JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Desmond Tutu giggles often and cries easily. But that should not fool anyone. At 75, the retired Anglican archbishop who valiantly fought the evils of apartheid retains a feisty willingness to tweak those in power.
Only now, South Africa is ruled by the black-led African National Congress, the same movement Tutu worked alongside during the long, bitter struggle to end oppressive white minority rule.
"I'm so desperately anxious for our country to succeed, and it has the capacity, the potential," the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner said in an interview, explaining his blunt talk. "We're really mucking it up unnecessarily."
In a speech last month, Tutu rued the latest "saga" at the South African Health Department. It was a veiled shot at President Thabo Mbeki, who fired a deputy health minister widely praised for energizing the country's response to an AIDS crisis that kills 900 people a day.
And Tutu, while hailing the gains that democracy and freedom have brought this country of 47 million, lamented much else - from the millions of poor blacks still living in flimsy shacks to rampant public corruption to a growing litter problem.
He said he had been naive to believe that ideals so evident among so many during the anti-apartheid fight "would be transferred almost automatically" afterward.
"I imagined that we would almost all of us want to say, 'I don't want to be richer than another, stinking rich, when somebody else is at the bottom of the pile,'" he said.
In the interview, Tutu called it "presumptuous" to think his comments might influence official policy. But he said he hopes to encourage others to raise their voices against what he has called Mbeki's culture of "kowtowing sycophancy."
"At the moment," Tutu said, "I think there are quite a few people who have points of view who are scared of airing those views because they feel intimidated."
Some veteran observers of this country's political scene think he might well embolden others. Tutu, after all, is revered by South Africans, black and white, as the country's moral conscience.
He chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the late-1990s national soul-searching to come to grips with apartheid's brutal legacy. And his name is commonly uttered in the same breath as that of Nelson Mandela, the iconic anti-apartheid hero elected president in 1994.
Tutu echoes many rank-and-file ANC members, said Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, a former Progressive Party leader and apartheid foe. "I speak to a lot of these people. They voice exactly the same disquiet," he said. When Tutu speaks, "it churns up the debate internally. People start getting more and more vociferous."
Still, Aubrey Matshiqi, an analyst at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, said Tutu might be right to question his rhetoric's effect when it comes to decisions made by Mbeki and his Cabinet.
"He still has a lot of moral influence, not only in this country but outside too," Matshiqi said. Yet, "it's not obvious to me the moral weight impacts on policy decisions made by the ANC government."
Mbeki, president since 1999, has tangled with Tutu in the past. But presidential spokesman Mukoni Ratshitanga took a polite stance when asked about Tutu's most recent barbs. "We respect the archbishop's right to express his own views," Ratshitanga said.
In the Aug. 31 speech, given while accepting an honorary doctorate from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Tutu invoked the thousands who died trying to end the racist apartheid system. "I wonder what they would say if they could visit present-day South Africa? They would surely be thrilled to know that their sacrifices were not in vain."
They would be glad that "injustice and oppression had disappeared," he said, that millions had access to clean water, that black pilots were flying for South African Airways, that the press was free.
But he imagined they would be saddened and shocked to learn that:
Crime has gotten so bad that "hijackers could kill, almost for the sheer hell of it, car owners who had surrendered their car keys."
"So many still lived in shacks" and that "the ghetto matchbox houses of apartheid days were often better" than government houses built recently for poor blacks.
The gap between rich and poor was growing ever wider.
There was "so much corruption."
Too many South Africans were "not ashamed of littering ... throwing banana skins anywhere but in the nearby trash can."
Then there is the AIDS scourge. In his speech, Tutu said activists would lament that in recent years "too many died unnecessarily because of bizarre theories held on high."
"They would be distressed," he said, "by the latest episodes in the saga of a Health Department that has been less than efficient and has presided over the vast deterioration in health standards of our land."
Mbeki once asserted that HIV could not be the sole cause of AIDS. Today he rarely speaks of a disease afflicting 5.5 million South Africans. His health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has been criticized for overstating the side effects of anti-retroviral drugs and the benefits of garlic, olive oil and supplements in treating AIDS. Detractors call her Dr. Beetroot and blame her for a belated rollout of anti-retroviral drugs in 2004.
The latest "saga" involves Mbeki's firing of Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. His stated reason was that she attended an AIDS conference in Spain without permission. But AIDS activists say the health minister wanted Mbeki to find a pretext to remove her.
Adding to the furor, the Sunday Times of Johannesburg reported last month that Tshabalala-Msimang jumped the organ-transplant line to get a new liver in March after years of alcohol abuse. She denied the accusation, and Mbeki has stood by her.
Tutu did not name any names in his speech. But he said in the interview that "you'd have to be really dumb not to realize the references." He gave another reason for not mentioning the president or health minister: "I'm not seeking to personalize this thing."
That seemed to happen three years ago, when Tutu criticized Mbeki's progress on reducing poverty as well as his policies on AIDS and the increasingly dictatorial regime of Zimbabwean President Robert G. Mugabe, whom Tutu has derided as "a caricature of an African dictator."
Mbeki replied in an ANC publication that the archbishop used "empty rhetoric" and that "it would be good if those that present themselves as the greatest defenders of the poor should also demonstrate decent respect for the truth."
That prompted a retort from Tutu. Mbeki, he charged, viewed him as "a liar with scant regard for the truth and a charlatan posing with his concern for the poor." Tutu added: "I will continue to pray for you and your government by name daily, as I have done and as I did even for the apartheid government."
Whereupon the ANC issued a statement saying that neither the party nor the president felt that way about Tutu, "but we do recognize that even someone like yourself has the capacity to err."
In the interview, Tutu said that he doesn't "wake up in the morning and say, 'Ah, now I want to say some outrageous thing.'"
He said he feels compelled to speak out just as he would feel the urge to rescue a child in the path of a car. Rather than pondering what to do, "you just jump and hope you can save the child, isn't that so?"
Tutu was reminded in July of how high the stakes are for South Africa to succeed. It was the kickoff of the Elders, a group of distinguished statesmen - including Mandela and former President Jimmy Carter - who hope to tackle some of the world's more intractable problems.
Tutu, the chairman, presided at the launch at Johannesburg's Constitution Hill, once the site of a notorious jail and now home to the country's Constitutional Court. Near the end, British musician Peter Gabriel sang "Biko," his ballad about Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid leader killed by security forces 30 years ago yesterday.
After the song, Tutu lost his composure. He put his head down and a faint sob was audible as he wiped his eyes. Asked about the moment recently, he said he was overwhelmed - both by memories of preaching at Biko's funeral and by his awe of the transformation of the one-time apartheid jail into a place of justice.
"It was all in the air, and that song just triggered it," he said. And then, as if he felt a need to end the interview on a light note, he did his trademark giggle.