Much has and will be said in the next months, and rightly so, about the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s contribution to democracy, social justice, peace, reconciliation and so much more. Our recollection of this dynamo of a man- short in stature but gigantic in heart -was his sincere and enduring support of our response to the HIV and TB epidemics both here and beyond.
Archbishop Emeritus Tutu agreed to lend his name to our HIV and TB research organization in 2004. We had been in existence as the HIV research unit at the New Somerset hospital caring for many young men and women facing a horrible HIV related end to their young lives largely outside of the public eye since the mid-nineties. Many were dying alone and stigmatized in hospital or sent home to die with little more than palliation. The combined impact of the epidemic viral illness that weakened the immune system in the midst of the sea of tuberculosis in South Africa meant that droves of young people were dying daily- these combined pathogens still claim more young SA lives every year than any other natural cause.
The Arch, when considering the request recognized that this was an important cause for both he and Leah and was enthusiastic tobe patron but cautioned that naming an organization for a living person had risks: With his renowned laugh, he mentioned that whilst, yet alive men may develop “feet of clay”. In August of that year, he joined his beloved wife and partner, Mam Leah, past Vice chancellor Mamphela Ramphele, Institute of Infectious Diseases (IDM) founder and past Director Wieland Gevers, Professor of Medicine and mentor, the late Ralph Kirschand a wonderful group of friends and colleagues to open the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre and Foundation in the brand-newWolfson Pavilion at the IDM.
From that time on, the Arch became our most ardent and valued supporter. Both he and Mam Leah attended a number ofcommunity events including the opening of the Desmond and Leah Clinic and the DTHF youth centre in Masiphumelele; the ten-year celebration of the Hanan-CRUSAID HIV treatment centre; sports events with the Desmond Tutu TB centre at Stellenbosch and many more. He willingly joined Freshly Ground, The Sizophila singers, Tannie Evita, Africa Melane, Hot Stix Mabuse and Vusi Mahlasela at a number of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation fund raising concerts. At one of these events where we had organized a silent auction and bidding was going somewhat slowly, he quipped with a naughty grin that he thought we may have invited “way too many clerics”. On the occasion of his 75th birthday concert, because he was suddenly called away to help negotiate peace in Palestine, he instructed us that Pieter Dirk Uys could most easily be a substitute. He was quite right- Pieter did a wonderful Arch impersonation and he again cackled with laughter when we told him we could hardly tell the difference. Our enduring memory of the Arch will be him dancing with Zolani and numerous other fans to the music of Freshlyground. He took fund raising for the organisation very seriously. When we met prospective sponsors,he would remind them that he could put in a good word “upstairs”. He even told ex-President Sarkozy this when we met him and his very new wife, Ms. Carla Bruni at the Hanan-CRUSAID centre and the French president boasted that he could purchase 10 such clinics if needed.
The Arch was happy to accompany us to meet other influential and important visitors who have had indirect impact on public health in South Africa and who wanted to meet him rather than us. Chief on this list was Ex US President Barak Obama in 2012, Bill and Melinda Gates in 2011, Princess Charlene of Monaco and many others. When walking across a room to meet those important people, the Arch would single out the security guard or the person ushering at the door to fist bump and enquire about wellbeing. He had a smile for everyone regardless of how tired he was.
He was so much more than simply a figurehead for us. He took a deep interest in the progress of the responses and always wanted to hear what was new and what the disappointments had been. We would often get a short note sent from his email on anbreakthrough, or encouragement with a disappointment. On the treasured occasions where we could visit for a while, he wanted to know exactly what work was underway in each of the sites and what the challenges were to real progress.
During much of 2000, our focus and emphasis was on equitable treatment and treatment roll out in the face of an administration steeped in denialism. Our battles were against misinformation, treatment hesitancy and drug pricing and accessibility. The Arch spoke out fearlessly, as he had always done, against the mistruths and wrong actions and compassionately took up the cause of the millions of people living with HIV in South Africaproudly wearing an HIV positive T shirt. He often shared with us his great interest in medicine and how he had aspired to a medical career, driven largely by his own harrowing experiences with polio and then spinal tuberculosis which left him bed ridden in his early adolescence.
He became an advocate and an icon for the HIV community at large. At the SA AIDS conference in 2009 he held the audience captive at times belly laughing and then weeping with his charisma and his wisdom during his opening speech. He had just had the intense disappointment of not having the Dalai Lama attend a Laureate Peace Conference and then ex health minister, Barbara Hogan had spoken out about this and delivered the closing talk. It was a powerful meeting for public health, rights, social justice, peace and democracy. All tenets the HIV community upholds dearly. The Arch was guest of honour at the return of the International AIDS Conference to Durban, South Africa in 2016 and unable to travel due to ill-health, sent a wonderful video of encouragement. The message to people living with HIV and those caring for them was warm, sincereand compassionate. The International AIDS society counted the Arch as an ally and a supporter and will always be immensely grateful to him.
As our emphasis at the DTHC/F shifted to primary HIV prevention for populations most affected by HIV and yet least well served by the system, he too became a warrior for the LGBTQ community, adolescents and young women. He famously stated he would “not worship a homophobic God” underlining his wonderful, expressed view of the rainbow nation where all types of humanity come together to make a beautiful image of inclusion, tolerance and compassion.
In this regard, our logo is that of a rainbow sheltering people. The Arch reminded us often of that vision for South Africa……where regardless of creed, colour, ethnicity, ideology, orientationor religion we are all precious in the sight of God and can come together as one compassionate nation. The values we have upheld for our organization are all inspired by the Arch and Mam Leah: Compassion, integrity, respect, excellence, progressand innovation. We could add resilience in the face of adversity, courage in our convictions and joyfulness and unconditional love. All these and more were personified in Archbishop Tutu.
The Arch also took a personal and caring interest in our family and lives. He and Mam Leah never failed to acknowledge an award, a birthday or a special occasion with flowers or a personal card. When our son, Ollie was just a baby and battling cancer, the Arch and Mam Leah always asked how Ollie was doing and it was a great comfort to know that someone that God really listens to was praying for him. Despite their own health issues, they continued to ask after Ollie’s wellbeing. At this sad time we especially think of and pray for Mam Leah, Thandi who is a valuable member of the DTHF board, Mthunzi who often attended with the Arch and the whole family. May we all find peace and comfort. The Arch’s memory is a blessing to us all.
We must now contemplate the passing of this icon, our patron, this wonderful human being who not only talked the talk- but walked the talk. He ran a magnificent race. We continue our part of the relay for better and greater health access, social justice and human rights with great responsibility humility and resolve. Rest in peace, dear Arch- your feet were like deer’s feet and your heart of gold.
Linda-Gail Bekker is the Director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre and Executive Officer of the Desmond Tutu Health Foundation. She is a professor of Medicine, University of Cape Town.
Robin Wood is past Director and CEO. He is Emeritus Professor, UCT.
They are married and live in Cape Town.