Desmond Tutu (1986)
In which the author takes a photograph
Here’s the photograph.
Archbishop Tutu spoke to the Ontario Legislature (which he stands in front of in the photograph) on May 30, 1986. Here’s how the CBC reported it. The internet tells me that May 30, 1986 was a Friday. I believe this photo was taken the next day. There was a large march that ended at the legislative building, Queen’s Park. I skipped the march and went straight to the gathering place to get as close to the stage as I could.
I was 17, turning 18, in 1986 and in grade 11. My English teacher that year began each class with a word of the day. One day, the word was “apartheid.” It was new to me. It shocked me. The systematic nature of it. The deliberateness of it. Not long afterward, Tutu came to town, and I knew I had to be there. I will never forget it.
Of course, we know now that apartheid ended not many years later. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in February 1990. In 1986, it didn’t seem imminent. But in the fall of 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and a new era seemed to dawn. I was 21. What a future we were going to have!
I was thinking about this moment again last summer, following the earth shaking events following the murder of George Floyd. I was taking an online poetry writing workshop, and I tried to link these thoughts, these images, Tutu, Mandela, Floyd. “Things are going to change,” people were saying last summer. “People are paying attention now.” Meaning White people. Meaning finally paying attention.
In 1986, Tutu said we are together, all of us, and love was the answer. It felt good. It felt that Toronto had the answer, we were doing it, we were living it. But of course we weren’t. When I look at that photograph of Tutu now, I wonder who the Indigenous man is on his right. I know now that South Africa learned from Canada’s Indian Act how to design apartheid.
Some scholars say officials with Canada's Indian Affairs Department met with their counterparts in South Africa in the 1940s to discuss elements of the Indian Act that were eventually incorporated into apartheid, including a policy that required black South Africans to obtain a pass to leave their town or village. — Globe and Mail, December 11, 2013
The Indian Act is still in place, though the pass system is long gone, and Canada had its own awakening of awareness last year, following the discovery of dozens, hundreds, of unmarked graves at numerous former residential school sites. This news, though, didn’t surprise me. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report (2015) had predicted it.
It’s easy to get down. It’s easy to think nothing will ever change, or that things always get worse. Tutu gave me such a shot of optimism, though, in 1986, that to this day it hasn’t worn off. I remember seeing him on television in tears as he listened to stories as part of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He had a capacity to absorb pain and turn it into hope that can’t be anything but inspiring.
But he also expected real change. And justice.
I have this photograph hanging on the wall in my office. It reminds me of many things, and it challenges me to stay open-hearted and open-minded. And to walk the path Tutu illuminated.
I’m remembering now that I included in my poem a recollection about how my Irish-English grandfather visited South Africa in the 1980s. About that visit, he said that he thought things were “okay for the Blacks.” I could say that it was his generation, but no, it was him. He wasn’t paying attention. That memory makes me sad.