Desmond Tutu taught us all the true meaning of greatness | Bob Geldof

The Guardian
The Guardian
Sir Bob Geldof with Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the One Young World summit in London, February 2010. Photograph: Zak Hussein/PA

Related: The Most Rev Desmond Tutu obituary

I am lucky that in my life I knew Desmond Tutu , one of the greatest men of our time. This tiny giant, this impish little priest, had the dangerously insane courage of the gods. And it was through his God that he found the voice to unremittingly challenge oppressors and speak endlessly, eloquently for the beaten down, the trodden on, the innocent and poor of this world. And later, when the righteous justice of his rhetoric had come to pass, he – along with his great friend Nelson Mandela – proposed the national dignity that only forgiveness of the past and the vanquished can bestow.

An archbishop knows the root spring of their moral thought and spiritual teaching, and Tutu was above everything a priest – albeit the funniest one I’ve ever known. He was inexhaustible and exhausting in conversation, challenging every one of your cherished premises with either an irritable dismissiveness or a derisive giggle – which was extremely annoying!

He was brave beyond measure. His constant challenge to the ideology and agents of thuggish power put him in grave danger. Showing no fear, he railed against their iniquities and rallied his people, never allowing them to falter or doubt the legitimacy of their struggle. And yet his prayers, his speeches, while suffused with rage, preached peace. His rejection of violence as the instrument of the weak and frightened, of those who had nothing left but the club, whip and gun, was once again proved correct. He would not, he could not, be stopped or silenced. This along with the equally towering display of moral authority from Mandela, his partner in change , allowed for the extraordinary and final peaceful exchange of power in South Africa.

It allowed also for the equally extraordinary, intellectually generous insight that advocated and organised the reconciliation commissions. Here, all would unburden themselves of their pains, sufferings and shameful pasts in a great national expression of forgiveness and healing that enabled Tutu’s new country to emerge with hope from its awful original sins.

This “turbulent priest” was protected by his collar. Unlike Mandela, it was much more difficult to put “a man of the cloth” into prison or exile. He was a prince of the Church of England, and wore its invisible but palpable, if sometimes patchy, cloak of immunity about his tiny frame.

The apartheid regime did not want to lose any more overseas friends than necessary, and so Archbishop Tutu ascended his pulpit stairs and in that sing-song voice told stories to his people that spoke of inherent rights, of human dignity, of the equality of man and the inevitable defeat of injustice, and spoke plain and simply, about the brute realities of the oppressive regime under which his congregations laboured. And then he spelled out hope and the means to achieve it. Of course he got the Nobel peace prize.

He was a laugh. He was great fun to be with. He was indefatigable. Probably a total nightmare to be married to.

  • Bob Geldof is a singer, songwriter, author and political activist

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