A short story about the day I met Desmond Tutu, and his simple act of kindness towards my father:

It was 2007, and I was completing my Masters at the University of Cape Town. Tutu was due to deliver the keynote address at a prize-giving ceremony for a student essay competition I had entered. 

Earlier that year, my father Tony had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was only 59. As a family, we were devastated by the news. 

“Don’t worry, prostate cancer is the most treatable form of cancer,” he told us. “After all, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu had it, and they both survived to be old men,” he assured us. 

On the day of the prize-giving, I took along a copy of Tutu’s biography, Rabble-Rouser for Peace.

I didn’t win the essay competition that day, but my heart was set on another prize: a signature from the Arch. 

After the ceremony, Tutu was immediately mobbed by students. He happily engaged them all, and you could hear his unmistakable giggle ringing out from amidst the throng. 

My turn finally came. 

I told the Arch about my Dad’s diagnosis. He looked directly up at me, with real concern in his eyes, and inscribed this message:

“Tony,

As one survivor to another — hang in there.

God bless you.”

I waited until Christmas to give my Dad his present. His treatment had gone well, but it was a tough journey. He read Tutu’s message with tears shimmering in his eyes. 

The book now occupies a prominent place in our living room, a reminder of my Dad’s long road to recovery. 

The diminutive Arch was a small man with a big heart. His life was filled with countless tiny gestures like these, even towards people he had never met. 

Tutu showed up every day and tried to put a little love and kindness into the world. He was sometimes a bit naive about politics, but he always gave his opponents the benefit of the doubt, while still holding firm in the face of injustice. 

Power and prestige do not make great men. Tutu taught us that greatness is achieved through the love you show to others, by acting from principle and treating everyone you meet with dignity and respect. 

RIP Arch

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author

David Ansara is the Chief Operating Officer of the Centre For Risk Analysis (CRA). In this role, David manages the CRA’s policy research and political risk advisory services. He is also responsible for the CRA’s bespoke projects division. David is a regular speaker at conferences and events, where he discusses the political economy of South Africa and future scenarios for the country. He also comments widely in the media. David holds a Master’s in Political Studies from the University of Cape Town.