When Desmond Tutu has harsh words for the ANC government, most of us sit up and listen and applaud. Especially if we agree with him! But mostly our respect comes because he shows himself to be a man of principle. I have been reading so much about his activity during the apartheid era and the struggle for liberation (for my PhD thesis) that I can quote words that he used then that would apply so well now. He is consistent.
But my observation is on the nature of heroism. We see his stance now (about the apparent reluctance of the ANC government to grant the Dalai Lama a visa to enter the country) as heroic. We see him as heroic because he speaks against the powerful state and against those alongside whom he struggled for liberation. Perhaps most of all he is heroic because if he is not supported by public opinion he could lose his status of 'struggle hero'. He would no longer be popular and admired and even idolised. From a human point of view he could lose all that he has earned in a long and useful life. The ANC could trash him and badmouth him.
What did his heroism look like in the apartheid era? He spoke out against an unpopular government and a system that disadvantaged the vast majority of the South African population. He may have lost the good opinion of certain white people, but he spoke for the masses. His courage was in that his personal safety was threatened. The TRC hearings showed how ruthlessly the apartheid government physically eliminated their opponents. He had some measure of protection after winning the Nobel Prize as he became more famous, but nonetheless he had to suffer fear and victimisation of both himself and his family.
It is odd that nowadays we have politicians continually surrounded by bodyguards as if they are in fear of their lives - yet I doubt that Tutu feels that fear now. He has shown a special sort of courage. He has stood up in spite of his life and family being threatened and he has stood up again now in spite of his reputation and acceptance by the community being threatened.
It is a moral courage that is both physical and existential and I suspect that it is quite rare.