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Desmond Tutu Centre for Spirituality at UWC

New Centre explores Spirituality in South Africa

There was a celebratory mood at the launch of UWC’s new Desmond Tutu Centre for Spirituality and Society on 2 December 2014, and for good reason, as the Centre is seen as the culmination of a consensus-based process to supplement the University’s Desmond Tutu Chair for Ecumenical Theology and Social Transformation.

Working hand in hand, the Chair and the Centre would, in the words of Chair incumbent, Professor Christo Lombard, “engage with the Tutu legacy in civil society”.

The Centre’s beginnings can be traced back to 2006, when the University kick-started its plans to establish the Desmond Tutu Chair. That chair, it was envisioned, would honour the legacy of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu - who had served as UWC Chancellor for almost 25 years - through teaching and research aspects of the Tutu legacy in theology and social transformation.

The Chair took a while to get going, but was finally established as a rotating chair in 2012. A year later, Lombard, on his retirement from the university’s Department of Religion and Theology, was appointed as the incumbent of the Chair after he had shared duties with two other scholars during the preceding year.

Much was expected of Lombard. Not only was he set the task of turning the Chair into a fully endowed one, but he was also to direct efforts to establish what would become the Desmond Tutu Centre for Spirituality and Society.

Last week, Lombard could tick both boxes on his to-do list. (Fundraising efforts will continue, however.)

The Centre’s aims, as explained at the launch, are ambitious. Firstly, it aspires to “honour, treasure and sustain the vision and legacy” of the former Chancellor through engagement between UWC and religious groups and organisations, and civil society. Secondly, the Centre would pull together projects and themes initiated in the Department of Religion and Theology, such as ecumenical studies and social ethics, under the Centre’s broad goal to investigate – in both theoretical and practical terms – the role of religion and spirituality in civil society in South Africa.

At the launch, speaker after speaker spoke of how the Centre will take its moral cue from the life and person of Desmond Tutu.

“He was always to me a profound example of humanity, humility, humour and grace,” said Professor Duncan Brown, Dean of the Faculty of Arts.

“We have become what we now are as a consequence of the fact that ‘the Arch’ is with us,” added Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Brian O’Connell.

And in his public lecture on Desmond Tutu’s Style of Ethical Leadership, it was Lombard who explored the contributions of one of South Africa’s most beloved public figures.

“He has a canny ability to bring synergy where others see only opposition or difference,” said Lombard. “His leadership was transformative. It was definitely a form of servant leadership. It was inclusive and affirming of his co-workers, but it also had a very disciplined side to it, including prayer and meditation and real dedication to the task.”

In spelling out the Centre’s many tasks, objectives and programmes, Professor Ernst Conradie, Chairperson of the Department of Religion and Theology, highlighted the part that community engagement – a mainstay of UWC’s reputation – will play in the life of the Centre. This engagement will by and large revolve around collaborations with faith-based organisations (FBOs) and, through them, community organisations. “These faith-based organisations are the dynamos of social change,” Conradie explained.

The official launch of one of these FBOs followed immediately after that of the Tutu Centre. The AHA Movement (Authentic, Hopeful Action), described as a “Christian response to the triple problem of poverty, unemployment and inequality in South Africa”, gathered at UWC to mark its formal beginnings and to plot its way forward. By all appearances, a major future partner of the Desmond Tutu Centre, AHA features the likes of Frank Chikane and Dr Mamphela Ramphele among its fold.

However, it was naturally ‘the Arch’ who took centre stage at the launch. His heartfelt prayer at the event bore his trademark humour and compassion. “So, give thanks to this incredible God,” he said, “who can turn a desert into a garden - this God who can turn hate into love.”