SOUTH African Archbishop Desmond Tutu this week refused to back down in a spat with President Thabo Mbeki, who has locked horns with the anti-apartheid hero for criticising the ruling ANC party’s policies on Zimbabwe.
Tutu — long a thorn in the side of South Africa’s former white governments — last week stirred up political controversy when he used a public speech to blast Mbeki’s ruling African National Congress for “kowtowing” and stifling debate.
He has often urged the South African government to publicly disapprove of President Robert Mugabe’s abuses and bring pressure on him to reform. He said the ANC government was guilty of “uncritical, sycophantic, obsequious conformity”.
Mbeki, who led the ANC to a 70% victory in general elections in April, hit back, charging the Nobel Peace laureate with speaking out of turn and resorting to “empty rhetoric”.
In a caustic statement issued on Monday, the archbishop made it clear he had taken personal affront. “Thank you, Mr President, for telling me what you think of me. That I am a liar with scant regard for the truth, and a charlatan posing with his concern for the poor, the hungry, the oppressed and the voiceless,”
Tutu said.Tutu — perhaps second only to Nelson Mandela as the international face of the struggle for political justice in South Africa — said he would continue to pray for Mbeki and his government, adding the barb, “as I have done and as I did even for the apartheid government”.
On Monday, the ANC said Mbeki’s comments reflected the views of the party but it denied it saw Tutu as a liar or a charlatan.
“But we do recognise that even someone like yourself has the capacity to err,” the ANC said in a statement. Tutu used the annual Nelson Mandela lecture in Johannesburg last week to criticise the government’s black economic empowerment (BEE) policies, which he said were only benefiting a black elite. He also questioned what he said was the government’s distaste for open political debate on its policies, echoing criticism from opposition benches wh-ich have accused the ANC of using its huge majority to steamroller other opinions.
Mbeki, responding in a weekly online letter for ANC members, said Tutu had gone too far. “It would be good if those that present themselves as the greatest defenders of the poor should also demonstrate decent respect for the truth,” he said.
The official opposition Democratic Alliance on Monday waded into the debate. “No government or president should seek to silence, by threats and insults, voices that are internationally recognised as the conscience of our nation,” the party said in a statement. — Reuter.