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Desmond Tutu
Desmond Tutu
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Desmond Tutu Interview

Nobel Prize for Peace

June 12, 2004
Chicago, Illinois

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  Desmond Tutu

When you were a boy in Klerksdorp, what was your childhood like, and what experiences had a large influence on you?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: My childhood in Klerksdorp? Well, like any other black child, we lived in a ghetto, and yet, it wasn't as if you went around feeling sorry for yourself.

My father was a schoolmaster, and I remember waking up one evening late, and seeing the room in which I was sleeping filled to the brim, as it were, with musical instruments -- drums and kettle drums and trumpets -- because they had a troop of Pathfinders -- something like Boy Scouts -- and it was just wonderful waking up and having all of this in front of you! And then, I often accompanied my father. I really liked riding with him on his bicycle on Saturdays. He was very fond of fishing. I don't think I liked fishing. I mean, you had to sit quietly and still, but I enjoyed the ride. And it was fun, it was fun. I mean, as I say, you didn't go around lugging a deep sense of resentment. We knew, yes, we were deprived. It wasn't the same thing for white kids, but it was as full a life as you could make it. I mean, we made toys for ourselves with wires, making cars, and you really were exploding with joy!

And it really was fun. I mean, my parents -- my father was a school master and principal of the primary school/elementary school in which I started. My mother was not very educated but it was great fun. I mean, you know, I had two -- still have two sisters. My brothers died in infancy so I was the only boy in the family and to some extent perhaps a little bit spoiled.

Was there any book that you read growing up that had the most effect on you?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: But one of the things that my father did was to let me read comics. Now people used to say that's bad because it isn't -- it spoils your English but, in fact, letting me read -- I devoured all kinds of comics -- fed my love for English and my love for reading but I suppose if he had been firm I might not have developed this deep love for reading and for English, which stood me in good stead when I later went into hospital for 20 months. I did have something to do.

Desmond Tutu Interview Photo
Desmond Tutu Interview Photo
I had -- as things maybe got a little bit more serious, I was given a diet -- we didn't have too many books but my father was keen that one read things like Aesop's Fables and Lamb's, Tales from Shakespeare. I didn't read the originals but I read these stories that describe what Shakespeare was saying in the plays and that possibly was something that sharpened your appetite for later. I read -- that would have been some of the things that I did. And then he had books that seemed to be like encyclopedia and it was fun just paging through. I recall just one occasion in class in this elementary school our teacher asking whether any one of us knew what they called those things in Holland for stopping the water. And it had just happened that I had been looking through these several books that my father had and it looked like I was really smart because I put up my hand and I said, "Dikes." And the teacher didn't know what to do. I mean, he was looking for something to -- I mean, he really wanted to put me on a pedestal for having been able to know this particular thing but, yeah, I really enjoyed and had fun.

Was there one teacher in particular you remember?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Ultimately, it's a man who was teaching us English Literature in what we call matricula, the last 2 years of high school. He really was quite extraordinary. When he spoke of a Shakespearean play, you almost thought that he grew up with Shakespeare! He was very good, yes. A black guy who was fantastic and gave us a deep love for literature.

Do you remember his name?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Yes. Geoff Mamabulu. He died. Geoff Mamabulu. He was fantastic, fantastic. But I had other teachers. If you gave me five opportunities, I would give you five good teachers who were incredible.

I mean good teachers, you know, people who were dedicated despite the fact that -- yeah, we lived a segregated life and when you went to town where the whites lived you saw their schools much, much, much better in equipment, better grounds.

And even more extraordinary -- see, I used to -- my father bought me a bicycle and I was about the only kid in the ghetto who had a bicycle and he would send me into town. And, frequently I would see black kids scavenging in the dust bins of the schools where they picked out perfectly okay apples and fruit. White kids were being provided with school feeding, government school feeding, but most of the time they didn't eat it. They preferred what their mommies gave them and so they would dump the whole fruit into the dust bin and these kids coming from a township who needed free meals didn't get them. And so they got -- it was things that registered without your being aware that they were registering and you're saying there are these extraordinary inconsistencies in our lives.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

But you see I grew up in a town called Ventersdorp and today -- well, Ventersdorp became notorious because it's the town where somebody called Eugène Terre'Blanche, who headed up the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, AWB, Afrikaans Resistance Movement. A Neo Nazi group. Well, that was also his headquarters and I frequently said, "Well, you know, if South Africa can survive DTs and ET, it can survive anything." But this town that had -- yeah, I mean, it was racist to the extent that, you know, I mean all of South Africa was racist. blacks lived in ghetto townships called "Locations" and the whites in the white area. Although actually very strangely they allowed Indians even in Ventesdorp. Indians could live in the white residential area but they went to school with us.

But what I was trying to say is human beings are odd. I would go to town in part to go and buy newspapers for my father and, before taking them home, I would spread them on the sidewalk, the pavement, and I would kneel to read. Now this is a racist town. I can't ever recall any day when what should have happened, in fact, did happen, which is that a white person would walk across the face of the newspaper. I can't -- I mean, I still am puzzled that they used to walk around this newspaper with this black kid kneeling down there reading when you would have expected that they would have made my life somewhat uncomfortable. I mean, I cannot understand that particular inconsistency. It is, therefore, one of my memories that why in the name of everything that is good didn't those whites actually just be nasty, and they weren't.

What kind of student were you as a kid?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: I was okay. I think I was okay.

Some people might have thought that I was perhaps, not totally unintelligent, but I give a lot of credit to our teachers because although our schools had very deficient equipment that we didn't have many of the things that you would have expected in a school. We had very -- many of the people who taught us were very dedicated and they inspired you to want to emulate them and really to become all that you could become. They gave you the impression that, in fact, yeah, the sky is the limit. You can, even with all of the obstacles that are placed in your way; you can reach out to the stars. I mean, when I went to high school our school did not have enough classrooms to accommodate all the students and so many of us, especially in -- well, what we call from one, the first year of high school, we used to meet in church buildings and it used to be just one big hall where they accommodated four classes. So, you had to have a teacher who was engrossing because you could hear what the teacher in the other class was saying and if that was more interesting your teacher really had his job cut out to keep your attention, and we didn't have desks. We sat on benches that were used on Sundays as the pews for the church and you sat when the teacher was holding forth and then when you wrote you knelt behind the bench and where you had been sitting was now your desk top so we used to write on those.

But again, you know, it's -- maybe we were not as politically conscious as kids became although I don't think that is entirely true because we were glad when the Nazis were defeated. I went to high school in 1945 and we celebrated VE day. It was just wonderful.

We were wonderfully encouraged by what blacks were achieving in the United States. I recall when I was about nine picking up a tattered copy of Ebony magazine and I think -- I mean, maybe journalists ought to know just how much power they actually have because here I was 10,000 miles away from America with this copy of Ebony magazine and it was describing the exploits of Jackie Robinson and how he broke into major league baseball. Now I didn't know baseball from ping pong but what was so important for me, what made me grow inches was to know that a black guy had triumphed over all of the obstacles that were placed in his way and there he was now playing for something called Brooklyn Dodgers. Now I didn't know Brooklyn Dodgers. I didn't know Jackie, but it helped to exorcise what is the most awful consequence of racial injustice and it is the sense -- this demon of self-hate when you have a very low self-esteem.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Desmond Tutu Interview Photo
And I recall the many deaths we died when say Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, fighting Billy Conn (1941) and losing or nearly losing. We would weep for those losses and when he triumphed somehow it was our victory. He was a kind of surrogate for us over there. Yes, we were being clobbered here but that didn't matter, that is how it should be. It was possible as he had indicated and others.

I recall, too -- it may not have been a very good film, Stormy Weather. I don't know -- I mean, whether you realize my pedigree vintage from the fact that Stormy Weather was a hit movie in the townships largely, of course, because the cast was all black and when I met Lena Horne later in life I told her, "Oh, I fell in love with you when I was about nine years of age." The Fats Waller and the Ink Spots and all that kind of thing, you know, those were things that helped us to know that -- how a racist society defined us was not the truth about us. And, again, you see, I mean we didn't sit down and sort of work this out rationally consciously. It was things that as we were taking in unaware that you were in but that they helped you eventually one day in the struggle that you were going to make against the awfulness of Apartheid. The recognition that not all white people, in fact, were the same. I mean, even that thing that these Afrikaans in Fantastop didn't walk over my paper but walked around the paper maybe contributed to when one later on was in the struggle against racist Apartheid remembering the essential humanity of people.

When you were a kid, what did you want to do? What did you want to be when you grew up?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: I know that for a very long time my consuming passion, which was confirmed when I contracted TB -- I had TB when I was about 12 or so -- was I wanted to be a physician and when I got TB I was even more determined. I want to be physician so that I can find a cure for the scourge. And, in fact, I was admitted to medical school. If we had had the funds maybe today I would have been a physician. As it turned out, I was not able to take up my place at medical school and instead went to Teacher Training College because the government was giving scholarships for people who wanted to become teachers.

I became a teacher and I haven't regretted that. I mean, it has just been wonderful because I thought back to my own teachers and what they had meant for me. And really trying to get kids who in so many other aspects of life were being told that they didn't really count to get them to know that they really could become outstanding whatever they wanted within reason because in South Africa there were things that were outside the range for blacks -- that were put outside the range for blacks by, I mean, deliberate decision.

I went back to teach at my alma mater, the high school where I'd done my own high school education and you were shaken by the conditions under which our kids were having to learn. I was teaching English and to think, I mean, that we had classes -- this was average -- of 80 students in a class and especially with language work you had to give kids a great deal of exercises, marking all of those 80. And, maybe you taught not just one class, you taught -- I taught one, two, three, four classes. Two of which were about 80 each and the other two about 40 each, but that was sort of virtually par for the course. And, you complain -- to whom would you complain because the government's position was that these natives are a nuisance and the least you can do for them, the least you can get away with the better, but you would have thought we were already the pits in many ways. Our educational system was the pits. It was just the sheer determination of the people who -- well, the parents, many of the parents uneducated but they were slogging like nobody's business to give their kids the little education that they could get because they felt it gave them a chance to lead a reasonably better life, slightly better than their own parents.

Desmond Tutu Interview Photo
I remember that one of the people who became a leading novelist in South Africa, Askim Patheli, he had at one time been a teacher, a high school teacher, and then couldn't take government policy. And you know he went and worked as a clerk at a blind -- at a school for blind blacks and he was a driver/clerk. I met up with him because my mother was a cook in the same institution and now here was this guy, he could have sort of disintegrated but despite doing what was a very lonely job he went on to study and by correspondence, distance learning he put in a master's thesis and was the first person -- not the first black -- he was the first person at the university, the University of South Africa, to get a master's in English with distinction, you know. And so you had wonderful role models and they were some of the things that subverted the ghastliness of our situation.

And so I -- yeah, I tried to be what my teachers had been to me to these kids seeking to instill in them a pride, a pride in themselves. A pride in what they were doing. A pride that said they may define you as so and so. You aren't that. Make sure you prove them wrong by becoming what the potential in you says you can become. And so I taught for four years and it was fun. It was fun. I mean, it was fun when you got -- I taught English and History and it was fun when you got kids beginning to see the interconnectedness of things.

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