Desmond Tutu will be a panelist tonight at an African First Ladies forum that talks about the need for urgent change.
I first saw the diminutive activist, wearing his trademark purple robe and rolling his Rs, more than a quarter century ago, while I was a sophomore at Stanford University.
Fresh off of winning the Nobel Prize for his fearless interventions into township violence and ceaseless advocacy to stop the evils of the apartheid regime, he captivated the audience at Stanford Chapel.
More than a decade later, I felt like a young child as I approached him and asked to take a picture with him after having heard the first day of testimony in Natal Province for the Truth and Reconciliation.
It had been a memorable day.
We had listened to people tell harrowing stories of abuse during the apartheid era, evoking the chaos and confusion of township life during the state of emergency and telling about having had their testicles prodded with electric shocks.
Dr. Alex Boraine, the deputy chair, asked each person what he or she would like to heal their wounds.
The answers were often heartbreakingly simple.
I would like to know where my son’s remains are, said one mother.
I would like to know what my loved one did to cause them to kill him, said another.
Tutu spoke at the very end of the day, after the testimony of two sisters of a woman who had been killed in the Magoo bar bombing-an action spearheaded by Robert McBride, who held a minor governmental position.
As opposed to many of the other people who had come before them, these women came prepared with definitions and with a specific call for action-the removal of McBride from public office.
The substance and tone of their presentation triggered an extensive set of questions, some of which revealed a disturbing lack of neutrality on the part of some commissioners.
“Do you understand the reasons for the bomb?” one commissioner asked.
The sisters would have none of it.
Then Tutu spoke.
He had been largely silent throughout the day, nodding sympathetically at those who had spoken, overseeing the proceedings with a gentle hand.
He expressed his condolences to the women for the pain they had suffered and thanked them for the contribution to the country. But then he also said that where they were at that moment illustrated the wonder of those who had endured similar losses, yet had found it within themselves to forgive.
And, with that, he pronounced the day’s proceedings closed.
At the time, I remember thinking that I had just heard the one man in the country who could help make the healing vision of the commission, and thereby the country, real.
I now think differently for many reasons.
The Christian framework inherent in Tutu’s appeal does not way for all people. Many people criticized the commission for its lack of punitive teeth toward the perpetrators. More basically, I have come to realize the inaccuracy, and even danger, in vesting a single person with so much power.
But if I think differently now about the commission and Tutu’s role on it, I have retained admiration and respect for his unrelenting commitment to justice.
At this point, more than 15 years after apartheid was officially vanquished, he remains the single voice from that era with unquestioned moral authority and physical vigor.
Others like Chris Hani or Walter Sisulu are long since dead or murdered.
Nelson Mandela is increasingly frail and appears in public less and less frequently.
And Cyril Ramaphosa never completely fulfilled the promise he showed during the negotiations with the National Party that Allister Sparks so ably chronicled in Tomorrow Is Another Country.
This leaves Tutu.
He has not hesitated to turn his focus to the government when he feels it has not been living up to its creed.
Several months ago, for instance, he blasted it for not allowing the Dalai Lama to attend hs 80th birthday celebration-statements that prompted bewildered pleas from the government to stop.
Now Tutu is turning his prophetic voice to global warming.
Its our only home he said, in essence, during the opening of the United Nations Framework on Climate Conference, which like the TRC hearing I attended, is taking place in Durban.
Tonight, Tutu will be on a panel with Graca Machel amdneala, widow of Mozambican leader Samora Machel and Nelson Mandela’s third wife, and former U.S. Vice President and Noble Peace Prize winner Al Gore.
He’s rounder than he was when I first saw him, and his hair is gone, a casualty of age and cancer treatments.
But these changes only emphasize life’s fragility and heighten my anticipation at learning, perhaps for the last time in person, from the man affectionately known as “the Arch.”
UPDATE: None of the featured panelists showed up for the event. My appreciation of Tutu continues.