Tutu – The Authorised Portrait

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Irish musician and activist, Bono, is expected to attend the launch of a coffee-table book, Tutu – The Authorised Portrait, in Cape Town on Thursday. In the book’s foreword, Bono describes Desmond Tutu as the “real rock star” and “role model like no other”.

Tutu’s youngest daughter, Mpho, and veteran journalist Allister Sparks have co-authored the glossy biography. Desmond Tutu celerates his 80th birthday on Friday.

Sparks, who is the former editor of the old Rand Daily Mail and correspondent for major publications such as the Washington Post and the Economist, says: “He is a globally important humanitarian, because he believes in all humanity. There’s no other in his world. They are all a family. All humans are precious, to him and to touch anyone of them in his book is sacrilegious, to maltreat anyone, regardless of race, faith, where they are, who they are, what they look like.”

Mpho Tutu – an Episcopal priest and founder of the Tutu Institute for Prayer and Pilgrimage. She conducted over 40 interviews with her father’s family, friends, colleagues and critics for the biography. “I think I’d call him a ball of energy…Bob Geldof calls him ‘the smallest giant’ he knows. He’s almost a compelling force of nature.”

Sparks says: “It really is a fine record of his life. Of the people he knew, the people he touched. And I’m very, very proud-to have been part of it. The last I saw of what I’d done was just banged out on a computer and away it went. And this thing comes back like magic.”

“What you see is what you get”

Mpho adds: “The publishers in New Zealand are so meticulous. After the 973rd time that I had proofread the same thing and looked at the layout – should this picture go here? No, it should be slightly to the left, I almost had stopped believing there was ever going to be a finished product, but I am so proud. It’s such a beautiful book.”
One of Sparks’ main challenges was to find something new to say about the widely-publicized Desmond Tutu. “I was fascinated by the fact that he described the Dalai Lama as the holiest man he knew. Well, now the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist and this is a Christian. And when I began questioning him about this he came up with some startling things, like ‘Of course, God is not a Christian’, which coming from a prince of the church makes you sit up and take notice. He says Christianity is relatively new on the block. This man believes that all faiths are valid. What faith you belong to is an accident of birth and geography. I came up with a not-very-adequate description of him as an all-faith ecumenicist. And this is what I think lends him global importance.” On the other hand, Mpho says her knowledge and understanding of her father has been widely reinforced. “What seemed to me to get underlined in the conversations was an incredibly prayerful person. Someone who loves and is devoted to my mother and really needs her. And then this sense of him as being, I think it is a mindfulness. He notices the people who tend not to get noticed.”

Mpho and Sparks

Mpho and Sparks both say there is little difference between Desmond Tutu in public and in private.
“On the whole, what you see is what you get. The public face is bubbly extrovert and requires silence. The space of his greatest privacy is in his quiet and prayer,” says Mpho. Sparks says: “He acts on inspiration. He’s given to many moods. He can be laughing one minute and weeping the next. He’s a very kaleidoscopic, quicksilver personality. He can be angry. He lost his temper with PW Botha at one point and started wagging his finger in his face. And I think Botha was a bit taken aback. I think what you see is what you get.” Mpho says Tutu – The Authorised Portrait is a “mosaic” of her father. The chipped tiles reflect small encounters, interactions and perspectives, including those of at least five fellow Nobel Peace Laureates.
Nelson Mandela says he never disagreed with Desmond Tutu in public. Barack Obama calls Tutu the “cantor of our conscience”. The Dalai Lama says Tutu’s “sharp and piercing eyes reflect his realistic assessment and astute judgement whatever the situation”. And Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese opposition politician, says she may be Desmond Tutu’s pin-up girl, but he’s her hero.

– By Angie Kapelianis interviews co-authors of the biography