BY RYAN LOVELACE | Managing Editor
Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary have moved at “light speed” to launch The Desmond Tutu Center while expressing no concerns about the project or the leadership of the Rev. Allan Boesak.
Boesak, a former anti-apartheid activist and politician in South Africa, arrived in Indianapolis in fall 2012.
Apartheid was a system of forced racial segregation imposed by the then-white South African government.
He was brought to Butler and CTS on a visiting appointment that ended after the spring 2013 semester.
In September, he was named the center’s director.
In the first two months of 2013, Boesak, Butler President James Danko, CTS President Matthew Myer Boulton, and Frank Thomas—who helped bring Boesak to Indianapolis—developed the idea for the center, while brainstorming ways to keep Boesak on campus.
The center will explore and examine topics including social justice, conflict resolution and reconciliation. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the center’s namesake, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.
As the idea for the center grew, the Dungy Family Foundation agreed to provide financial support after meeting Boesak for the first time this summer.
The foundation is a charitable organization led by former Indianapolis Colts’ head coach Tony Dungy.
By September 2013, Danko—in collaboration with Boulton—appointed Boesak the Desmond Tutu Chair of Global Peace, Justice and Reconciliation Studies, and installed him as director of The Desmond Tutu Center.
Thirteen years ago, however, Boesak sat in a South African prison convicted of the theft and fraudulent use of charitable donations.
Court documents show that the South African government found Boesak guilty of stealing nearly 260,000 rand, the equivalent of almost $133,000, when Boesak’s Foundation for Peace and Justice received the donation in 1988.
The court sentenced him to six years in prison, and later reduced his sentence to three years on appeal.
The South African government granted the former anti-apartheid activist and politician early release from prison after just one year, and he received a pardon in 2005.
Butler and CTS created the center and new positions with Boesak in mind. And these positions came with a pledge from Danko for an initial $300,000, with an annual budget of $500,000 moving forward.
Press reports said the center will have a nearly $5 million endowment anchored by the Dungy Family Foundation.
Some have called Boesak a prophet. Others have labeled him an opportunist. But Butler has made him one of its own.
In a September interview with The Collegian following the announcement of the center, Danko said, “Hopefully, you’ve done your homework on him, because he’s right up there with the best. He had options.”
No one at Butler, CTS, or the Dungy Family Foundation expressed any concerns to The Collegian about the progress of the center or Boesak’s ability to lead it.
“Both schools really fell in love with him,” Boulton said.
Boulton said he did not think Boesak’s financial history would impact the center either.
“I don’t think it has a bearing on what we’re doing now,” Boulton said. “Not because we’re unaware of it, but because we have had good conversations with Allan, good conversations between the two schools and—I’ll tell you, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa was a tumultuous period of time.”
Danko said via email the pardon given to Boesak allows Butler to treat him similarly to any other employee.
“It is important to note that he received a presidential pardon, was forgiven by the president of South Africa for the crimes alleged, and his record was expunged,” Danko said. “Accordingly, we have no reason whatsoever to approach his employment differently than any other faculty or staff member.”
But, did Butler and CTS do their due diligence? What type of financial controls will be put in place? And how much direct access to the center’s funds will Boesak have?
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In 1999, a judge found Boesak guilty of three counts of theft and one count of fraud for stealing charitable donations made to his foundation, as reported by The New York Times. The judge said Boesak used the money “as if it was his own,” according to the Times, which also reported that he used the money to purchase, “two luxury homes and a radio studio for his second wife, Elna, among other things.”
In an interview with The Butler Collegian, Boesak said his fate was determined by a South African legal system in transition following apartheid.
“I was in the hands of those old apartheid judges,” Boesak said. “There was a total political motivation after my, behind my whole trial and the way that went.”
Mary Burton sat with Boesak as a member of the board of trustees for
the Children’s Trust, a fund set up to provide food, shelter and access to education for children victimized by apartheid.
The Children’s Trust began as the result of a $350,000 donation from American musician Paul Simon made in 1988 directly to Boesak who ran the Foundation for Peace and Justice. Simon recorded his “Graceland” album in South Africa.
Burton said the Children’s Trust was created as a separate fund and entity from the Foundation for Peace and Justice, but its secretarial and financial administration was carried out by the Foundation for Peace and Justice.
Burton and Boesak fought shoulder to shoulder against apartheid in the 1980s. She served as president of the Black Sash, a human rights organization comprised mostly of white women from Cape Town, South Africa, that opposed apartheid.
She described how the South African government had detained people without due process for many months because of their work against apartheid, and spoke of the hostility directed at anti-apartheid supporters by police.
While some in the government viewed their actions as nearly treasonous, Burton said Boesak led a march to deliver a message of support to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, was a political prisoner for 27 years until his release in 1990.
The police brutalized many people involved in the march, Burton said, so that very few people were able to get anywhere near the prison holding Mandela.
Despite the danger, Burton said Boesak’s followers admired him greatly.
“It was that ability of Allan’s to identify the anger of the young people and to make an effort to channel it into what was intended not to be a violent demonstration, but which turned out to be very brutal,” Burton said.
Instead of using that anger to incite violence, Boesak said he sought to use it as a tool for non-violent change.
“For us (in the anti-apartheid movement) the question was not whether we should take away the people’s anger, because that would not be right,” Boesak said. “For us the question was, ‘Was it possible to channel that anger in positive ways?’”
When Boesak’s foundation started to struggle financially, Burton said she and her fellow trustees watched anxiously, but felt secure because they thought the Children’s Trust could not be touched. Then the money disappeared.
“It was my task to ensure that the investigation took place into the loss of those funds,” Burton said. “And I found it a very hard thing to do. But it was absolutely essential for the integrity of everybody involved in that trust to have it dealt with.”
Burton and Boesak’s shared history made it difficult for Burton to ask police to investigate Boesak’s actions. But she did ask police to investigate.
“It remains one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” she said.
The investigation ultimately led to charges that put Boesak in prison, and had a widespread impact on the anti-apartheid community.
“It was a very dark period in all of our lives,” Burton said. “He certainly went through a very rough time then—lost many friends, lost many supporters. And it must have been very, very hard for him.”
Looking back now, he said that while the situation provided one of the most painful experiences of his life, he could not think of what he would do differently. Boesak said he did not testify at his trial on advice of his legal team. And he said that the foundation used the money to help oppressed anti-apartheid activists, some of whom were imprisoned, and their families.
“I mean, what would you have to do differently? You make sure that in a middle of a civil war, you write down every activist’s name so that you can give account to the police?” Boesak said. “It’s like Nazi Germany. You don’t do that. You don’t leave lists of the Jews that you have smuggled out of Germany for the Gestapo to find. And it was that kind of situation.”
Burton thought about Boesak’s conviction of theft and fraud. She said many people involved in active political campaigning failed to understand financial management and put their trust in the wrong people.
“It was far too easy to make use of funds for one purpose when they were destined for another,” she said. “Because the accountability was not always being required by the people who generously gave money, understanding that the law made it difficult for them to have proper accountability.”
South Africa’s government had placed sanctions on some international financial transfers, hoping to isolate and starve the anti-apartheid movement. This meant foundations such as the Foundation for Peace and Justice had to hide their finances from public scrutiny, which opened the door to the possibility of fraud and misuse.
The government investigated Boesak while Mandela served as president of South Africa. Mandela assumed the presidency in 1994, and appointed Boesak as the South African
ambassador to the United Nations that same year.
But Boesak had to withdraw from the ambassadorship after South Africa’s Office for Serious Economic Offenses launched an investigation into Boesak’s misuse of the charitable donations made to his foundation.
Mandela and Boesak belonged to the African National Congress political party, which ran the Office for Serious Economic Offenses.
Greater insight into how this happened can be found in a confidential cable—sent from the American Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, to the Secretary of State in Washington, D.C., during May of 1995—which Wikileaks made public.
The classified cable said, “Boesak, with tears streaming down his face, visited President Mandela at ANC headquarters…to proclaim his innocence.”
After Boesak’s visit, the cable states, “Mandela publicly voiced his confidence in Boesak, saying the latter should receive another ambassadorship. Boesak crowed about his ‘rehabilitation’ and declared he was ready to serve his country’s government. However, since the investigation by the Office of Serious Economic Offenses had not been concluded, the president and deputy president’s statements (in support of Boesak) smacked of a whitewash, which the press here criticized mercilessly.”
As the investigation pressed on, Boesak left Africa for Berkeley, Calif., to serve as a professor at the American Baptist Seminary of the West in 1995. The seminary functions similarly to CTS.
Keith Russell, former president of the seminary who worked alongside Boesak, did not say why Boesak chose to move to California, but said that the seminary was “delighted” to have him on board.
After a few years, Russell said Boesak turned down his offer to be the school’s dean and resigned from the seminary to return to South Africa to face charges in an attempt to clear his name.
“I always thought that whatever was going on there was in some ways a ‘getting even’ for some of his former leadership,” Russell said. “I think that was a pretty impetuous time back in South Africa, with various people being charged for various things, so we felt that he was a man of high character and conducted himself as such during the time he was with us.”
Others do not think the South African government’s investigation sought revenge on Boesak.
“It wasn’t a witch hunt,” said Princeton Lyman, who served as U.S. ambassador to South Africa from 1992-1995, including when the South African government conducted its investigation.
Lyman said the donors raised legitimate concerns, and added that Boesak had legitimate questions about the rules for the funds provided by the donors from the outset.
When Boesak returned to South Africa, the court found him guilty of theft and fraud, sentenced him to six years in prison, and later reduced his sentence to three years on appeal.
Boesak was granted early release from prison after just one year.
“As I recall it, he was paroled because I think the government, the leading government, the ANC at the time, really didn’t share the view that he deserved to be convicted,”
Lyman said. “I think it was political as much as anything.”
Even though Boesak was released early, he said his jailing had a lasting impact on him.
“It still, though, took away a lot of years out of my life, and it is still one of the most painful experiences to be unjustly accused,” Boesak said. “It remains with one.”
Another cable released by Wikileaks, sent from the American Consul in Cape Town, South Africa, to the Secretary of State in Washington, D.C., showed that the U.S. government had been keeping tabs on Boesak.
“After being released from prison, Boesak continued to enjoy considerable support from the ANC of which he remained a member,” according to the December 2008 cable. “In 2005, South African President Thabo Mbeki pardoned Boesak, a move which some political parties called a travesty of justice and led to speculation that the pardon was purely politically motivated. By July 2008, Boesak had fallen out with the ANC. He accused the party of entrenching racial hatred instead of preaching tolerance.”
Boesak lost the election for the premier of Western Cape in 2009 as part of the COPE party, and said he gave up political life.
“I think that he could have simply gone back to church work,” said Burton, the Children’s Trust trustee. “But I think that he is a man who has a great deal of drive and he may well have wanted to do something more; that seemed to him, seemed to offer more possibilities….
“He really had been seen as a major force to be reckoned with in this country,” Burton said. “And it’s a great pity because I think he would have had a political future also in our society.”
Boesak said he has no intention of ever returning to politics.
“That was the time that I may have realized I should not be in politics at all, maybe I should do something else,” Boesak said. “Archbishop Tutu was always convinced that I had made the wrong decision and that I had been put on earth for some other purpose than to serve in some political party. And he’s right.”
* * * *
Boesak first came to Butler after an option in Memphis fell through. Boesak said the Memphis Theological Seminary had trouble securing the visa.
Claire Aigotti, Butler general counsel, declined to comment on legal matters pertaining to Boesak’s hiring.
A new CTS faculty member, Frank Thomas, had previously worked in Memphis and had brought Boesak to Tennessee for a conference after meeting him in South Africa.
When Boesak emailed Thomas that things had not worked out there, Thomas reached out to Boulton to see what CTS could do.
Located less than two miles apart, Butler and CTS used to be one school. The two have long since separated, but have collaborated on academic and other student affairs.
Boulton said he went to Danko and asked if Butler would take Boesak in for the fall, while CTS hosted him for the spring as previously planned. Danko agreed and thought it was a wonderful idea, Boulton said.
“When Butler was presented with the unique opportunity to engage on our campus someone as internationally renowned and accomplished as Rev. Allan Boesak, we obviously came down strongly in favor,” Danko said via email.
When the 2013 calendar year began, Boesak’s time in Indianapolis at Butler and CTS had started to wind down. Boesak would depart in May after one semester at Butler and one semester at CTS.
Boulton said discussions began in January and February of 2013 about keeping Boesak around. Danko, Boulton, Boesak and Thomas talked, and created the idea for the Desmond Tutu chair and The Desmond Tutu Center.
Thomas, the CTS professor who helped bring Boesak to Indianapolis, said he hopes the center will scrutinize and examine sensitive topics that some might consider taboo.
These include America’s “unequivocal support for Israel” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the issue of mass incarceration as the result of the War on Drugs that Thomas said “was a war on black kids.”
“Can we talk about white privilege?” Thomas said. “You know, can we talk about the fact that your white skin buys you some things that I as an African-American don’t get?”
Boesak said he hopes to develop a program that will identify young leaders in situations of conflict and introduce them to others for networking and educational purposes.
Multiple people have already approached him about an exchange program with South Africa, Boesak said.
As CTS began entertaining the idea of The Desmond Tutu Center, it turned to the Indianapolis community for assistance.
Dr. Lauren Dungy-Poythress is a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, board member of the Dungy Family Foundation, and sister of Tony Dungy. An acquaintance of Dungy-Poythress reached out and asked her to meet with Boulton.
“It sort of started out as maybe a thought, or maybe we’ll have a series or something, and it grew to an actual center and institution,” Dungy-Poythress said. “And I envision in my mind an actual building.”
After learning more about the idea, Dungy-Poythress spoke with her husband D. Wesley Poythress, another Dungy Family Foundation board member who worked in higher education for many years.
Poythress attended Berea College for his undergraduate degree, and said Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s daughter attended Berea too.
Poythress said the idea came to fruition over a dinner table last summer.
“That’s the first time we met Dr. Boesak and his wife, lovely wife, and Dr. Thomas and his wife,” Poythress said. “All of it unfolded and it came to a realization in essence over a meal. It’s amazing what you can accomplish over a meal.”
The couple said it did not wish to disclose the financial support the Dungy Family Foundation would provide, and added that they had no concerns regarding Boesak’s past financial problems.
“I wouldn’t trust anything that happened in South Africa,” Dungy-Poythress said.
The couple said it had no concerns about Boesak stepping into his new position.
“There’s an advisory board,” she said. “There’s going to be several people involved.”
The Rev. Ed Aponte, vice president for academic affairs at CTS, said he has worked to organize that board, which will consist of four CTS representatives and four Butler representatives who will advise Boesak.
Aponte said the operation has moved quickly by higher education’s standards.
“It may not seem like it, but we really are moving at something pretty close to light speed for the way things usually work,” Aponte said. “I don’t think we’re going too fast at all.”
“It’s not moving fast enough, as far as I’m concerned,” Boesak said. “I would like to be in a position where I say, ‘Together we have made a great effort, we have now found money, so now we can begin to say one, two, three, these are the things that we will do in the next three years.’ ”
When asked about the financial oversight and the funding breakdown for the center, Boulton said that Butler and CTS are on the same team and in a 50-50 partnership where each would need to be transparent with the other.
“I don’t know how you feel about teamwork, but it often is not helpful to teamwork when there’s too much accounting going on,” Boulton said. “About, well, hold on, you raised 50 cents and I only raised 45 cents and you know.”
Bruce Arick, Butler vice president of finance and administration, said he hopes the center will subsist “almost entirely” on third-party gifts.
“We don’t plan on taking from other pots of money,” Arick said. “We believe the center can and will be self-sustaining with its own fundraising and support.”
Arick said because he hopes the center will be self-sustaining it will have minimal or no impact on Butler’s finances.
He also said he did not think Boesak’s financial history would impact the center.
“We did not see it as being an impact on the center here,” Arick said. “Mainly because of the role that he would have in the center. And to be honest with you, I don’t, given the time that happened, and different time, different country—I’m not familiar with all of the details of that.”
When Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have supported Boesak, CTS President Boulton said it would appear unfair for him to pass judgment on Boesak’s financial history.
“I am certainly not in a position, myself, to judge during that period of time, or judge individuals in that period of time,” he said.
Boulton said others may feel comfortable speaking against Mandela and Tutu’s support.
“I’m certainly not one of them,” Boulton said. “And as you can tell from my tone, I would really put a question mark beside that kind of judgment.”
Archbishop Tutu spoke to a sold-out crowd of Butler students on Sept. 12, and spoke highly of Boesak.
“[He’s] a remarkable, gifted, indeed charismatic compatriot, with a scintillating record in the history of liberation,” Tutu said, as reported by Indianapolis Monthly.
“I think that he certainly has paid his dues, one might say, and I hope that he will build a new and a good life,” Burton, the Children’s Trust trustee, said. “I think that he does have something to contribute. He’s a good speaker, and, I’m sure, a good lecturer and very charismatic.”
His journey to Butler’s campus seems serendipitous.
“I didn’t know CTS. I didn’t know Indianapolis. I didn’t know Matt Boulton,” Boesak told The Collegian. “These things happen mostly by accident.”
By the time his four-year stay in Indianapolis ends, Boesak said he intends for the center to stand on firm ground.
“One has to raise as much money as one possibly can because the center has to be established,” Boesak said. “The center cannot be a fly-by-night thing.”
Allan Aubrey Boesak was born in Kakamas, Northern Cape, South Africa, in 1945. Now he works more than 8,000 miles away. Here are some key moments in Boesak’s journey to Indianapolis.
(Read more about Boesak and The Desmond Tutu Center he was named director of HERE.)