The death of Desmond Tutu has reminded me how lucky South Africa has been to have had clergymen brave enough to take on the powers that be in the service of humanity instead of conveniently remaining above politics.

Tutu’s life and his contributions to South African race relations, along with recent criticism of his beliefs, bring to mind another of South Africa’s significant clerics, Bishop John Colenso. While Colenso has largely been forgotten, his tragic story emphasises the religious and political risks Tutu took in his life-long campaign for human rights and justice.

Although one cannot fully compare Colenso to Tutu due to the wavering paternalism and imperial sympathies of the former, their lives bear a number of striking similarities. Colenso and Tutu both had humble origins and struggled to pay for their tertiary education. Both men also started off as teachers before being ordained and rising through the ranks of the Anglican Church.

However, the most prominent similarity between these two men was their sheer ballsiness and the strength of their convictions. Weathering a storm of criticism from enemies and allies alike – who labelled them heretics and traitors – both clerics begged us to reconsider our notions of God and man.

Tutu’s campaign against apartheid earned him enemies from both supporters and opponents of the regime. Shadowed, intimidated, imprisoned and fined by agents of the oppressive minority government, Tutu also faced criticism from opponents of apartheid.

‘Christian conscience’

Distinguished author and liberal anti-apartheid activist Alan Paton questioned Tutu’s logic in calling for sanctions against South Africa in the late 1980s. Likening Tutu to a Spanish inquisitor who placed principles above practical humanity, Paton said: ‘I do not understand how your Christian conscience allows you to advocate disinvestment. I do not understand how you can put a man out of work for a high moral principle… It would go against my own deepest principles to advocate anything that would put a man – and especially a black man – out of a job.’

Nevertheless, Tutu persevered in his campaign to promote sanctions.

Tutu’s death has also reignited criticism of his role as co-chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Many on social media, dissatisfied with the restorative justice offered by the TRC and his investigation of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, have branded Tutu a ‘sell out’ and collaborator who did little to prosecute the crimes of apartheid and compensate its victims. 

His public criticism of the African National Congress (ANC) have also been revisited, further fuelling his critics’ accusations of treachery. However, these criticisms serve to exemplify his unshakable moral convictions.

Tutu’s views made him enemies within his own church, too. One of my favourite Tutu quotes highlighted his position on homosexuality. ‘I would not worship a God who is homophobic,’ he said. ‘I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say, “Sorry, I would much rather go to the other place”.’

That much more remarkable

Considering that homophobia is widespread on the continent and is even endorsed by bishops in Ghana, Tutu’s stance – not least for a man born in 1931 – is that much more remarkable.

Over a century before Tutu, Bishop John Colenso also persevered despite severe political and religious opposition. However, Colenso’s perseverance ended in pariahdom and not the richly deserved international acclaim heaped on Tutu.

Colenso, who arrived in the then Colony of Natal in 1853, quickly began ruffling imperial feathers by engrossing himself in the language and culture of the Zulu people who made up the vast majority of his dioceses. In 1855, Colenso published Remarks on the Proper Treatment of Polygamy, a pamphlet claiming that polygamous converts should not abandon all their wives, but vow to take no more.

In 1861 Colenso, partly inspired by conversations with his wagon driver-come-translator William Ngidi, published a book revisiting St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. The book argued for an overhaul in missionary practice and policy. He argued that missionaries should no longer preach that the pagan ancestors of converts were doomed to damnation. In addition, Colenso called for a softer touch in missionary preaching focusing on the positive benefits of the Christian faith rather than the negative eternal consequences of continued paganism.


His revolutionary publications and methods caused an uproar in South Africa and Britain. In 1863, the Bishop of Cape Town called for his excommunication, levelling charges of heresy against Colenso. Although Colenso successfully appealed to church authorities in Britain, who upheld his position, the Bishop of Cape Town consecrated a rival as Bishop of Maritzburg in Cape Town in 1869 in an attempt to undermine his influence in the region.

Like Tutu, Colenso’s views extended to the political and social arena and he again found himself in hot water in 1873 when he criticised the colonial government’s violent disarmament of the amaHlubi tribe and the prosecution of their leader, Langalibalele, who was later imprisoned on Robben Island.

His public defence of Langalibalele and the amaHlubi brought him into direct conflict with a former friend, the infamous Secretary for Native Affairs, Theophilus Shepstone, and a large section of the white settler community who were already receptive to the gibe that Zulus had converted him to paganism. His estrangement from the colonial authorities and the settler community was furthered in the wake of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, as Colenso took the side of the Zulus whom he believed had been falsely vilified by imperial expansionists such as Sir Henry Bartle Frere.

Colenso died in 1883 estranged from all but his Zulu converts who called him ‘Sobantu’ (father of the people) and a small group of liberal white supporters led by his daughter, Frances.

To truly appreciate Tutu’s contributions one needs to place his struggles in an alternative context. While Tutu and his noble ideals ultimately triumphed and garnered international applause and commendation, he could so easily have ended up like Colenso, ostracised and largely forgotten.

John Colenso’s story highlights the selflessness of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and the risks he took in speaking up against indignity and injustice as he saw it.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Dylan Löser is a teacher. He holds a Master’s degree in History from the University of Cape Town.