Last week, on Boxing Day, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu died at the age of 90. On that day and the days leading up to his funeral on New Year’s Day messages of tribute were plentiful. A prolific icon renowned for his anti-apartheid activism, South Africa and the international community at large remembered the work and influence of the Noble-Peace Prize awarded theologian.
When an idolised and acclaimed political figure dies, white responses become of particular interest to me. There is a tendency in whiteness that white people are quite familiar with that is committed to unreserved critiques of a celebrated Black figure, after death.
I remember very vividly an occurrence of this after the death of Nelson Mandela in December 2013. At the time of his passing, I was living in Amsterdam. I was relieved for this as I knew that the magnitude of Madiba’s soft power would mean an overemphasis on South Africa’s “father of the nation” that would dominate every public platform for weeks on end.
Although I was not in the country, I could not escape being South African. I was informed of Mandela’s passing by the driver of a car I was riding in as we made our way from the Netherlands to Belgium. This then began a weekend trip of being bombarded with condolences from European strangers, for a man I did not know personally. Moreover, friends that I had remembered me after months and even years of no communication with emails and messages.
In the following weeks, upon my return to Amsterdam, I had attended a book launch for a book on Nelson Mandela written by a Dutch academic. In desperation, on the day (or the day before) the launch, I received an email from an organiser asking if I was South African and whether I would be open to joining the panel for the book’s panel discussion. I respectfully declined. Unable to find a Black South African to join the panel, I noticed that the organisers were able to scrape together African representation with the last-minute inclusion of two Nigeran academics on the panel.
During her presentation, the author referred to Madiba as a “secular saint” whose public image covered up an arrogant womanising African man. The Dutch people in attendance ate up this author’s critique with pure glee. It was a reminder of Dutch culture’s self-confidence in their proclamations of critically-minded outspokenness that curiously never seems to apply to their own racism. What made it all the more distasteful was that this European bunch appeared all too eager to receive this racist framing within weeks of Nelson Mandela’s death.
Speaking ill of the dead
This week while shaking off the haziness of Christmas-time festivities, I was once again reminded of just how rapidly white people negatively respond to positive portrays of Blackness and prominent Black leaders. Whiteness cannot handle Black celebration and with the passing of Desmond Tutu, whiteness has made it a point to “make sure that history remembers both the goods he did and the awful awful bads that he did as well”.
On 30 December 2021, just four days after Tutu’s passing, American lawyer Alan Dershowitz appeared on the Rob Schmitt Show for an interview on American media’s esteemed portrayals of Desmond Tutu. From the moment the lawyer opens his mouth, he took his time to condemn Tutu as an “out-and-out” and “unrepented” bigot- something he claimed to be doing since the year 2000. In his unfiltered bombast, Dershowitz included impertinent quotes from Tutu that were employed to prove Tutu’s alleged antisemitism where he avowed that “when we start tearing down Thomas Jefferson statues and start tearing down George Washington statues, let’s not put up statues to an overt bigot. Shame on President Obama for not at least alerting us! He knows about it”. The author then continued his tirade by stating that the world has long been aware of Tutu’s alleged bigotry however, “people love a simple narrative of heroes so they have buried this part of Archbishop Tutu’s very dark history”.
When death becomes an opportunity for victimised racists
It is only a couple of minutes into the clip that the real reason for this interview on the conservative American news channel Newsmax TV was revealed when the host of the show introduces ideas of white victimhood. “Well, let's be honest”, he begins, stumbling on his words, “It’s a simple fact. If this guy was white. He would not only, uh, would they bring that up. Uh, he would be condemned”. Gathering courage, the host continued with conviction that “if a white man had said those same comments, they wouldn’t have even mourned his death. They would have said he deserved it.”. Dershowitz added to these notions of white vulnerability where he positioned Tutu as the most influential propeller of antisemitism in the 20th Century that was untouchable “because they are afraid to be called racist”. “Exactly!”, the host agrees with unabashed joy in these shared feelings of victimhood. Dramatically, the segment is concluded with a quick jab at “liberal press” for decorated media portrayals of the Archbishop Emeritus with hands up and the line “hear no evil, speak no evil. Something else”.
Following true white cowardice—I mean, neo-liberal expectations—loose repressions of anti-Black racism unravel themselves colourfully when the fear of societal condemnation is no longer. Often public demonisation of an applauded Black figure is freed in death.
What is always so peculiarly typical about the passing of Black South African leaders is how quick the West is to comment. Why? What is their relevance? To add to that, it appears that while white people in the West are quick with their unsolicited opinions, white South Africans are even faster to latch on to these unfavourable discourses during times of international mourning.