Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Interview with Kerry Kennedy

There’s a high level of unemployment in South Africa that helps fuel a serious level of crime. These things feed off one another because the crime then tends to make foreign investors nervous. And there aren’t enough investors to make a significant impact on the economy so the ghastly legacies of apartheid—deficits in housing, in education, and health—can be truly addressed.

If you were to put it picturesquely, you would say this man and this woman lived in a shack before April 1994. And now, four years down the line, the same man and woman still live in a shack. One could say that democracy has not made a difference in material existence, but that’s being superficial.

There are changes of many kinds. Things have changed significantly for the government, despite the restrictions on resources. The miracle of 1994 still exists and continues despite all of these limiting factors that contribute to instability. They are providing free health care for children up to the age of six and for expectant mothers. They are providing free school meals and education through elementary school. But the most important change is something that people who have never lived under repression can never quite understand—what it means to be free. I am free.

How do I describe that to you who have always been free? I can now walk tall with straight shoulders, and have this sense of pride because my dignity, which had been trodden underfoot for so long, has been restored. I have a president I love—who is admired by the whole world. I now live in a country whose representatives do not have to skulk around the international community. We are accepted internationally, in sports, etcetera. So some things have changed very dramatically, and other things have not changed.

When I became archbishop in 1986, it was an offense for me to go and live in Bishopscourt, the official residence of the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town. Now we live in a village that used to be white, and nobody turns a head. It’s as if this is something we have done all our lives. Schools used to be segregated rigidly, according to race. Now the schools are mixed. Yes, whites tend to be able to afford private schools. But government schools, which in the past were segregated, have been desegregated. Now you see a school population reflecting the demography of our country.

I was an advocate for sanctions and as a result, most of the white community regarded me as the man they most loved to hate. They would say, “Sanctions are going to hurt blacks.” Yet South Africa was prosperous largely on the basis of cheap labor, using the iniquitous migratory labor system, where black men lived in singlesex hostels for eleven months of the year. Even my constituents were ambivalent about me. And so you had graffiti like: “I was an Anglican until I put Tu and Tu together.” Some were really quite funny, like “God loves Tutu” adding, “The gods must be crazy.” If looks could kill, they murdered me many times over. When I got on a plane in Johannesburg, or a train in Cape Town, the looks that I got were enough to curdle milk.

I received death threats, but that was not unexpected. If you choose to be in the struggle, you are likely to be a target. There are casualties in a struggle. Of course, it isn’t nice to have threats and things of that sort. But it is par for the course.

When they threatened my children, that really upset me, that really got my goat. If somebody is intent on threatening me, that’s okay. But they didn’t have a modicum of decency. They could hear it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my wife, it was only a child on the telephone. They could have either dropped the telephone, or said, “Can you call your father, or call your mother?” But they didn’t.

One threat came from a group called the “White Commando.” They said that either I left the country by a certain date, or they were going to dispense with me. We told the police, who showed a sense of humor. One said, “Archbishop, why don’t you do us a favor and stay in bed that day?”

I think my family would have felt that they were disloyal if they pressured me to change. I asked Leah, my wife, once, “Would you like me to keep quiet?” I have never been more wonderfully affirmed than when she said, “We would much rather be unhappy with you on Robben Island (the South African island prison where black political prisoners were jailed), than have you unhappy thinking you were free (in the sense that I had been disloyal to what I believed was God’s calling to me).” Anything else would have tasted like ashes. It would have been living a lie. There is no reason to live like that. I suppose I could have been maybe part of a struggle in a less prominent position. But God took me, as they say, “by the scruff of the neck,” like Jeremiah, who for me is a very attractive character because he complained: “God, you cheated me. You said I was going to be a prophet. And all you made me do is speak words of doom and judgment and criticism against the people I love very much. And yet if I try not to speak the words that you want me to speak, they are like a fire in my breast, and I can’t hold them in.”

Now you can’t believe it’s the same country. The pleasures of conforming are very, very great. Now it’s almost the opposite. I mean on the street, they stop to shake hands and talk. When we found out that I had cancer, I was getting cards from the most unlikely quarters. At least on one occasion a white woman wanted to carry my bags and her family gave up their seats for me. It’s a change, yes, it’s almost like we are in a different country.

Our country knew that it had very limited options. We could not have gone the way of the Nuremberg trial option because we didn’t have clear winners and losers. We could have gone the route of the blanket amnesty and say wipe the slate clean. We didn’t go either way. We didn’t go the way of revenge, but we went the way of individual amnesty, giving freedom for truth, with people applying for forgiveness in an open session, so that the world and those most closely involved would know what had happened. We were looking particularly to the fact that the process of transition is a very fragile, brittle one. We were saying we want stability, but it must be based on truth, to bring about closure as quickly as possible.

We should not be scared with being confrontational, of facing people with the wrong that they have done. Forgiving doesn’t mean turning yourself into a doormat for people to wipe their boots on. Our Lord was very forgiving. But he faced up to those he thought were self-righteous, who were behaving in a ghastly fashion, and called them “a generation of vipers.”

Forgiveness doesn’t mean pretending things aren’t as they really are. Forgiveness is the recognition that a ghastliness has happened. And forgiveness doesn’t mean trying to paper over the cracks, which is what people do when they say, “Let bygones be bygones.” Because they will not. They have an incredible capacity for always returning to haunt you. Forgiveness means that the wronged and the culprits of those wrongs acknowledge that something happened. And there is necessarily a measure of confrontation. People sometimes think that you shouldn’t be abrasive. But sometimes you have to be to make someone acknowledge that they have done something wrong. Then once the culprit says, “I am sorry,” the wronged person is under obligation, certainly if he or she is a Christian, to forgive. And forgiving means actually giving the opportunity of a new beginning.

It’s like someone sitting in a dank room. It’s musty. The windows are closed. The curtains are drawn. But outside the sun is shining. There is fresh air. Forgiveness is like opening the curtains, opening the window, letting the light and the air into the person’s life that was like that dank room, and giving them the chance to make this new beginning. You and I as Christians have such a wonderful faith, because it is a faith of ever-new beginnings. We have a God who doesn’t say, “Ah...Got you!” No, God says, “Get up.” And God dusts us off and God says, “Try again.”

In one instance, I was preaching in a posh church of some of the elite in the white Afrikaner community, a Dutch Reformed church, and I was probably the first black person to have done so.

I spoke about some of the things we had uncovered in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For instance, the previous government had had a chemical and a biological warfare program which was not just defensive, and had been looking for germs that would target only black people. They wanted to poison Nelson Mandela so that he didn’t survive too long after he was released from prison. One of the ministers in the church came and joined me in the pulpit, and broke down, saying he had been a military chaplain for thirty years and didn’t know these things. He hoped he’d be forgiven and I embraced him. There are others who have been less than forthright, but generally you have had people say, “We are sorry.” Most of our people are ready to forgive.

There are those who are not ready to forgive, like the family of Steve Biko. That demonstrates that we are dealing with something that is not facile. It is not cheap. It is not easy. To be reconciled is not easy. And they make us so very aware of that.

One of the extraordinary things is how many of those who have suffered most grievously have been ready to forgive—people who you thought might be consumed by bitterness, by a lust for revenge. A massacre occurred in which soldiers had opened fire on a demonstration by the ANC (African National Congress), and about twenty people were killed and many wounded. We had a hearing chock-a-block full with people who had lost loved ones, or been injured. Four officers came up, one white and three black. The white said: “We gave the orders for the soldiers to open fire”— in this room, where the tension could be cut with a knife, it was so palpable. Then he turned to the audience and said, “Please, forgive us. And please receive these, my colleagues, back into the community.” And that very angry audience broke out into quite deafening applause. It was an incredible moment. I said, “Let’s keep quiet, because we are in the presence of something holy.” 


Originally appeared in Speak Truth To Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World by Kerry Kennedy.