voices. 

On 19 October 1977, the National Party government banned The World and Weekend World newspapers as well as nineteen black consciousness organisations along with detaining scores of journalists, including The World Editor Percy Qoboza.

Under Tutu’s leadership as secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) one of the most important alternative media publications The New Nation began its ground-breaking work. The church also provided a constant voice in support of journalists, explained former Cape Times editor Ryland Fisher. 

“When we got into trouble, we knew that we were going to be able to get legal assistance that would be funded by the of because the Catholic Bishops Conference and he, as an individual, valued the value that journalists bring to the struggle that was ongoing and how important it was for voices to continue to be aired at all times,” said Fisher. 

Encouraging diverse voices 

“Tutu encouraged others to use their own stories to enrich the space that we worked in because, without the voices of people, we are nothing,” said Tsedu.

“His commitment to having his voice out there, made our own work quite easy, even if it was dangerous and we could be detained or banned.” 

Fisher recalls the mainstream media’s coverage of Tutu’s campaign in support of sanctions against apartheid South Africa which they condemned. 

“The way they were being reported on in the mainstream media was often from a western kind of perspective and a perspective in support of ‘business’ and the ‘economy’,” he said.

“Archbishop Tutu himself said in one of his statements, speaking about Palestine, that if you mute, you’re neutral in the face of injustice. You are actually choosing the side of the injustice and the perpetrators of injustice. The mainstream were always trying to be neutral,” he added.

Journalists face oppression once more 

Speaking on the external threats and attacks on media freedom such as legislation, intimidation, harassment and surveillance, Tsedu said there’s a chance for the media to cultivate voices that can not only speak out on injustice but defend the media as a tool that can amplify voices.

“For us, as the media, it’s important to cultivate relationships with the voices that represent morality and ethics. Voices that you can always rely on to speak up when there is a need for that to be done on behalf of a beleaguered industry like media and journalism.”