Alan Cowell was the South Africa bureau chief for The New York Times from 1983 to 1987, when the apartheid government expelled him from the country.
At Johannesburg’s main airport, around 400 people were preparing to board flights for Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. Nearly all of them filed past the security scanners without incident to get to the departure lounges.
All except one — Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu.
It was December 1986, and Archbishop Tutu was the leader of his country’s Anglican believers, Black and white, and one of the most respected figures at the helm of the struggle against apartheid, its spiritual center of gravity. He had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his courage and commitment.
No one could not have known who he was and what he stood for.
Yet of all the passengers in the line he was the only traveler submitted to the indignity of a body search. It seemed intended as much as anything to remind him of his chromatic status in the apartheid nation.
Perhaps, he mused, his metal pectoral cross had triggered an alarm.
“Did they think it was a weapon?” he asked me.
Sometimes it is the small, blink-and-you’ve-missed-it moment rather than the blaring headline that reminds reporters of the essence of the story they have been sent to cover.
That moment has remained with me because, considering everything that had happened and would happen to his tortured land, the point behind his rhetorical question merited more than passing consideration.
Maybe the cross itself was not a weapon, but the faith and belief it stood for provided the battle against white minority rule an overwhelming moral imperative that offered challenges as much to the archbishop as to his adversaries.
The episode at the airport security desk unfolded several years before the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the beginning of South Africa’s progression toward democracy. It was a time of choices, dictated variously by the mounting and increasingly harsh protest of the segregated Black townships, the crucibles of revolt; by the obduracy of the white minority regime then led by President P.W. Botha; by growing international pressure for economic sanctions; and by what seemed an inexorable recourse to violence.
In all this, the archbishop’s promotion of his Christian striving for peace might have seemed doomed, a lonesome voice in a bloodstained wilderness.
“I am surprised that radical Blacks are still willing to say that we are their leaders,” he said at a news conference in January 1985. “What have we got to show for all our talk of peaceful change? Nothing.”
Yet he was not silenced, either in his opposition to apartheid or his rejection of the most extreme forms of violence.
In those years, execution by fire had become an emblem of the struggle, meted out by Black activists to accused traitors. Iconic images of the accused being burned alive were deployed in the propaganda wars that cast the Black struggle, depending on the teller, as either barbarous or suffused with its own fearsome justice.
Typically, a person identified or accused of being an informer for the white authorities would be run down and immobilized by an automobile tire around their upper bodies. Then the tire would be doused in gasoline and ignited. The ritual was called “necklacing.”
In one episode in the township of Duduza in July 1985, I watched as then-Bishop Tutu and a fellow cleric, Simeon Nkoane, struggled and fought to rescue a man who had been singled out for such punishment, accused, despite his denials, of being a police undercover operative.
The passions of the moment were intense. It seemed at some point as if the man was destined for death. He had been beaten bloody and his car set on fire to provide what one activist called “his funeral pyre.”
“This undermines the struggle,” Bishop Tutu shouted as he sought to shelter the man.
“No, it encourages the struggle!” a member of the crowd shouted back at the bishop, who was clad in purple robes after officiating at a politically charged funeral, another totemic feature of times when scores died and their burials became the arenas of yet more and ever-intensifying protest.
Eventually that day in Duduza, the bishops prevailed and the alleged informer was driven away.
It had been an act of potentially reckless courage by the clerics when their only shield against the wrath of the would-be executioners were the crosses of their faith.
But it was by no means an unusual example of valor that we witnessed.
On another occasion, Bishop Tutu interposed himself between protesters and police, producing an image of one diminutive priest standing firm against the armed might of the apartheid security machine.
In the era after Mr. Mandela assumed the presidency in 1994, the archbishop drew on other wellsprings of valor to preside over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission inquiries into rights abuses that defied even the worst expectations of human behavior and challenged the possibility of redemption.
Throughout the years of struggle, clerics were at the forefront, raising their banners — Methodist, Catholic or Anglican — against the white authorities who sought biblical justification for apartheid in the teachings of the segregated Dutch Reformed Church.
But there was always another weapon in the archbishop’s armory in addition to his pectoral cross: humor.
Once, at a fund-raiser in the early 2000s attended by the archbishop, a participant offered to tell a joke to lighten the proceedings, but warned the audience that he often mangled the punchline.
“I will laugh,” the archbishop promised, shouting out.
And there was laughter.