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Why people should now strive to be like Tutu

There was widespread relief, and not just in Desmond Tutu's household, when the former Archbishop was assured he was welcome at Nelson Mandela's funeral.

The Cinderella of the ball, who claimed to be "heartbroken" at not having been invited to yesterday's event, he was also without doubt the most important person present beside his dead friend.

Some believe he is as influential as Mandela for his country's fortunes but it may just prove, when history is written, that he has been even more so. When initially it appeared Tutu had been snubbed over the funeral, one could understand why. The ANC government was quick to rebut the idea it had cynically blackballed him, but in his long and fearless career, 82-year-old Tutu has been a thorn in the side of the party for which, earlier this year, he said he could no longer vote.

This was no great surprise, given that in 2004 he lambasted the government for its refusal to tackle the degrading poverty in which millions of South African lived and was, he believed, creating "a tinder keg" that could explode any moment.

He pointedly asked: "What is black empowerment when it seems to benefit not the vast majority but an elite that tends to be recycled?" He also criticised "unthinking, uncritical, kowtowing party line-toing". No wonder the government eyes him warily.

In this he was unlike Mandela, who was more conciliatory, less abrasive. On Mandela's death, his long-time friend said Madiba's only flaw was to be too loyal to his colleagues. The implication was clear: Mandela did not condemn the behaviour of some of his ANC brethren, and others, when by rights he ought.

As we saw last week, when Tutu chastised the crowd who had booed President Jacob Zuma at Mandela's memorial service, he has no qualms about speaking out. Over the years, indeed, it has increasingly seemed it is Tutu who is the unshakeable moral heart of South Africa, standing even taller than Mandela himself.

Coming to prominence as the first black Anglican Dean of Johannesburg in 1975, he became a firebrand, an articulate, tireless opposer of apartheid. He began to speak out at a time when, as he later said, "the nation's leaders were either in chains or in exile".

The man who coined the phrase Rainbow Nation continued to challenge the system when he became the first black Archbishop of Cape Town. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 marked a critical turning point for South Africa, placing its struggle prominently on the international stage, where public awareness and disgust fast spread and eventually brought about the end of apartheid.

It was Tutu's vociferous outrage that struck the death knell for the regime and paved the way for Mandela's release. Tutu recalls that when, in 1994, he presented the new president to the people of South Africa at his inauguration, he whispered to God: "If I die now, it would be almost the perfect moment."

As became all too evident, though, it was too soon for him to shuffle off. South Africa then, and now, still needs him. But fierce as he has been as a political foghorn, you could not meet a more gentle or humorous man.

When I interviewed him a few years ago, this charismatic, steely and surprisingly diminutive South African began our conversation by saying a prayer. It was short, but not that short. It was clear I was dealing not with an international superstar but a man of God whose role as a pastor is his raison d'etre.

With Mandela buried, and South Africa at the mercy of volatile political leaders and an increasingly frustrated populace, the future looks uneasy. It was telling that on the day Mandela was released, everyone was so busy rejoicing police reported no crime whatsoever in the country. By contrast, Tutu's house was broken into during the memorial service, and crime continued that day as usual.

At his age Tutu cannot be expected to rally his nation. In order to keep its moral compass on course, however, ordinary citizens and politicians alike must look to Tutu's example, and model themselves on his courageous and unswerving insistence on truth, compassion and hope.

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