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Desmond Tutu

Interview: Desmond Tutu
Nobel Prize for Peace

June 12, 2004
Chicago, Illinois

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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."

When you first began, you knew what you were trying to do, and you perhaps had some idea of what you thought it would take to achieve this goal. Now that the goal of ending apartheid and creating democracy in South Africa is achieved, what do you know now that you didn't know before?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: I have come to realize the extraordinary capacity for evil that all of us have because we have now heard the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and there have been revelations of horrendous atrocities that people have committed. Any and every one of us could have perpetrated those atrocities. The people who were perpetrators of the most gruesome things didn't have horns, didn't have tails. They were ordinary human beings like you and me. That's the one thing. Devastating! But the other, more exhilarating than anything that I have ever experienced -- and something I hadn't expected -- to discover that we have an extraordinary capacity for good. People who suffered untold misery, people who should have been riddled with bitterness, resentment and anger come to the Commission and exhibit an extraordinary magnanimity and nobility of spirit in their willingness to forgive, and to say, "Hah! Human beings actually are fundamentally good." Human beings are fundamentally good. The aberration, in fact, is the evil one, for God created us ultimately for God, for goodness, for laughter, for joy, for compassion, for caring.

When Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa in 1994, he appointed you Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Do you think that marks the beginning of a new South Africa?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Well, when in 1994 he was elected and I was given the privilege of introducing him to South Africa as our new president and to the world, I sort of whispered to God and said, "God, I don't really mind now. I mean, if I die now, it would be almost the perfect moment. This is the theme for which we had all been waiting for," and then a year or so after that, to be asked to preside over a process for trying to heal a traumatized and wounded people was just an unbelievable privilege, and it was an amazing, amazing experience where people of all races, not just black people, people of all races amazed the world with the exhibition of their magnanimity, their generosity of spirit, their willingness not to seek revenge and retribution, but to be willing to forgive. I mean forgive sometimes the most horrendous atrocities that had been committed against them. We would not be sitting here and speaking of a South Africa that is now celebrating 13 years of freedom I think if we had not had a process similar to the one that we engaged in.

It was not faultless. I mean, it couldn't have been perfect. It had its flaws, but it was a good thing to have happened for us to, and I said at one time it was like looking the beast of our past in the eyes, taking very serious account of what had happened, not pretending it hadn't happened, and to the extent that we could do anything about it, dealing with it in that fashion, and then saying we have dealt with a significant part of our past, we are now closing that chapter of our history, and we are turning a new page where we are going to try to walk together as a united people.

In the past, we were aware of alienation, oppression, and injustice. Now we want to demonstrate to the world that it is possible to become a rainbow nation, a nation of all races, of different cultures, of different religions, and say it is possible for such to cohere and become one nation.

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We are the only nation that has 11 official languages. We have a national anthem in which we sing in four languages. I think we are about the only nation in the world that has a polyglot anthem of that kind and with different tunes, as it were, trying to incorporate elements that were held in high regard by different sections of our community, so we have something that reminds us of the Africana. We sing in English, we sing in Xhosa, we sing in Sotho, we sing in Afrikaans, all in one national anthem, and yeah, it has been amazing, given where we come from. It has been amazing that we should have the kind of stability we have had.

We have got many problems, poverty, HIV/AIDS, crime, but anyway, you can say show me one nation in the world that has no problems and I will tell you of a fiction.

How do you see the situation in South Africa now? Do you see a conflict between the drive to attract investment, and at the same time repair the economic inequalities that have survived apartheid? Some have said the reparation process is being slowed down by economic considerations. What are you views on that?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: You can't put a money value to freedom. You know, people will frequently ask, "Have things changed in South Africa?" And in a sense, they haven't changed. I mean -- when you referred to the material things, which are quite important -- I mean, the people who lived in shacks in 1994, many of them still live in shacks. Those who were the affluent in the apartheid years have tended still to be the affluent. But you know, what money value do you put to being free? It's an incredibly difficult thing to describe to someone who has never been un-free, what it means now not to have shackles. It's almost like trying to describe a red rose to a blind man or to try to tell someone about the beauty of a Beethoven symphony and they're deaf.

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So a great deal has changed, but we in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said, "Watch it. You can kiss reconciliation and forgiveness goodbye, unless the gap between the rich and the poor -- the haves and the have-nots -- is narrowed, and narrowed quickly and dramatically."

So yes, we face very, very considerable problems. I used to be "Mister Disinvestment." Now I would like to be Mister Investment and say, "Come! Come and be part of an exciting, exhilarating process. Come in! Come in on the ground floor and see a people do something that's probably never happened before, people seeking to become something radically different from what their antecedents would have made us believe they were likely to become."

What was your reaction when you learned that you had won the Nobel Peace Prize?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: [Laughter.]. There's a fantastic feeling. A fantastic feeling. You -- I mean, elated. Elated because it made several points. It was saying our cause is noble. Our cause is nonviolent and you're saying you people who have been oppressed in South Africa the world is with you. You people, who have been oppressing them, watch out.

And then -- I mean, one of the points that the committee made was that the award was not a personal award. I was General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches at the time and they made it quite clear that really it was a corporate award. They gave it to me because I think it is usually better than giving it to an institution and I have an easy name. You know what I mean, Tutu. Every -- any European can say -- any American can say Tutu. Whereas if, I mean, I had been something like Matashavalla that might have made it a little more difficult. So -- and you see it's an incredible thing. You say something before you get the Nobel Peace Prize. You say something. You get the Nobel Peace Prize and you say the same thing that you said before you got the prize and now everybody thinks, "Oh, dear, the oracle has spoken."

And, it opened doors which was important for our people. It was important for our people at that point in our history because we were tending to go off the radar screen and this brought us back spectacularly. I had been trying -- and it happens I was trying to have an interview with President Reagan and they weren't particularly interested in seeing me. As soon as I got the Nobel Peace Prize, I didn't do anything and I got word, "The President is inviting you to the White House with Mrs. Tutu." So, I was able to meet with him and to say the things that I wanted to say on behalf of our people face-to-face. So, it was a fantastic -- it was a fantastic thing. I was in New York at the time. In the extraordinary kinds of ways that God works. See the South African Government had prevented me coming the previous year. They had taken away my passport and then allowed me to come in 1984. And you couldn't have had a better place in a sense for the thing to be announced so that it had maximum impact. I mean, New York. If you wanted -- if they had asked me where do you want to be when they announce the Nobel Prize, I couldn't have chosen a better spot but they are very meticulous, these people, and very, very careful.

We got word that somebody was -- my aide -- I was at a seminary, a general theological seminary and he got word from the Norwegian Ambassador to the United Nations who he said asked him whether I would be there the following day, which is I think the 10th of October when the announcement is usually made. And, I said to my wife, "I don't think they usually want to come and tell you, you have not got the Nobel Peace Prize. Why should he want to know where I will be tomorrow?" And it was the most awful thing to have been told, you know, because try as we might to be indifferent, it was a lie. I mean, you were not -- certainly I wasn't indifferent. In many ways I wanted to have got the prize for the reasons that I -- and also just for personal reasons. I mean, yeah, it's nice to be a Nobel Laureate. And my wife and I, poor things, we had one of the most awful nights that I could ever remember and I got up early, usually I went for a jog. I was this -- the professor who was looking after me said, "I'm sorry, don't go out today. Don't go out because the press was camped outside the seminary." And then somebody said, "The Ambassador is arriving and he is carrying flowers." But, I say I don't -- I don't think they usually come with bouquets to come and tell you, "Look here, sorry, I mean you have not got the Nobel Peace Prize." My poor wife and I tried to be as indifferent as you could have ever imagined and then his Excellency came and knocked on the door of the apartment and greeted us and said, "Good morning." And it was about, I think, 10:00 o'clock or so, and he said, "Well, at this time in Oslo they are announcing now that you are the Nobel Peace Prize winner for 1984." And again, I mean, you are not quite sure. You pinch yourself. Is this a dream? You're going to wake up and discover you were imagining all of this, yeah.

You provided extraordinary leadership at a crucial time in your country's history. What do you think are the essential elements of leadership?

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu: You might say that it helps if you maybe are articulate. It helps if you can be funny and it helps -- it helps to know -- I mean -- and it's not because you are being humble. It is that you know that you are standing out in this crowd because you are being carried on the shoulders of others. You know, you may have the capacity to articulate their aspirations. That is maybe something special you might have. But what is a leader without followers? I mean you would have all of these interviews and people will not -- would not necessarily want to follow. No, I am a great believer in the fact that everything is corporate. Everything is corporate and you -- as a leader you are one who can coax the best out of others.

What do you say to young people? Dream. Dream. Dream. Be like God, dream because God believes in you young people. Most of God's best collaborators and partners have been young people. Joseph, David, Jeremiah, St. Francis. They are young, young, young. And in many ways Jesus was young. Many of those who have been God's best works -- fellow workers have been young. And don't allow oldies to fill you with their cynicism and disillusionment.

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Dream. Dream that this world can become better as you do dream, in fact. I mean, when these young people go off and work as Peace Corps and other volunteering groups in poverty stricken places where they don't get any better headlines for dreaming the good things. Dream. Dream. Dream. Dream that this can be a world without poverty. Dream that this can be a world without war. Dream that this is a world that will recognize that every human being matters. Dream. Dream. Dream.

Our Lord Jesus Christ provided a revolutionary paradigm shift for what a leader should be, turning sort of topsy-turvy the prevalent conventional views according to which the leader is one who lords it over his underlings. Basically they have to know their place.

It seems that the lines are often blurred that distinguish between a political leader and a spiritual leader. Your ambitions didn't seem to set you on a path to holding a political office. Did you ever envision yourself pursuing a politics?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: There will always be so many who might say, "Ah, he's a politician masquerading as an archbishop." Politics is so all-pervasive, and in my theology, obviously, all of life belongs to God, and you don't have compartments, this is your economic life, this is your political life, this is your religious life. Religion encompasses all of those. But yes, I wouldn't myself have said I was setting out to be a political animal. It is just how things have panned out that at a particular moment, our political leaders were not available. Either they were in jail or in exile or restricted in some form or another, and I just happened to be a leader by default to our people and that particular time in our history.

Someone said, "There are two rules in this operation. Rule number one: the leader is always right. Rule number two: in case the leader is wrong, refer to rule number one." It is that we think of the one who leads as a person who uses verbs in the imperative mood. "Do this!" "Jump!" You ask, "How high?" Now Jesus said, in fact, the real, the authentic leader shows the attribute of leadership in a kind of paradoxical way, almost an oxymoron.

The leader is the servant. So leadership is not having your own way. It's not for self-aggrandizement. But oddly, it is for service. It is for the sake of the led. It is a proper altruism. Now that paradigm sounds hugely unrealistic, idealistic, something for dreamers, namby-pamby -- when you think of our current world as a world of cutthroat competitiveness, dog-eat-dog, where stomach ulcers become status symbols, survival of the fittest, everyone for himself, herself, and the devil take the hindmost. And yet, you see, if you live by this latter code in your corporation, in your school, in whatever organization, you may indeed succeed, but it is at very, very great cost. You end up being feared rather than loved, as happened with a former state president of South Africa's, P.W. Botha, when the knives were out for him. No one, not even his closest associates, mourned his departure. And so they frequently say, "On your way up, be nice to those you meet. You might encounter them on your way down."

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And you realize that this isn't just something that is idealistic, romantic, sentimental. Just look at a Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa and Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela, and you'll see that one of the outstanding characteristics of each one of these is how they have poured themselves out prodigally on behalf of others, of their being so utterly selfless.

And when you thought that in a hard-nosed, cynical age such as our own, you would be wanting to admire, hold in high regard the macho, the aggressive. It isn't the "hose" that we revere! Mother Teresa? You could say a lot about her, but "macho" is not one of the words you would use of her. And yet the world has had an incredibly deep reverence for her. She's not been even successful. And yet people almost universally would say this is true leadership, this is authentic leadership, because she has a credibility that seems to come far more easily through suffering.

Suffering seems to authenticate the leader. And so you see a Nelson Mandela, who was President not of a usually successful country, militarily or economically, and yet one has to admit that perhaps we have to say he stands head and shoulders above virtually every other statesperson in the world. And you say, "Why?" And it will be that people will say, "Well, his magnanimity, his readiness to have forgiven those who treated him so shabbily." Ultimately, it is that we recognize goodness. Goodness! Mother Teresa, she is good. Not successful, not macho. The Dalai Lama, mischievous, and yet with an incredible well of serenity at the center of his life. Someone who's been in exile for several, several decades. And so you think, I mean, that to some extent, suffering has to be a component of that which goes to make a good leader. And then you lead by leading, being willing to take risks. Mikhail Gorbachev did that with glasnost and perestroika. Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, they were not doing things that were hugely popular within their constituencies. And then I think you have to be someone who affirms others, someone who is ready to see the good that is in others, and perhaps help to coax it from them.

There was a cartoon that showed God looking at a poster that said, "God Is Dead." And God, looking somewhat quizzical, said, "Oh, that makes me feel so insecure." We, each of us, need so much to be affirmed. For each of us has -- gnawing away at the center of our being -- a sense of insecurity, some more than others. And frequently, the more insecure, the more aggressive we become. The more we like to throw our weight about and say people should recognize us. If they don't recognize us for goodness, then they will recognize us for being stroppy (obstreperous).

Almost all seem to want to see in the leader the attributes that they wish they themselves have: integrity, compassion, gentleness, magnanimity -- the things that make you and I proud to be human, to say, "Ah yes. There are awful things about us, but I realize I am actually made for the transcendent. I am made for goodness. I am made for laughter. I am made for caring. I am made for sharing." And those leaders who somehow embody these things show that it is achievable. Yes, the sky is the limit, and we are meant to reach for the stars and dream God's dream.
How can a leader gain the trust of his enemies after peace has been declared? How can the United States, for example, begin the process of peace in Iraq through the eyes of the world?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Remember that the resentment and the anger leveled at the United States is not leveled against Americans as Americans. It is leveled against a particular policy followed by a particular administration, and change the policy or maybe change the administration, and you will find, I mean, that there is very little anti-Americanism in the world. There is a lot of -- I mean, there is a lot of anger at an America that has been arrogant and an America that believe it is good, go it alone. You know, your unilateralism where you went to the United Nations thinking that they would just endorse your view, and when they said no, you said go jump in the lake, and you went and you did your own thing, and you landed in a huge mess. Well, people don't want to say we told you so, you know, because you realize, I mean, after 9/11, most of the world was deeply -- I mean, America was held in the highest. People really felt deeply for you, and I'm sure you all felt loved, and you dissipated it in next to no time. You know, I mean, chop, chop, chop, and it disappeared, but it shows, you know, it isn't that there is an ingrained hatred of America. There isn't. I mean, people love you, and you can still travel I think. On the whole, you can travel in most parts of the world, but they certainly -- and I share -- I share that anger at your arrogance, at your bully, bully boy behavior. I mean, it doesn't sit well. If you change that, you will be -- you will be the blue-eyed boy, blue-eyed girl of the world.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Archbishop.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: God bless you.

A lot of people will draw inspiration from your words today.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Thank you.




This page last revised on Aug 19, 2009 15:04 EDT