Tutu at 80: Will humble pie be eaten at his party?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "I've said that if they continue in this way, they are following in the steps of their predecessors"

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It seems likely that technology will triumph over diplomacy - or lack thereof - as South Africa's Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu celebrates his 80th birthday on Friday.

The Dalai Lama may have been prevented from attending the event thanks to - many analysts say - President Jacob Zuma's government bowing to pressure from Beijing.

But a video link may save the day, enabling the exiled leader of the Buddhist faith in Tibet - who has spearheaded a decades-long campaign for greater rights for his people in the face of alleged oppression by the Chinese government - to deliver his speech.

Archbishop Tutu, feted for his irrepressible laughter, was incandescent when he learnt that his spiritual friend and co-laureate was calling off his trip.

Start Quote

I'm not a political animal but if there is an injustice that I see, then I will speak out ”

End Quote Desmond Tutu Nobel Peace laureate

The Dalai Lama's gentle explanation that it appeared "inconvenient" for the South African authorities to grant him a visa was interpreted as a face-saving gesture for the very government that had snubbed him.

Hours later, grandees of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party were phoning radio shows to express soothing words of "love" for Archbishop Tutu despite calls for him to "calm down".

This was in response to his warning that the ANC was a "disgrace", mimicking the behaviour of the apartheid regime - which the ANC fought for more than 40 years to demand equal rights for black people in South Africa - by stalling the visit of such a prominent figure as the Dalai Lama.

During a televised conference this week, he lashed out at the ANC-led government over its handling of the visa saga - he said ruling party was "worse than the apartheid government" which had oppressed black people for decades.

But "the Arch", as he is fondly called by South Africans, is trying to move on and, although he was very sad about the whole affair when I met him, the spirit of forgiveness was beginning to waft through the air of his breezy office.

But he also issued a warning to the ruling party.

"Once [former President Nelson] Mandela disappears physically from the scene, I think unless the party changes they are going to see a falling away," he told the BBC.

South Africa's 'moral conscience'

Among those expected to attend his birthday celebration is the very politician who was accused of caving in to Chinese pressure - Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama in Cape Town in 1996

Adding insult to injury, he reportedly said the government would have issued the Dalai Lama a visa had he not called off his trip.

"Who believes this?" asked a clearly hurt Archbishop Tutu.

Mr Motlanthe may have been the focus of anger after he visited Beijing last week to cement bilateral ties, but it appears the proverbial hatchet is being buried.

The story so far: Tutu timeline

  • Born 1931
  • 1970s: Became prominent as apartheid critic
  • 1984: Awarded Nobel Peace Prize
  • 1986: Appointed Archbishop of Cape Town
  • 1995: Appointed head of Truth and Reconciliation Commission
  • Strong critic of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Israel's policy against Palestinians and US-led war in Iraq

On Friday, he is expected to attend a service of thanksgiving for the archbishop, then share sandwiches with other prominent guests at a picnic on a farm.

The pair are old friends and, although the government maintains there was no Chinese meddling in the visa affair, the two men can agree to disagree.

"I'm not a political animal," insists Archbishop Tutu, "but if there is an injustice that I see, then I will speak out."

In a playful mixing of words, he says "anyone who tries to whitemail me or silence me, can go jump in the lake".

It is that kind of blunt honesty which explains why Archbishop Tutu, despite being officially retired, is still regarded by many South Africans as the "the moral conscience" of the nation.

'Punk rock peacemaker'

The guest list for his birthday party is being kept a closely guarded secret and the media for large parts of the day will be kept out of the way, but Graca Machel - Mr Mandela's wife - is expected to be there.

Students and lecturers at South Africa's Wits University protest against the cancellation of the Dalai Lama's visit Many South Africans were furious that the Dalai Lama's visit had been cancelled

She serves with Archbishop Tutu and other international luminaries on the Elders, a body which Mr Mandela set up after he stepped down from office in 1999 to help resolve disputes around the world.

Other guests are expected to include Bono, the pop star who has turned into an anti-poverty campaigner.

At the church service, Bono looked at Archbishop Tutu and said:

"There is only one rock star in this room sitting right in front of me.

"You don't wear the sunglass at night, you don't throw the televisions out the window but at 80 years old you are more punk rock than anyone I know."

Archbishop Tutu was the great peacemaker who led South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid ended in 1994.

But he also clashed with the ANC at the time after it rejected the body's findings on the armed struggle it waged against white minority rule.

In the 1980s, he was among the first to speak out against the infamous "necklacing", which saw ANC supporters killing alleged collaborators with the apartheid regime by burning tyres around their necks.

In the post-apartheid era, he became the champion of racial reconciliation, coining the phrase "rainbow nation", an ideal which he admitted on the eve of his 80th birthday was "still a work in progress".

While details of the birthday feast are being kept under wraps, one would imagine that - in the wake of the row over the Dalai Lama's visit - next to a huge birthday cake, there would be large slices of humble pie.

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