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Archbishop Desmond Tutu salutes ‘magician’ Nelson Mandela who healed the nation

South Africa’s Anglican leader fondly remembers his good friend

Nelson Mandela spent his first night of freedom at the home of Desmond Tutu. He had not wanted to stay at Bishopscourt, he recalled later, because the affluent suburb was “not an area where I would have been permitted to leave before I went to prison. I thought it would have sent the wrong signal to spend my first night in a posh white area.”

But by 1990, things had changed in the 27 years that Mr Mandela had spent incarcerated at Robben Island. Bishopscourt was still posh, but it also had non-white residents, at the insistence of the first black archbishop of the Anglican Church in South Africa and Nobel Prize winner who had earned great respect for his implacable, non-violent campaign against apartheid.

Last night, Archbishop Tutu presided over a remembrance ceremony for his house guest that night 23 year ago which was anything but maudlin with jokes and waves of laughter.

Steadfast supporters in the fight against apartheid, including the singer Peter Gabriel and Mary Robinson, the former Irish President were resoundingly cheered.

Madiba, said the Archbishop, was “a magician who had turned South Africa, a poisonous caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly”.

He described the brutality Mr Mandela had endured in prison leaving him with damaged lungs and eyesight. “But he came out of prison to set us free from hatred and racism. The world expected a bloodbath and atrocities, what we now have, instead, is this wonderful multicultural rainbow.”

There was a slight pause in the reaction of the audience when the Archbishop declared that Winnie Mandela too should be praised for the support she had given her former husband during the long years of struggle, and this was followed by generous applause.

The Archbishop claimed that he had forced Mr Mandela “to make an honest woman” of his last wife Graça Machel. “I told him you are setting a bad example. You should not be shacked up, marry her.”

If Mr Mandela was the leading political force in the campaign for emancipation, Desmond Tutu provided the moral compass, passionately declaring that segregation and discrimination were against God’s will, helping to galvanise swathes of religious opinion across the world against the racist regime.

Mr Mandela had stressed how much he valued the Archbishop’s friendship describing him as “sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour.”  The feeling was reciprocated, but the cleric was not uncritical, speaking out stridently over the years against senior figures in the African National Congress, some of them close allies of Mr Mandela, also affectionately known by his tribal name Madiba.

Mr Mandela himself must not be adored on a pedestal, the cleric stressed: “One has to be careful that we don’t hagiographic. Because one of the wonderful things about him is that he is so human. He is aware of that, in a way, there are feet of clay.”

He said Mr Mandela was not without failings: “his chief weakness was his steadfast loyalty to his organization and to his colleagues. He retained in his cabinet underperforming, frankly incompetent ministers who should have been dismissed. This tolerance of mediocrity arguably laid the seeds for greater levels of mediocrity and corruptibility that were to come.”

It was a measure of the esteem that Mr Mandela nevertheless held the Archbishop in that he asked him to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to investigate crimes committed at the time of apartheid. The decision to allow amnesty for perpetrators, mainly agents of the white government, some of whom had carried out the most vicious offences, drew criticism, but the TRC became a model for post-conflict scenarios around the world.

The Archbishop pointed out that it was the example of Mr Mandela’s magnanimity which helped shape his own actions: “He lived out the understanding that an enemy is a friend waiting to be made, and so could have his white former jailer attend his Presidential inauguration as a VIP guest; and have Dr Percy Yutar, who was the prosecutor in the Rivonia trial when he was sentenced to life imprisonment, the Dr Yutar who had wanted the death sentence, come to lunch with him at the Presidency; and could visit the widow of Dr Verwoerd, the high priest and architect of apartheid, for tea. The former terrorist could have those who used to think of him as Public Enemy No 1 eating out of his hand.”

Mr Mandela’s successors in the ANC had faced withering attacks by the Archbishop who charged that they “stopped the gravy train just long enough to get on themselves”. He had opposed Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s current president, who had been accused of sexual crimes and corruption, because of his “moral failings”. His criticisms of the government have ranged from accusing it of failing to help the poorer sections of the community, to failing to provide enough protection for migrant workers suffering from xenophobia.

The Archbishop has renewed his criticism of the ANC this year, especially over what he claimed were his efforts to silence critics, a betrayal of the ideals of the anti-apartheid movement: “If we have indeed become a nation that fears the consequences of not kowtowing to the government, we have clearly taken a wrong turn”, said the man who accompanied Nelson Mandela on some of the most difficult periods of the long walk to freedom