An unassuming four-roomed house at 503 Matlaba Street in Munsieville, Krugersdorp, is Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu’s family home. This is where Tutu spent his childhood after his family moved to the area in 1943 from Roodepoort when he was 12 years old.Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s home on Matlaba Street in Munsieville, Krugersdorp. Photo: Rosetta MsimangoThe Desmond Tutu Community Library in Munsieville, Krugersdorp. Photo: Rosetta MsimangoArchbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s home on Matlaba Street in Munsieville, Krugersdorp. Photo: Rosetta MsimangoThe Desmond Tutu Community Library in Munsieville, Krugersdorp. Photo: Rosetta MsimangoArchbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s home on Matlaba Street in Munsieville, Krugersdorp. Photo: Rosetta MsimangoThe Desmond Tutu Community Library in Munsieville, Krugersdorp. Photo: Rosetta Msimango
Tutu, the third of five children, is remembered fondly by older residents in this township, but many young people do not know that the Nobel peace prize laureate once walked these streets.
Here in Munsieville, elders call him Boy, his childhood nickname.
Tutu’s younger sister Gloria Radebe is the spitting image of him – the characteristic beak of a nose, the dark chocolate complexion and big eyes shining bright with glee. Wearing a dark pink fleece gown to ward off the cold after a summer storm, one look at the 87-year-old makes you swear you are seeing Tutu in his Anglican church robe.
The sharp-witted Radebe walks slowly. She crouches with the help of a walker to open the big lock on the gate and let us into the house their parents Aletta and Zachariah once called home. Her voice is strong, but her face is strained. Tutu recently celebrated his 90th birthday at St George’s Cathedral on October 7 in Cape Town, with festivities honouring his legacy. Reverend Allan Boesak delivered a powerful sermon, paying tribute to the great anti-apartheid champion. The two once led protest marches during the turbulent days of apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s.
“It was a great day. What was funny is that all of us, the VIP guests, were in wheelchairs – referring to herself, Tutu and Leah. We are old. So much time has gone. They did not want us to get tired. They organised wheelchairs for us to move around.”slide 1 of 1
Tutu was frail, so the day was observed with a special church service. Radebe, Tutu’s only living sibling, was seated in front as one of the guests of honour next to his wife, Leah, who is also Radebe’s childhood friend.
Radebe speaks about the sense of humour the arch is known for, and it runs in the family.My brother has been sick for too long. The pain he has endured has been unbearable, but what he never forgets is his faith. He calls his wife every night for prayer. I check on him every night because his sickness has weighed hard on the family. Cancer is cruel. It is painful.
Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer in his seventies and has been in and out of hospital for various treatments.
Radebe, who used to run a local old age centre until its activities were halted by Covid-19, explains that Tutu struggles to sleep: “I do not sleep myself thinking of his pain. I can only call Leah, and this makes me sad. I am here, they are there, there is nothing I can do except to pray with them. It is a miracle that he has lived with cancer for so long. I am often tempted to ask God to save him from the pain, but only God knows.”Tutu at his 90th birthday Eucharist service at St George’s Cathedral on October 7 in Cape Town. Photo: Brenton Geach/Gallo Images
Radebe says Tutu enjoyed the mercy of God throughout his life as He delivered him when he was sick with TB when he was a teenager.
After a short stint at Coronation Hospital, Tutu was transferred to Rietfontein Hospital when his TB got worse. He stayed there for almost two years and wrote several exams while in hospital.
This is where history shows how his journey with the Anglican church began when family friend and anti-apartheid icon, Reverend Trevor Huddleston, visited him for prayers and the pair formed a lifelong bond. Huddleston later invited Tutu to become a server in the Anglican church and, years later, when Tutu’s only son was born, he was named Trevor. Huddleston would later be credited as the influence that led to an older Tutu leave teaching to become a priest when he became disillusioned with apartheid policies in education.
Radebe recalls:My brother was very bright. Even the debating team at his high school relied on him. I think Boy was my mother’s favourite because he was smart. When he was at that TB hospital, even though my mother had to catch several buses to get there, she never missed a single visit.
She explains that whether he is well or ill, Tutu’s daily ritual includes a daily walk around his home in Cape Town, and daily prayer and communion.
A few years ago, an idea was mooted at the local Mogale council to turn the home Radebe is safeguarding into a museum, but nothing came of it.
“I complained to Leah that after so much Boy has done for this country, the government has ignored him. What is the use of speaking great about someone when they are dead?” she asks.
Radebe says her brother was able to stay steadfast in his fight against apartheid because he was stubborn by nature.
“He was always strong. At one time, he called me from Johannesburg Park Station on his return from overseas, where he had attended an anti-apartheid convention in Singapore with a Zimbabwe-issued passport. We were all scared they were going to arrest him as he was not allowed to travel, but he was unfazed. As I was trying to talk with him in isiXhosa, my brother answered in English, saying he was with the police’s special branch and was going to tell them exactly what he had told the rest of the world – that apartheid was evil. I was amazed that they did not arrest him that day.”
In Munsieville, the only reminder that Tutu once lived there is the Desmond Tutu Community Library, where young people normally gather to enjoy the benefits of the free Wi-Fi.
Although Radebe says she voted in November’s local government elections, she is disillusioned with her “beloved party”, the ANC, saying it will be tragic if it waits for Tutu to die before it fully recognises him.
* This interview with Radebe was conducted on November 25 2021