Remembering Desmond Tutu – and his impact on UK co-operators

‘A passionate believer in co-operation, Desmond urged co-ops to spearhead the fight to bring sanctions against the regime’

The Most Reverend Desmond Tutu, with Brian and Carole OosthuysenBy Co-operative News1 February 2022

This Christmas, the world lost a champion for anti-racism, South Africa lost their spiritual leader – and my father lost his oldest friend, writes Juliet Oosthuysen, brand director at Central England Co-op.

Desmond Tutu

In 1962 Brian Oosthuysen was a lonely South African expat studying at King’s College London, who sought out the only other South African on his course for company. Sitting next to Desmond Tutu in lectures, they made each other cry with laughter, both sharing the same strong sense of irreverence in overly formal situations. But they also had a profound effect on one another; both had left a country where this shared learning experience and companionship was forbidden. 

Desmond has written touchingly about the effect this white South African had on him. “That mundane, everyday occurrence of students sitting side by side was, in fact, of monumental significance. It was saying as eloquently as any massive tome that you were human too, despite all the machinations of the ungodly to impress on you that in fundamental ways you were inferior.”

For Dad, the friendship sharpened his determination to support the fight to destroy apartheid. He felt obliged, as a fellow human, but more, a person who had benefited from that ugly system, to stand shoulder by shoulder with his friend. Following graduation, they were separated geographically, and certainly in terms of public profile, but never ideologically; Desmond blazing a trail in South Africa as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming archbishop of Cape Town, and chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Dad remained in the UK, teaching religious studies at the comprehensive I attended and working as an anti-apartheid activist outside of his job. They met over the years – the photo is during a reunion at the alma mater of Kings’ College with my mum, Carole – and also attended Desmond’s 50th wedding anniversary in 2005 in the company of Nelson Mandela and African royalty. What a day it was.

But it was the more conversational moments in between that made the biggest impact on Dad – and consequently on my siblings and me – as we grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. A passionate believer in co-operation, Desmond urged for co-operatives to spearhead the fight to bring sanctions against the regime and back home, we supported our Co-op as it boycotted South African products. As Desmond said, “only harsh economic sanctions can force the white government to change its course and avert a catastrophe in this land”. It was a typically courageous, principled position.

Desmond was a warm, loyal friend to my father. Despite Dad now suffering from Alzheimer’s, he retains memories of these times and they have subsequently become even more precious. Through their friendship, Desmond also imbued my upbringing with a sense of fairness and a passion for the power of inclusive co-operation. For his kindness to Dad, and for this inspiration, I am profoundly grateful. Rest in power,

My passion for and interest in anti- apartheid began when Nelson Mandela was sent to Robben Island for life, writes Elaine Dean, vice-president of Central England Co-operative and chair of Co-op PressI was only young and found it hard to believe that someone could face the death penalty simply for protesting for a right to vote. I didn’t understand why someone who was black and in a majority in a country couldn’t vote or why they had to be kept separate in lesser facilities, housing, schools, jobs, transport – even beaches. Over the years I learned more about these amazing people who sacrificed freedom for the right to be treated equally. 

Desmond Tutu never sacrificed his freedom and I was always amazed when he wasn’t arrested and yet seemed to be promoted: as the first black African bishop of Johannesburg and then as the first black archbishop of Capetown.

Diminutive and passionate, outspoken and principled, he became a world figure in his purple cassock, often seen dancing to traditional African music and denouncing inequality and injustice. 

Imagine my excitement then, when in 2010 I received an invitation to a dinner with the archbishop emeritus who was in Oxford to give the 2010 Bynum Tudor Lecture at the Sheldonian Theatre for the University’s Kellogg College. I went to write it in my diary only to discover that I was actually going to be in South Africa on that date… 

On my visit I did go and see Cape Town Cathedral – and Tutu’s own house on Vilakazi Street in Soweto – but I was so sad not to meet the great man in person. 

Now all of the most frontline freedom fighters against apartheid have passed away. They must all be remembered for the huge sacrifices they made. 

I shall read again Desmond Tutu’s authorised biography, Rabble Rouser For Peace by John Allen and also the memoir with the best ever title – Number Two To Tutu written by his Cape Town deputy Michael Nuttall – and I will smile and remember this wonderful man. Rest in peace, Desmond Tutu, you will always have your place in history for your brave fight against the evils of apartheid.

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