Of course, I have followed Desmond Tutu in the news, but I had one brief moment alone with him. We were at The Carter Center in Georgia for the inaugural conference of the International Negotiation Network. I forgot some of my materials in one of the conference rooms and went to retrieve them. There was Tutu with his shoes off, feet up on a chair and an open Bible in his lap. He was working on a sermon but graciously took time to chat. He was as genuine in that moment with a younger, over-awed pastor-peacemaker as he was when standing before crowds of thousands.
Peace involves inevitable righteousness, justice, wholesomeness, fullness of life, participation in decision making, goodness, laughter, joy, compassion, sharing and reconciliation.
Nonviolent social rights activist and apartheid opponent
During yet another funeral of yet another young black person slain by the police in South Africa, a policeman was discovered alone in the crowd. Angry youths turned on him and beat him to the ground. His car was torched. Then gasoline was poured on the screaming officer. Suddenly a small robed priest pushed through the mob to the bleeding policeman. In tears, the priest pleaded for the man’s life. The young people turned their anger on the priest who did not give ground. He told them he understood their anger, knew they had been beaten, imprisoned and some of their friends killed. But he challenged them about the noble cause in which they were engaged—and argued that there was no need to kill in that cause. The policeman was saved by the priest’s intercessions. It was another day in the courageous peacemaking journey of Desmond Tutu amid the crushing violence of apartheid in South Africa.
Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born to parents of mixed black ethnicity. He suffered many afflictions in his childhood and youth: polio, severe burns and tuberculosis. He also discovered the prejudices and injustices suffered by blacks in South Africa. He became a teacher, but following the passage of the 1953 Bantu Education Act, which aimed at degrading education so that blacks would only be eligible for manual labor, he and his wife, also a teacher, resigned.
Tutu turned to Christian ministry, describing his call as,
God grabbing me by the scruff of my neck. He joined the Anglican Church and studied in England. He then began working through a series of posts as pastor, university chaplain and teacher in South Africa and in neighboring Lesotho and Botswana.
Through his studies, teaching and experience, Tutu developed a theology centered on the African cultural philosophy of Ubuntu, sometimes summed up as:
A person is a person through other people. Our humanity is woven into the community we have with other humans, so the destruction of that community by violence and injustice is actually a destruction of our own humanity—both for the oppressed and the oppressor. The perpetrators of the apartheid system were, in Tutu’s eyes, bound to their victims, and they were dehumanized by their own dehumanizing behavior. As Tutu said,
It was equally clear that recovering from this situation would require a magnanimousness on the part of the victims if there was to be a future. The only way we can be free is together.
That magnanimity along with tremendous courage and clarity of words made Tutu a prophet of hope amid a situation that seemed hopeless. Tutu was not a political priest, rather he was driven to politics by his pastoral heart for his people. His eyes could twinkle with joy or flood with tears, mirroring the profound heights and depths of life in his nation. In 1968, as the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) was growing on the campus where Tutu was chaplain, police tried to break up a demonstration. Tutu joined the students and said,
If you are arresting the students you can count me as their chaplain with them. From that point on Tutu was a leader in the movement against apartheid. He held prayer vigils for those detained. He presided over funerals for victims of police violence, including the funeral of BCM leader Steve Biko. He preached,
Our cause, the cause of justice and liberation, must triumph because it is moral and just and right. He exhorted whites to condemn the repression.
Tutu was chosen as General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, which gave him a national platform for his actions. He called for economic sanctions and boycotts against South Africa, acknowledging that there would be some increase in suffering for blacks as a result, but that if the end of apartheid was brought closer the cost would be worth it. He was arrested at demonstrations and responded by leading detainees in prayer and song. He also consistently called for nonviolent action, questioning activists during protests in Port Elizabeth,
Why must we discredit our cause by using methods that, if they were used against us, we would oppose? He called people to press on with courage,
Being courageous does not mean never being scared; it means acting as you know you must even though you are undeniably afraid.
In 1984 Tutu was selected for the Nobel Peace Prize. That same year he was elevated to be Bishop of Johannesburg, the first black person elected to such a post. Two years later he was named Archbishop of Cape Town, thus becoming head of the Anglican Church in South Africa, again a position no black person had ever held. As the situation in South Africa deteriorated with increasing government repression, Tutu refused to accept bans on his activities. He defied a ban against marches by organizing 30,000 South Africans, black and white, to march for peace. Tutu preached to the crowd,
Come and see what this country is going to become. This country is a rainbow country! That march was a turning point, moving the government from confrontation to negotiation. The continuing protests within South Africa and global pressure from outside finally led to the release of Nelson Mandela from prison.
As apartheid was crumbling, violence erupted between Mandela’s African National Congress and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, violence that was later revealed to have been stimulated by pro-apartheid police. Tutu was frequently on the streets in black communities trying to defuse the rage that was boiling over into violence. He would repeatedly whip up the crowd with his words, using rhetoric many would consider provocative and inflammatory. He would bring the crowd together around his speech, and then carefully channel their anger into constructive peaceful action. He would tell them,
Because we know that we are going to be free, we can afford to be disciplined, we can afford to be dignified and we need to underline the fact of this struggle being a nonviolent struggle. He was a master at such
street mediation, even when the crowds were directing their hostility toward him.
In 1994, national elections were held with blacks voting for the first time. Mandela was elected President of the first majority government in South Africa. This breaking apart of the old apartheid regime opened a new chapter of Tutu’s work. Now, instead of the prophet for liberation, he became the lead facilitator for reconciliation.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to try to move the country beyond the traumas of the apartheid years, and Tutu, as the nation’s clear moral authority, was selected as its chair. The new commission had two basic challenges. First, victims were provided a forum for telling their stories. The suffering of well-known figures like Stephen Biko and the hidden tragedies of the unknown victims of the apartheid repression were publicly aired, many accounts for the first time. During the testimony of one elderly victim of torture, Tutu broke down and wept with his head down on the table.
The second aspect of the Commission’s work was controversial. The perpetrators of the atrocities under apartheid were also given the opportunity to confess with the offer of amnesty under certain circumstances. This generated very different emotions—anger for some people, but also great sorrow. For Tutu, people who could callously talk about their actions and the suffering they caused without any expression of remorse were denying their own humanity. Still, Tutu knew that these stories must come out, and ultimately forgiveness must be expressed.
Tutu’s modeling of forgiveness through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission played a major role in moving South Africa from the horrific violence of apartheid to the possibility of building a peaceful interracial future for his country. He said,
This forgiveness is not about altruism. It is about regaining dignity and humanity and granting these, too, to the former oppressors. He feared that the violence of the past would resurface in the future, trapping the people in a terrifying and hopeless cycle.
If we are going to move on and build a new kind of world community, he said,
there must be a way in which we can deal with the sordid past. The most effective way would be for the perpetrators or their descendants to acknowledge the awfulness of what happened and the descendants of the victims to respond by granting forgiveness, providing something can be done, even symbolically, to compensate for the anguish experienced, whose consequences are still being lived through today. Forgiveness required steps toward restitution where possible, so Tutu spoke about the economic justice needed as part of the rebuilding of South Africa, especially in the black communities.
The post-apartheid process has been messy and full of conflict. The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission left much to be desired, Tutu acknowledged. But for all the shortcomings, the world saw South Africa emerge in far better shape than anyone had imagined. Instead of the feared bloodbath, Tutu and Mandela led South Africa to become a global symbol of hope. For Tutu, this was a divine mission for reconciliation to be forged out of seemingly intractable conflict.
Perhaps God chose such an unlikely place deliberately to show the world that it can be done anywhere. Certainly through Desmond Tutu’s leadership, an example has been set to inspire the world and bring hope to situations that seem irreparable.