Friday, 28 November 2008

Is there life after Lavinia Brown?

Is there life after Lavinia Brown?

There was a farewell party for Lavinia Brown yesterday, the personal assistant of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. She has served him for the last 22 years, which is ever since he became the Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986.

One should never underestimate the role and influence of a personal or private secretary. It is a powerful position which could be used and abused in many ways. For example Lenin’s secretary, also a woman, became a leader in her own right during the 1917 Revolution in St Petersburg. In Lavinia’s case it is certainly true that she has made a career in her own right as well, but it is a career that is touchingly loyal to the leader himself. Just as an example, she was instrumental in lobbying for Desmond Tutu becoming the Nobel Peace Laureate for the second time, which would have been unique; the reason being that he after having retired as archbishop was given the daunting task of leading the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission 1996 – 1998. This commission, as is well known, is the most famous of all and has triggered off a number of commissions in other parts of the world. Had it not been for this commission, and the high profile work, not least media wise with the chairperson, the very term reconciliation would not have become political currency as the case is world wide today. Even the aftermath of the war in Iraq is talked about in terms of reconciliation, an expression and a phenomenon that simply did not exist in the political arena some 20 years ago.

So Lavinia had a good case, but as far as I know it has come to nothing.

Lavinia told her own life story yesterday at the farewell party in Milnerton, Cape Town. Alluding to a story of a church verger who was sacked because he was illiterate, but thanks to that became a successful business man, she told her own story. Due to her father losing his job, she could not pursue her studies and had to earn a living, entering a secretarial work pool. Gifted as she is, she made her way within the world of secretaries, but without having the opportunity of furthering her studies. However, anyone who knows her would say that she has picked up an enormous amount of knowledge along the way. The Archbishop admitted yesterday that she also had prepared many of his speeches in various ways.

When the Archbishop has been unable to come to an event it has happened repeatedly that the organizer has asked Lavinina Brown to step in instead.

But nevertheless, the hard question is, now when she is leaving the office at the end of the year, what will happen? Desmond Tutu is now 77 years old. As Nelson Mandela said to him at his 75th birthday, having seen Tutu trying to play soccer with some kids in Cape Town: “You are a man of 75 years of age, and from now on I also expect you to behave like one”. And is there life after Lavinia Brown? The answer is probably yes, but to be sure things will be different. You simply cannot replace a person like Lavinia and the dynamic that has developed between her and the boss cannot easily be emulated. Their differences in terms of gender, racial or ethnic background etc between them have led to a highly creative relationship that hardly can be overestimated. As a team they were already the new South Africa in 1986. When Tutu entered Bishopscourt as the new Archbishop of Cape Town he met the current staff, also Lavinia Brown, and the words that went out from the new primate, while they were standing in the library are a fine example of a balance of some humility, self irony and of being in charge. He said to Lavinia: I want you to stay on as the archbishop’s secretary and after a while we will see if it works. If it doesn’t, one of us will have to go. Until the end of this year they are still together.

There is life after Lavinia Brown and she knows it. Excellent new staff have come into the Tutu office lately and there is some excitement about this fact as well. Lavinia will certainly, after a few months of furlough, during which time she will teach university courses on a cruising ship, start a new career, and the incredible insights that she has gained during these 22 years with this remarkable man will come in handy. We hope Desmond Tutu doesn’t mind.

To end off, there is a background to the catch phrase, “is there life after Lavinia Brown?”. The truth is that when Desmond Tutu had his last bishops’ meeting just before his retirement in 1996, one national newspaper had as rubric and the question was concerning his Anglican Church, then called “The Church of the Province of Southern Africa”: Is there life after Desmond Tutu? It could never have been easy to succeed Tutu as archbishop, but the church has not lost its life. It is proven, beyond any reasonable doubt that this church has life, is all-embracive, acutely aware of social and political problems etc. A number of our Anglican students who study at our university attest to the same. The service of Desmond Tutu has meant a great deal.

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