Tutu laughs all the way to retirement

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Nelson Mandela and the Archbishop of Canterbury joined a host of praise- singers at an emotional ceremony yesterday to mark the retirement of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, after 10 momentous years as the head of South Africa's Anglican Church.

"He speaks his mind on matters of public morality," President Mandela told a packed audience at St George's Cathedral in Cape Town. "As a result he annoyed many of the leaders of the apartheid system. Nor has he spared those that followed him."

Archbishop Tutu, whose reflex is always to see the funny side of things, would have allowed himself a private chuckle at that. For it was Mr Mandela himself whom the Archbishop annoyed, barely five months after South Africa's first democratic elections, when he famously declared that the new government had "stopped the gravy train only long enough to get on it".

Mr Mandela responded, calling the Archbishop an irresponsible populist. The battle of the saints took on new heat when the Archbishop shot back, saying the President, whom he acknowledges to be the man he most admires on earth, was behaving "beneath his stature".

I spoke to Archbishop Tutu at his Cape Town residence a couple of days after the spat. Lying back in an armchair, shoes off, purple-socked feet resting on a velvet stool, he chortled when I asked him whether he and the President had made up. "I called him, and he called me back later, and I said, 'Why are you attacking me, man?' And you know what? He laughed, man. He laughed!"

At the recollection of which the Archbishop himself laughed so hard he almost fell off his chair. Our interview lasted an hour. When I listened to the tape recording the next day I counted him laughing 30 times - not the sort of behaviour you would necessarily expect of a man who has won the Nobel peace prize for his central role in one of the 20th century's greatest dramas, the end of apartheid.

But the Archbishop, a deeply spiritual man who spends hours of his day in prayer, has too impish a sense of his own ant-like irrelevance in the broader scheme of things to allow himself the indulgence of pompous self- absorption. On the other hand, he never stinted in using the authority of his terrestrial office to condemn injustice. At critical moments in the early part of the decade, when it seemed the negotiated revolution would drown in the conflict that Inkatha and the apartheid security apparatus were inflicting on the townships, he intervened to cool passions.

After spear-wielding Inkatha warriors massacred 42 innocents in Boipatong in June 1992, Mr Mandela broke off talks with the government of FW de Klerk. At the mass funeral Archbishop Tutu savaged the government - but also, with finely calculated oratorical daring, he made the crowd laugh, reminding them with jibes at the absurdity of legally enforced racial discrimination of the basic principles they all shared. "What if people were denied the right to vote not because of the colour of their skins but because they had big noses?"

Later, when the time came to celebrate, no one captured the mood better than Archbishop Tutu. Election Day, 27 April 1994, had been "like falling in love", he said. Introducing Mr Mandela to a huge Cape Town crowd on the day he was officially sworn in as president, the archbishop cried out: "We of many cultures, languages and races are become one nation. We are the Rainbow People of God ... One man inspires us all, one man inspired the whole world. I ask you: welcome our brand new state president, out of the box, Nelson Mandela!"