Rabble Rouser for Peace (published in 2008 by Lawrence Hill Books) is the authorized biography of Desmond Mpilo Tutu, the retired primate of the Anglican Church in South Africa – a man with a distinguished record in pastoral ministry and a sometimes controversial record as a hero in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle.
How does one go about telling the story of a man whose place of birth was wiped off the map by a system that classified him and a significantly disenfranchised majority by the color of their skin? A man associated with scandal and heroism alike. A man who slighted communists, as well as the perpetrators of apartheid and even the sensibilities of some in his own camp. A man of conviction and of deep, personal and Christian devotion.
South African journalist John Allen, brings his experience as a religious correspondent during the 70’s to bear on this project in a unique way. And he makes a good fist of balancing Tutu’s achievements with the unenviable task of portraying his humanity. Skipping the tedium of strict chronological story telling Allen takes up an engrossing hybrid approach to the subject.
Allen structures his narrative around theme and context, and by carefully interweaving both with choice detail from the subject, his close relations and critics, produces a textured narrative. The sources employed are multifarious giving an almost omniscient quality to the narrative voice. There are quotes from government reports and private letters, witnesses and journalists, supporters and detractors as well as the reports of observers. Thoughts unknown even to the subject at the time certain events took place are unearthed in interviews with the biographer.
The anecdotes reveal not just the man but the man affected, and at times afflicted, by his times. This is the man who survived polio and had to, as a result, write with his left hand; the man who wrote on a bench and was moved to tears when he saw other black children do the same; the man who walked through a police cordon to pray with protesting students; the man who knew nothing about the order to have him killed, who kept asking a British policeman for directions just to hear him (the policeman) say yes sir, no sir. This is the man who preferred South African apartheid to Mozambican assimilation.
Archbishop Tutu’s story has many contrasts, trials and delicate nuances. A purely chronological biography would fall short in conveying the history without an adequate appraisal of the multitude of voices present and without a balanced perspective on the breadth of his impact on the continent of Africa and the world. A hybrid approach with elements of theme added makes for a more precise and engaging account but not without straying too close to the episodic edge.
That being said, looking at a life as the sum of its constituent parts is easily the better way to tell the story of a man whose story is far from complete. Desmond Tutu: Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorized Biography is a rousing read if only for just that very reason.