They say that hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue. And the hypocrisy from world leaders has come thick and fast on the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was, along with African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, the most recognisable figure of the South African anti-apartheid struggle.
Former US President Barack Obama described Tutu as “a mentor, a friend and a moral compass for me and so many others”. Obama obviously ignored Tutu’s moral compass when it came to the Archbishop’s opposition to the US’s evil policies in the Middle East, and his denunciation of the US-led War on Terror and the barbarity carried out in the Guantanamo Bay prison.
The Queen of England said that she was “deeply saddened” by Tutu’s death, calling him “a man who tirelessly championed human rights in South Africa and across the world”. This is from the woman who awarded prizes to British companies investing in and exporting to South Africa, insulating it from international criticism for many years. As the commander in chief of the British armed forces, she shares responsibility with former PM Tony Blair for Britain’s involvement in the wars in the Middle East and their share of the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq that Tutu so passionately condemned.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson described Tutu as “a critical figure in the fight against apartheid and in the struggle to create a new South Africa”. This from a politician who wrote a Daily Telegraph column in 2002 referring to Africans as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and whose Conservative Party condemned Mandela as a terrorist in the 1980s, and whose leader Margaret Thatcher backed apartheid South Africa until the last moment.
Scott Morrison joined the parade of those spouting hypocritical cant, applauding Tutu’s belief in “human dignity and the power of freedom”. Morrison’s belief in human dignity and freedom will be news to the Murugappan family of Priya, Nades and their two children or the hundreds of other asylum seekers still denied their liberty by his government.
John Steenhuisen, leader of South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance, praised Tutu’s efforts “to build a united, successful, non-racial South Africa for all”. That’s pretty rich given that the Alliance’s forerunner, the National Party, governed apartheid South Africa for 40 years and was prevented from jailing Tutu only by its fear of an international backlash.
Politicians and government leaders the world over praise Tutu for his strategy of bringing a peaceful transition to multiracial democracy, while putting to one side the bleak reality that this transition has produced only modest benefits for the majority of Black South Africans. In some cases, they refer to Tutu’s advocacy for the rights of LGBTIQ South Africans and for those suffering from HIV/AIDS, while passing over the fact that Western pharmaceutical companies did their best to block access to antiretroviral drugs for years.
Without exception, these leaders refuse to comment about one of Tutu’s great passions in the 1990s and 2000s—the fight for a free Palestine. As the victim of apartheid, Tutu recognised at once the reality of apartheid Israel. In 2007, he was appointed to lead a UN fact-finding mission into the Israeli attack on the Beit Hanoun district of the Gaza Strip, which resulted in the deaths of 19 Palestinians, including seven children. Barred by Israel from setting foot in the besieged territory, Tutu managed to enter from Egypt, allowing him to talk to survivors of and witnesses to the attack. The following year, Tutu produced a report for the Human Rights Council in which he decried the siege as “abominable” and “a gross violation of human rights”.
“I have witnessed the systemic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces”, he wrote. “Their humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government.”
Tutu’s willingness to describe Israel as an “apartheid state” was a milestone in the campaign for Palestinian freedom because his unimpeachable credentials gave the description great moral authority. He recognised that this fight was up against a vicious adversary, telling Palestinian activists: “Your struggle will be harder than ours, as Israel’s apartheid is even worse than South Africa’s. We never had F16s bomb our bantustans killing hundreds of our children ... Remember that.”
But it was not just words. Tutu believed that the tactics adopted to bring the apartheid regime in South Africa to its knees applied to Israel as well. In 2014, he declared his support for the international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign:
“In South Africa, we could not have achieved our democracy without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the apartheid regime.”
Anti-apartheid campaigners had condemned Western companies that, under a rhetorical veil of “neutrality”, continued business as usual with the South African regime in the 1970s and 1980s. Tutu argued that the same standards, and condemnations, should apply in the case of Israel:
“Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of ‘normalcy’ in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice. They are contributing to the perpetuation of a profoundly unjust status quo.”
The politicians who applaud Tutu for standing up for the rights of oppressed Black Africans decades ago by and large support the oppression of Palestinians. Israel today, like South Africa yesterday, plays a vital role for Western imperialism. Like South Africa in the 1970s, Western politicians regard Israel as a bulwark for Western interests in a strategically important region.
Apartheid South Africa and Israel were close partners, South Africa being Israel’s biggest market for weapons, including nuclear warheads. In 1976, South African Prime Minister John Vorster, who had been interned during the Second World War as a Nazi sympathiser, was welcomed to Jerusalem by Israel’s leaders.
It was only when the apartheid regime in South Africa was made virtually ungovernable by mass protest and strikes that the West moved against it and encouraged negotiations for a political transition. Israel was the only country to hold out, continuing to trade with the apartheid regime until the very end.
Unfortunately, the Palestinian struggle is not at the same height as the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s. And Israel, as Tutu pointed out, is much more determined to continue its regime of oppression and segregation. So there is little pressure on Western governments to extend their sympathies to Palestinians today like they belatedly did to Black South Africans.
In fact, Israel’s supporters reach for the very same terms to smear their opponents as the defenders of apartheid South Africa did: “racists”, “terrorists”, “extremists”. French President Emmanuel Macron sheds a tear for Tutu, who “dedicated his life to human rights and equality between peoples”, while at the same time condemning the fight for a free Palestine as racist and going so far as to have the Interior Ministry ban Palestine solidarity demonstrations this year.
Desmond Tutu’s life was one of struggle against injustice. Those politicians who line up to laud him today are not fit to wipe his feet.