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Deaths of two global figures struggling against apartheid diminishes us all

Jan 12,2022 - Last updated at Jan 12,2022

The deaths over a month’s time of two global figures struggling against apartheid diminishes us all. South Africa's former Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the US-Bahamian film star Sidney Poitier will be remembered as high-profile pioneers in the vanguard of the campaign to eliminate racism.

Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who died on December 26 at the age of ninety, was mourned in his homeland and around the world. His demise marked the end of a generation of politicians, including South Africa's first black president Nelson Mandela, who spoke their minds and fought apartheid.

Born to poor, educated parents in 1931 in a mining town, Tutu trained as a teacher but when apartheid dictated that black and brown children would receive a poorer quality education than their white compatriots, Tutu opted for the Anglican priesthood. As he rose in the hierarchy of the church he adapted Mahatma Gandhi's strategy of peaceful rassistance as the means to liberate people of colour in South Africa. He called for equal rights for peoples everywhere and backed the imposition of international sanctions on his country in the expectation that the white apartheid regime would be compelled to change course.

Tutu was castigated by the regime which brutally suppressed black and brown opponents and by the African National Congress freedom movement which used violence to overthrow apartheid. On the world stage, he stirred anger by calling on peoples fighting for freedom to adopt peaceful rather than armed resistance to oppression.

When apartheid ended in 1990, Tutu stepped back from politics but Nelson Mandela, who was elected the country's first black president in 1994, appointed him to lead the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tutu conducted this mission with passion, humour and compassion and urged victims and relatives of those killed to forgive their jailers, abusers and murderers. He feared cracking down on them would lead to civil conflict.

As a Nobel prize laureate, major international figure and spokesman of the oppressed, Tutu surprised many world leaders 19 years ago when condemned Israel's rule over the Palestinians as apartheid, a stand few adopted until last year. He angered Washington and London when he joined Mandela in strongly opposing the 2003 war on Iraq. During a 2008 visit to Gaza, he called Israel's siege and blockade of the strip a "gross violation of human rights". In 2009, he gave his support to the Palestinian "boycott, divestment and sanction" (BDS) movement and argued there is no military solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. "The solution is more likely to come from that non-violent toolbox we developed in South Africa in the 1980s to persuade the government of the necessity of altering its policies." Israel and its friends have, of course, ignored his assessment.

Actor Sidney Poitier, who died at 94 on January 6th, was no global peace warrior like Desmond Tutu. Poitier was born in 1927 to poor, uneducated tomato farmers who lived on Cat island in the Bahamas and travelled to Miami to sell their produce. When he was ten, his family moved to Nassau, where his father drove a taxi, and at 15 the youth was sent to live with his brother in Miami. At 16, he went to New York City and worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant where a waiter taught Poitier, who had no formal education, to read. After a brief spell in the army, he won a role in a play put on by the American Negro Theatre. He was not a success, however, because he was tone deaf and he could not sing, an expected attribute of a black actor in the 1940s.

In 1947, Poitier helped found the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, a leftist organisation opposing class and racial exploitation. After winning recognition while performing in a black theatre production, he was offered a role in "No Way Out", a 1950 film in which he played a doctor treating a white racist patient and in 1951 he was a preacher in the film version of Alan Paton's novel about South Africa, "Cry the Beloved Country”. Poitier had his break in "The Blackboard Jungle" where he was a student in a restive mixed race vocational school. In 1958, Poitier starred alongside Tony Curtis in "The Defiant Ones", about the escape of two prisoners, one black, the other racist white. The film won eight Academy Award nominations, including a first for a black male actor. In 1963, he became the first black to win the best actor award in "Lillies of the Field", playing a migrant handyman who helps nuns build a chapel.

The pattern was set for Poitier's career by his close friendship with Harry Belafonte, 94, US-born singer, song writer, actor, director ands activist of Jamaican background, combined with Poitiers's insistence on roles not previously given to black men who traditionally played servants and lazy workers. Poitier and Belafonte met at the American Negro Theatre where they developed a close, brotherly relationship which lasted 70 years. Commenting on their friendship in an interview with PEOPLE, Shari, Belafonte's daughter said her father was active in the US anti-apartheid movement while Poitier broke barriers by "taking a stand in the characters he portrayed so brilliantly on film". She added, "They both focused on making this world a better place for all people, not just people of colour."

(In 2017, Belafonte, other black stars and several sportsmen rejected a trip to Israel which they said was meant to exploit their fame to advance Israel's agenda "at the expense of the Palestinian people".)

In 1963, Poitier and Belafonte helped organise Martin Luther King's million-man freedom march on Washington and were involved in planning for his funeral after his 1968 assassination. In 1964, Poitier and Belafonte travelled to the south to deliver $70,000 to Freedom Summer volunteers registering black voters and were pursued by armed white militiamen until the friends took refuge in a black neighbourhood.

In 1967, Poitier starred in "To Sir With Love", "In the Heat of the Night" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", three films dealing with race and class. In the first, Poitier was a teacher in a working-class, white London school, in the second a northern police detective investigating a crime in the deep south, and in the third a black doctor meeting prospective liberal white parents-in-law. In the second film, Poitier's character rebuffs a racist police chief who insultingly calls him "boy" and slaps the white suspect when slapped by him. This, incident, astonishing for the time, became the "slap heard around the world".

Poitier summed up his career in a 2000 conversation with Oprah Winfrey by saying he made films with white directors and producers who sought to expose racism to mainstream viewers who remain the only sector of US society that can end apartheid in that country.

Unfortunately, however, many black men and women have become the professors, doctors, preachers and detectives Poitier portrayed on film, political and social apartheid still reigns in the US where white reactionaries remain determined to keep people of colour from winning freedom from persecution, discrimination and marginalisation.

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