This wasn't taken at Tutu's 80th birthday celebration, but it it's still him. Image courtesy of Al Jazeera.

I once stood next to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his presence as a towering force to be reckoned with was impossible to deny.  Of course this may have been due to the fact that I was posing for a photograph at Nobel Square at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, where Tutu’s larger-than-life bronze sculpture stands alongside three other South African Nobel Peace Prize laureates.  These are minor details really.

On the 7th of October, 2011, Tutu (or “The Arch” as he is commonly referred to) turned 80 years old.  When you’ve played a pivotal role in the demise of Apartheid, appropriately won the Nobel Peace Prize, chaired the greatly-named Truth and Reconciliation Committee, served as Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, (and if that’s not enough) devoted your life to a what’s what of human rights and social issues which cause people to describe you as “the vocal conscience of a generation” and “the people’s priest,” you’d think the Dalai Lama (another Nobel Peace Prize laureate) would be allowed to come to your birthday bash.  Especially if the both of you were already bosom buddies.

Though the details are mired in a typical diplomatic slush, apparently the Dalai Lama couldn’t attend because South Africa kow-towed to pressure from the Chinese government and refused to issue him an entry visa.  Why on earth the Dalai Lama needs an entry visa in the first place is beyond me.  Bono didn’t (he was also invited).  It is even more perplexing why anyone would refuse to let the Dalai Lama participate in an occasion such as Desmond Tutu’s birthday.  It’s unlikely the two Nobel laureates would have acted like debauched hooligans and engaged in some good old China-bashing at Tutu’s celebratory picnic in the park.  The end result was that Lama (the Lama?) had to cancel his trip.  Afterwards, South Africa’s Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said that were it not for the cancellation, the visa would have been issued after all.  Convenient.

Given that birthdays are good excuses to set aside life’s trials and engage in some serious cake-eating, you might guess that the whole episode would have been a trifling (!) matter.  Not so if you are The Arch.  Three days prior to his birthday, amid characteristically high-pitched and somehow ever-appropriate laughs, Tutu blasted his government for its discourtesy to the Dalai Lama, said it was worse than the Apartheid government, and spoke unequivocally about the oppression of the Tibetan people.  The precision, incandescence, and power of Tutu’s words was awesome (see below), and completely reinforced his reputation as the vocal conscience of a generation.  Bono described the whole episode and Tutu well at the actual birthday celebration at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town:

I’m here, ladies and gentlemen, because I’m obviously not radical enough to need a visa.  It used to be rock stars, not religious leaders that caused controversy.  But there’s only one rock star in this room, sitting right in front of me.  You don’t wear the sunglasses at night, you don’t throw the television out of the window, you never have a mullet.  But at 80 years old you are more punk rock than anyone I know – with sex appeal.

Though the number of televisions Bono has thrown out of windows and how he has such expertise on matters relating to Tutu’s sex appeal remain a mystery, I wholeheartedly agree with his sentiments.  Ironically, even the Dalai Lama’s visa fiasco gives us reason to celebrate Tutu’s life.  And so, I would like to wish you, Desmond Tutu, a very happy (and belated) 80th birthday.  I hope that I am able to speak for truth, justice, and peace with even half the courage, integrity, and moral force that you do.  And I hope that one day I will be able to meet you in person (not that I didn’t enjoy meeting you in bronze), shake your hand, and say “thank you.”

P.S.  I can get a visa anytime to South Africa so if you ever want to punk it up and skype the Lama, I’m game.

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