Martin Luther King disciple who fell from grace

"Allan Boesak played an invaluable role in the struggle against apartheid before 1990, which makes the present allegations against him all the more tragic," said Charles Villa Vicencio, a former trustee of Mr Boesak's Peace and Justice Foundation , who still considers himself a friend.

If some saw the latest scandal to engulf South Africa's ambassador-designate to the United Nations in Geneva as a tragedy, Mr Boesak was describing it yesterday as a farce. Claiming he had been given no opportunity to defend himself in a meeting with Scandinavian donors investigating the disappearance of more than £500,000 given to his foundation, he was refusing to make it easy for President Nelson Mandela, who has to decide whether or not to go ahead with his appointment.

"I speak with anger in my heart today; I speak with a lot of hurt," said Mr Boesak. "I have spent most of my life fighting for the liberation of the people. I have found that the justice I have fought for is not for me." The preacherly cadences which have led to his being described as South Africa's finest orator can still be heard, but the lavishness of Mr Boesak's rhetoric simply heightens the disappointment of his followers and the contempt of his opponents when his sins catch up with him.

His rhetorical gifts made him leader of the Coloured (mixed-race) branch of the Dutch Reformed Church, then head of the World Council of Reformed Churches, having persuaded that body to declare apartheid a heresy and to expel the white branch of his church. In 1983 Mr Boesak co-founded the United Democratic Front, which prepared the way for the new South Africa. Like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, his only oratorical rival, he was protected from persecution by the cloth.

Mr Boesak modelled himself on Martin Luther King but that extended to his hero's sexual lapses as well. Previous liaisons were suppressed but in 1990 he was discovered to be having an affair with Elna Botha, a white television producer who was the niece of a former cabinet minister. His marriage broke up and he was forced to resign all church posts.

The unfrocked preacher recovered some ground by marrying Ms Botha and putting his pulpit powers at the service of the newly legalised African National Congress. But last year Mr Mandela had to intervene to put Mr Boesak at the head of the ANC ticket in the Western Cape, the only region won by the Nationalists, the former ruling party of apartheid. He was replaced as the local ANC leader after the election and the Geneva posting was intended to save face.

Now he stands accused of more than mere lasciviousness. Apart from the Scandinavians, his former ally, Archbishop Tutu, has called in the police to investigate the disappearance of money donated by the American singer Paul Simon to a children's fund administered by Mr Boesak's foundation. "There's no way Allan can make a comeback from this," a friend said yesterday. "He's finished."

But the ANC has many prodigal sons; Mr Mandela remains notoriously lenient towards those close to him and it is not impossible that Mr Boesak will be forgiven one more time. A senior official recently admitted in private that the ANC had known there wereproblems all along but had not wanted to weaken the front against apartheid.

Now that the fight has been won, Mr Boesak appears little more than an embarrassment. Martin Luther King was murdered before scandal could outweigh his achievements, but his disciple may not escape that fate.

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