Tribute to Archbishop Desmond Tutu

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutralityArchbishop Desmond Tutu.

I met the charismatic Archbishop Desmond Tutu in January 2007 at Nairobi, Kenya at a breakfast meeting. I was organising a side event at the World Social Forum in Nairobi for the Africa Public Health Rights Alliance “15% Now!” campaign. The campaign was led by CREDO-Africa to compel African governments to increase budgetary allocation to health and health infrastructure in Africa. Member states of the African Union pledged at the 2001 Abuja summit to commit 15% of national budgets to healthcare but years later have largely failed to do so.

To compel the African Head of State to act upon their promise at the next African Union meeting in 2007, we contacted Nobel Laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and late Wangari Maathai to champion the campaign. Archbishop Tutu agreed to meet me and a colleague to discuss his role as the Honorary Chair of the “15% Now!” Campaign. He agreed to write a passionate letter of appeal to the African Head of State persuading them to act on their promises and do the needful.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a gracious and compassionate person. He had a deep understanding of the daily struggles of the African people and the failure of governance. We had a discussion about politics, public health, role of civil society and social change. His letter to the African Union summit was presented at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and the campaign led to a significant increase in budgetary allocation to health in Rwanda, Botswana, Niger, Malawi and Zambia in 2008. With the benefit of hindsight, if African leaders have acted rightly then it would have helped the continent to better manage the Ebola pandemic in 2014, massive brain drain of health personnel especially doctors and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Africa has indeed lost a dogged fighter, a powerful voice for justice, great orator, visionary leader and a true African. His commitment to the African cause echoes Albert Schweitzer’s words, ‘there is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed’. Desmond Tutu’s life exemplifies the Zulu phrase “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, which literally means that a person is a person through other people.