A lasting friendship born of apartheid
Stewart Ting Chong was an anomaly in apartheid South Africa, where he was born and grew up. Chinese, he and his family were classified as “non-white’’ and subjected to the same racial discrimination as the majority blacks. Chong wasn’t allowed in white schools, and he couldn’t attend the University of Pretoria, where he had hoped to study veterinary medicine.
So he went to a technical college, now part of Nelson Mandela University, where he studied accounting. In 1994, when Mandela, the anti-apartheid hero, became the first democratically elected president of South Africa, Chong was finally allowed to vote.
There was the Immorality Act, too. “If I went out with someone who was white, I could get arrested,’’ said Chong, 52, who now lives in Canton, where he works for a high-tech company. He and his wife, Marsha, are currently in South Africa celebrating the 80th birthday of the man who married them in Hingham in 1999: Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
How Chong met Tutu, who rose to worldwide prominence for his leadership against apartheid, can be traced back to those dark days, when the archbishop was trying to focus international attention on the brutality of the South African government. In 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Growing up, Chong had been told by his parents to keep a low profile. “The Chinese community was small,’’ he said. “The attitude was, stay under the radar, don’t kick up a fuss.’’ It was advice he didn’t always heed. He became a whiz in the fledgling information technology field, and, after college, was accepted to study for the Episcopalian priesthood.
But he learned that Tutu, head of the Anglican Church in southern Africa, was looking for help getting out the word on apartheid. The media were strictly controlled by the South African government. “Foreign journalists were barred from political rallies,’’ recalled Chong.
Trinity Church in New York gave Tutu a grant for a private communications network, and Chong was chosen to set it up. It was 1987, and it began as little more than a rudimentary e-mail system, which would later be hailed as the first in South Africa.
Chong came to know Tutu in the thick of things, as the archbishop’s human rights campaign was making him a target of hate in his own country. Chong’s job was supposed to last six months, but it would last eight years as he joined Tutu’s personal staff as part of his communications team.
“Every morning, we’d all start off with the Eucharist, and then join him for morning and afternoon tea,’’ said Chong. He never knew who he’d meet at such sessions: a high government official, a European princess, a human rights activist.
There was a distinct dark side, including death threats. “Someone hung a fetus of a monkey outside his gates, and he was sure his phone was tapped,’’ said Chong, who traveled extensively with Tutu.
There were times when Tutu was trying to defuse encounters between police and protesters that he, Chong, and other staffers would be caught in the middle of tear gas, whips, water cannons, or worse.
Once, the archbishop knew he would be arrested during a protest outside a Cape Town cathedral. Chong was on the top floor observing, and as soon as Tutu was put into a police car, he sent an e-mail to New York, which communicated it to “every single archbishop in the world,’’ Chong said. “They immediately contacted P.W. Botha [the South African president at the time], and the archbishop was released.’’
On the day in 1990 when Mandela was released after serving 27 years in prison, Chong got to meet him, as Mandela spent that night at the archbishop’s residence. “The archbishop was one of the few black leaders in South Africa who was not either in prison or exile,’’ said Chong, who believes Tutu was protected by his Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1995, when the archbishop became chairman of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Chong left Tutu’s staff. The commission sought restorative justice through testimony from victims and perpetrators of violence and human rights abuses during apartheid.
Chong, needing to “earn a decent salary,’’ went to work for a South African software company. On a business trip to the United States, he met a woman at a JFK International Airport cafeteria. Tray in hand, she was looking for a place to sit and Chong invited her to join him.
They started chatting. Marsha Minasian lives in Canton, where she works in human resources. In 1999, after a long-distance courtship, they were married at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Hingham, with Tutu presiding. They hadn’t told their friends about the archbishop, and one woman remarked, “That’s Desmond Tutu!’’ Her husband responded: “No, it’s just someone who looks like him.’’
Chong laughs at the memory.
The couple’s 12th anniversary was Oct. 2, the day they arrived in South Africa to celebrate Tutu’s 80th birthday. Though his birthday was Friday, there were three days of celebration organized by Tutu’s daughter, who invited the Chongs as a surprise for her father.
Chong, who has a large family in South Africa and visits periodically, sees Tutu there, and when the archbishop comes to the United States. “He’s so much been a part of our lives,’’ he said.
Shortly before the couple left for South Africa, Chong said they were debating a big birthday question. “What the heck do you buy the man? I have no idea.’’
Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.