The difficulties of standing up to fears and prejudices - Businesslive

Jan 13, 2020
13 January 2020 - Just the other day I was reminded of the joke about Archbishop Desmond Tutu and PW Botha sailing in a boat together. Tutu told it himself in a memorable 2011 sermon on Doubting Thomas.

Michael Morris

Just the other day I was reminded of the joke about Archbishop Desmond Tutu and PW Botha sailing in a boat together. Tutu told it himself in a memorable 2011 sermon on Doubting Thomas.

“Poor Thomas the Apostle has had a bad press,” Tutu began. “Now I know something about that. There’s the story of my sailing in a boat with PW Botha when his ever-present hat blew off. I got out of the boat, walked on the water and retrieved it. The following morning Die Burger declared in banner headlines, Tutu kannie swem nie (Tutu can’t swim).”

The Arch went on in his generous way to question the conventional view of Thomas as a dithering, uncertain, doubtful figure (reminding his congregation that Thomas “was later to be the apostle to evangelise India and today there is a vibrant, oriental, orthodox denomination, the Mar Thomas Church”).

However, the thrust of his sermon was distinctly secular. Tutu signalled as much by saying: “But I am not into rehabilitating St Thomas. I want to suggest that he actually has a real relevance for our society today. He was a sharp, questioning character.”

Too many South Africans, he said, “are kowtowing, gullible, easily manipulated”. (There was no mystery about who his targets were given his references to people “believing the naked emperor to be decked out in gorgeous finery” and failing to “ask why public servants should flaunt ostentatious limousines when many in the land go to bed hungry”).

More broadly, the challenge was for society to “refuse to be hoodwinked, refuse to be gullible, refuse to be browbeaten”. South Africans, he insisted, “are made for a great deal better”.

We all nod in agreement with these self-evident virtues, being certain that that’s what they are. But that’s the easy part.

What is much harder, and more important, is cleaving to doubt itself, being determinedly unconvinced, sceptical of orthodoxy, measured, open to persuasion, resistant to the herding of ideas into right or wrong kraals of thought — and unafraid of being misjudged as belonging in the “wrong” one.

In 2020 we all know what this means. It means, chiefly, the risk of being misunderstood for being honest about our own worth as individuals in a society with a long history of refusing to see people as they are in their distinctive selves.

This difficulty is exemplified by the recent “outrage” over the Jerm cartoon featuring the following arresting exchange between two men:

“You should give back the land you stole.”

“You should be jailed for raping my wife.”

“But I didn’t do that.”


It could be that the charge that the cartoon is outrageous on the grounds that it stereotypes race (by contriving a reprehensible equivalence between colonial conquest by European settlers and rape, or implying a predisposition to sexual rapacity among African males) can only succeed by a concession that the stereotypes themselves are credible.

A contrasting reading is that what the cartoon actually does — in an exchange of criminal accusations between two individuals — is to explode the very mythology that animates the stereotyping most of its critics have only reinforced.

Or perhaps this is quite wrong. The point is that it is only possible to have a meaningful conversation about it — or about South Africanness, race, history, satire, politics — by refusing to be hoodwinked or browbeaten, by cultivating habits of doubt and nurturing a healthy scepticism of popular wisdom.

It does take courage. But that was Archbishop Tutu’s point.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.

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