CAPE TOWN, Oct 7 – South Africa’s Desmond Tutu celebrated his 80th birthday in the cathedral where he once rallied against white-minority rule, with feelings still raw over the Dalai Lama’s exclusion from the event.
St George’s Cathedral, where Tutu served as the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town until 1996, was filled with family and well-wishers from U2 frontman Bono to Graca Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela.
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe sat in the front pew across from Tutu’s family, but notably absent were President Jacob Zuma and former president Thabo Mbeki.
Both men have fallen under Tutu’s scathing criticism — Mbeki for his years of denying the reality AIDS epidemic; Zuma for corruption scandals that never made it to trial.
Tutu’s outrage at Zuma boiled over again this week when the Dalai Lama had to cancel his planned visit for the birthday, saying he had not received a visa in time.
Tutu lambasted Zuma for kowtowing to China, accused him of failing South Africa’s democratic ideals, and threatened to pray for his downfall.
“I am warning you that we will pray as we prayed for the downfall of the apartheid government, we will pray for the downfall of a government that misrepresents us,” Tutu said on national television Tuesday.
The Dalai Lama, a longtime friend of Tutu’s and a fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, is now set to give a speech Saturday by video link.
The tensions of the week, which have dominated South Africa’s front pages, were pushed to the side Friday as the pews of St George’s filled and birthday presents piled up at the doors.
“With every year that passes, you seem more ageless or even more youthful,” the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams said in a message read out from the altar.
“But this particular anniversary reminds us all how much we owe to your decades of love and service to the reign of God and the family of God’s people.”
The public service was broadcast on national television. As tributes poured in from the altar, Tutu covered his eyes with a handkerchief, embraced by Leah, his wife of 56 years.
The current archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, praised Tutu’s bravery and values.
“Rooted in that belief, rooted in that faith, he went into places many people feared to tread,” Makgoba said.
“He really stressed the importance of the dignity of difference.”
The service combined the ceremony of the Anglican High Mass, with incense, organs and ritual, but also the laughter and warmth that Tutu is famed for.
After the service, Tutu will join family and close friends for a private picnic.
On Saturday, Tutu’s Peace Centre said the Dalai Lama will give a lecture via a live video link from Dharamshala, his home in exile in northern India, after a last-ditch appeal to the government to grant him a visa failed.
“Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu will engage in a moderated discussion on the topic, Peace and Compassion as Catalysts for Change,” said Tutu’s office.
“This is the topic that His Holiness was to have spoken on had he been allowed to enter South Africa by the authorities. An empty chair on the stage will symbolise His Holiness’ enforced absence.”
The event will be broadcast live by South Africa’s public television network SABC from the University of the Western Cape and live-streamed over the Internet.