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Desmond Tutu
Desmond Tutu
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Desmond Tutu Interview (page: 2 / 4)

Nobel Prize for Peace

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  Desmond Tutu

But then I decided, no, I would not participate any longer as a collaborator. When the government decided that they were going to have something called Bantu education, an education specifically designed for blacks, and they made no bones about the fact that it was designed as education for perpetual serfdom. Dr. Favolt said, "Why do you have to teach blacks mathematics? What are they going to do with mathematics? You must teach them enough English and Afrikaans, the other white language as it were, for them to be able to understand instructions given to them by their white employers." He said that. I mean, unabashedly that was the purpose for him of education. So I said, "No, I'm sorry. I can't -- I can't collaborate with such a travesty, but I didn't have too many alternatives, too many options to choose from.

What first drew you to the priesthood?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: I wanted to become a doctor, a physician, and I was admitted to medical school, but my family did not have the money for fees. So I ended up becoming a teacher. I stopped being a teacher when the South African Government introduced a deliberately inferior education for blacks called Bantu education, and I felt I wasn't ready to collaborate with this apology for an educational system. Our children, the 1976 kids who revolted against apartheid in Soweto, called it "gutter education," and it was gutter education. I left teaching. Of course, I didn't have too many option, and mercifully, the Bishop of Johannesburg at that time accepted me for training for the priesthood. So I came to the priesthood, as it were, by default.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

What do you think the Bishop saw in you that set you apart from other young men?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: What did the Bishop see in me? I wonder. I actually do wonder. There is one thing which made me slightly different. Up to that point, not too many people with university degrees were offering themselves -- certainly in the black community -- were offering themselves for training for the priesthood. So, he might have considered me a rare catch. And, I have to say it's been an incredibly fulfilling and rewarding vocation. God has been wonderfully, wonderfully good.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

What have you found so rewarding about the priesthood that someone who has never experienced it wouldn't know?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: What is rewarding about the priesthood is, one, that you have an incredible privilege of being privy to some of the most extraordinary things about people. I mean, as their parish priest, you visit people who are sick, say, on their death bed and they tell you things that they probably have not shared with any other person. You are privileged to bring the Holy Sacrament to people at a time when they are probably at their lowest. But you also have the privilege of meeting up with people at their moment of great joy, when they are getting married, or when they have a child baptized. And you know, you are given the privilege of connecting people, as it were. Connecting people with the transcendent, connecting people with their God. And in many ways, each one of us, of course, is expected to be an icon, an image of that which is invisible, an image of God, each one of us because we each have been created in the image of God. So people actually, if they want to know, "What is God like?" they would have to look at you and me and see us as being compassionate, because God is compassionate, as being loving, because God is loving. God is invisible. People wouldn't know about God except through those who are God's representatives, you and I and all of us.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Being the Archbishop of Capetown carried political responsibilities. You had seen the black African's struggle to end apartheid had been escalating from one of peace to a more forceful resistance?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: I wasn't really a political animal in the sense of being outraged almost all of the time but when I was at Theological College -- I went to Theological College in 1958 and the year when I was going to be ordained a deacon is the year of Sharpeville, the Sharpeville Massacre when police opened fire on peaceful demonstrators against the past laws. Then, you know, you began -- I mean, you intensified a sense of outrage that you had, which had developed actually even at Teacher Training College.

You see, in 1955 the ANC had this passive resistance campaign which didn't succeed. In 1960 you had Sharpeville. You kept thinking that our white compatriots would hear -- you know, would hear the pleas that were being made. I mean, we had people like Chief Albert Luthuli who won the Nobel Peace Prize, the first South African to do so, who had been present of the ANC. And remarkably moderate really in the kind of demands that they were making but it was -- it kept falling on deaf ears and increasingly people felt that it was going to be more and more difficult to bring about these changes peacefully.

Desmond Tutu Interview Photo
I mean, even people like Nelson Mandela. I mean, they were striving to work for those changes nonviolently and when they began engaging in acts of sabotage they were very careful to ensure that they were attacking installations and not people. They tried to avoid casualties as much as possible. And it was 1960 that changed them when in 1960 after Sharpeville and they were banned -- the ANC and the PAC were banned -- that they decided there was no real hope of a nonviolent end to Apartheid. They were forced to take on the armed struggle but even at that time I was not articulate and there was an evolution.

I was appointed dean of Johannesburg in 1975. And that -- we were sufficiently political, my wife and I, because up to that point the dean of Johannesburg had been white and the deanery was in town. My wife and I, we were in London. When we were appointed we said we're not going to ask for permission, which we might have got, to go and live in town and the permission under -- I mean, it wasn't a right. We said, "Well, we'll live in Soweto." And so that -- we begin always by making a political statement even without articulating it in words.

Desmond Tutu Interview Photo
And when I arrived I realized that I had been given a platform that was not readily available to many blacks and most of our leaders were either now in chains or in exile. And I said, "Well, I'm going to use this to seek to try to articulate our aspirations and the anguishes of our people." And I was -- I mean for some reason the press were very friendly. I mean virtually anything I said it got fairly wide publicity, which was a great help.

But the thing I think that thrust me possibly into the public consciousness, I had just been elected bishop of Lesotho. I had gone there to become bishop and I went for a retreat. I don't know -- I mean, I don't know what happened but it just seemed like God was saying to me, "You've got to write a letter to the Prime Minister." And the letter wrote itself.

In May of 1976 you wrote a letter to the Prime Minister warning of a building tension among black South African youth over the government imposed Bantu education. What was its significance leading up to the June 16th, 1976 riots?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: I wrote the letter to the Prime Minister and told him that I was scared. I was scared because the mood in the townships was frightening. If they didn't do something to make our people believe that they cared about our concerns I feared that we were going to have an eruption.

I sent off the letter. I probably made a technical mistake by giving it to a journalist before hearing from the Prime Minister because this journalist was working for a Sunday newspaper and gave it enormous press, and I think quite rightly the Prime Minister was annoyed that I had not given him the opportunity but never mind. He, the Prime Minister, dismissed my letter contemptuously. I wrote to him in May of 1976. I said, "I have a nightmarish fear that there was going to be an explosion if they didn't do anything." Well, they didn't do anything and a month later the Soweto happened.

The South African government for some odd reason had ignored my letter where I warned. I didn't have any sort of premonition, although I felt there was something in the air, but when it happened, when June the 16th happened, 1976, it caught most of us really by surprise. We hadn't expected that our young people would have had the courage. See, Bantu education had hoped that it was going to turn them into docile creatures, kowtowing to the white person, and not being able to say "boo" to a goose kind of thing, you know, and it was an amazing event when these school kids came out and said they were refusing to be taught in the medium of Afrikaans. That was -- that was really symbolic of all of the oppression. Afrikaans was the language they felt of the oppressor, and protesting against Afrikaans was really protesting against the whole system of injustice and oppression where black people's dignity was rubbed in the dust and trodden underfoot carelessly, and South Africa never became the same -- we knew it was not going ever to be the same again, and these young people were amazing. They really were amazing.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

What was it about these kids that makes you use the word "amazing?"

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: I recall that on one or two occasions, I spoke to some of them and said, "You know, are you aware that if you continue to behave in this way, they will turn their dogs on you, they will whip you, they may detain you without trial, they will torture you in their jails, and they may even kill you?," and it was almost like privata on the part of these kids because almost all of them said, "So what. It doesn't matter if that happens to me, as long as it contributes to our struggle for freedom," and I think 1994, when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first democratically elected president, vindicated them. It was the vindication of those 1977 remarkable kids.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

When you first began to speak out publicly against the apartheid system as Bishop of Lesotho, there must have been people who said, "This is hopeless. It's not going to make a difference. There's nothing you can do that will ever change anything." How did you cope with that?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Many of us had moments when we doubted that apartheid would be defeated, certainly not in our lifetime. But, I never had that sense. I knew in a way that was unshakable, because you see, when you look at something like Good Friday, and saw God dead on the cross, nothing could have been more hopeless than Good Friday. And then, Easter happens, and whammo! Death is done to death, and Jesus breaks the shackles of death and devastation, of darkness, of evil. And, from that moment on, you see, all of us are constrained to be prisoners of hope. If God could do this with that utterly devastating thing, the desolation of a Good Friday, of the cross, well, what could stop God then from bringing good out of this great evil of apartheid? So, I never doubted that ultimately we were going to be free because ultimately, I knew there was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Desmond Tutu Interview Photo
And actually now having had the advantage of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and being able to look at some of the records of what the Apartheid government was doing, the thing that is surprising to me is why so many of us survived. I mean, how is it that they did not assassinate more of us? And it is in a sense a mystery unless, of course, you say, well, God does have very strange ways of working because, I mean, they could have -- you know, I mean, people say, "Well, maybe you were saved by the fact that you were in the church and you -- " and I believe that that is true.

I really would get mad with God. I would say, "I mean, how in the name of everything that is good can you allow this or that to happen?" But I didn't doubt that ultimately good, right, justice would prevail. That I said -- there were times, of course, when you had to almost sort of whistle in the dark when you wished you could say to God, "God, we know you are running the show but why don't you make it slightly more obvious that you are doing so."

And I mean, you know, you look and you say today there really isn't a cause today in the world that captures the imagination, the support, the commitment of people in the way that the Anti-Apartheid cause did. I mean, the Anti-Apartheid cause was global. You could go almost anywhere in the world and you'd be sure to find an Anti-Apartheid group there. We are beneficiaries of an incredible amount of loving. People were ready to be arrested. They were demonstrating on our behalf. People kept vigils on our behalf. I mean you see it now in some ways -- well, even before Nelson Mandela was released in 1988, Trevor Huddleston, who was my mentor and was President of the Anti-Apartheid Movement suggested that young people should come on a kind of a pilgrimage which would culminate in Hyde Park Corner on the day or very close to the day of Nelson's birthday, the 16th, I think the 16th of July, and young people responded. Young people who most of them were not born when Nelson Mandela went to jail in 1988 and they flocked. There must have been at least a quarter million young people congregated in Hyde Park Corner in London and Trevor Huddleston said -- this was Nelson's 70th birthday -- "Let this be his last birthday in jail." Now that was '78 -- in '88. It's not too bad when you think that two years later he was out. But, you know, here was a man who could command so much reverence and support especially from people -- young people who had never seen him, heard him, seen pictures of him, were not born when he went to jail. That was a measure of the support that we have had.

What I have to say really bowled me over was how quickly the change happened when it happened.

One moment, Nelson Mandela is in jail, and the next moment, he is walking, a free man. One moment, we are shackled as the oppressed of apartheid; the next, we are voting for the very first time. I was 63 when I voted for the first time in my life in the country of my birth. Nelson Mandela was 76 years of age. But, it happened, it happened. It happened partly because the international community supported us. People prayed for us. People demonstrated on our behalf, especially young people. Students at universities and college campuses used to sit out in the baking sunshine to force their institutions to divest and the miracle happened. We became free because we were helped and we want to say a big, "Thank you," to the world. And, you can become free nonviolently.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Did you and Nelson Mandela meet for the first time after he was released from imprisonment in 1990?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: I had seen him only once before, before he got arrested, in the 1950's when he adjudicated at a debating contest, and I was part of that. I never saw him really again, although now our houses in Soweto are not so very far apart. In 1990, I think it's the 11th of February, he came out and came to spend his first night in the house which was the official residence of the Archbishop of Cape Town, and I was the Archbishop of Cape Town! And he spent his first night there. Incredible. We hardly saw him. He was ensconced with the leadership of his party, the African National Congress, and now and again, they would be interrupted. There is a phone call. This is the White House, and there is a phone call. This is the Statehouse in Lusaka. I mean, he was getting telephone calls congratulating him and wishing him well, and he then had his first -- on the Monday, he had his first press conference as a free man on the lawns of Bishop's Court. Sort of, that was the extent of our meeting. I mean, I met him in the morning just to say, 'hi,' but what I do remember is he went around thanking the people, my staff, for, you know, people who had cooked their meals. He's always been gracious in that kind of way, but this is sort of the first time I saw his charm working on people.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

There were times when you were subjected at the least to fierce criticism, and there were times when you must have feared for your life. How do you deal with that?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: We received death threats, yes, but you see when you are in a struggle, there are going to have to be casualties, and why should you be exempt? But I often said, "Look, here, God, if I'm doing your work, then you jolly well are going to have to look after me!" And God did God's stuff. But it was -- I mean people prayed. People prayed. You know, there's a wonderful image in the Book of the prophet Zechariah, where he speaks about Jerusalem not having conventional walls, and God says to this overpopulated Jerusalem, "I will be like a wall of fire 'round you." Frequently in the struggle, we experienced a like wall of fire -- people all over the world surrounding us with love. And you know that image of the Prophet Elijah -- he is surrounded by enemies, and his servant is scared, and Elijah says to God, "Open his eyes so that he should see," and God opens the eyes of the servant, and the servant looks, and he sees hosts and hosts and hosts of angels. And the prophet says to him, "You see? Those who are for us are many times more than those against us."

[ Key to Success ] Courage

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