Now that we are free

By Norman Boucher / March / April 1999
November 19th, 2007
It was a Sunday morning like any other. Parishioners parked their cars and strode across George Street on their way inside St. Stephen's Church for morning services. A few students with bulging backpacks and determined looks were already traversing the Green to the Rockefeller Library, and the leafless trees and the bite in the air were reminders that February still had a week left to threaten snow.

Nothing in the sleepy, quotidian details of this Sunday morning betrayed the presence of a most extraordinary guest. In Gardner House, next door to St. Stephen's, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was finishing a private Eucharistic service with his family. It was not Tutu's first visit to Brown. He had come through quietly in 1984, on his way to lead a service in Newport not long after having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the South African struggle against apartheid. He'd made a more formal visit to campus in the fall of 1990 to receive an honorary degree, and thanks to his close friendship with Hays Hamilton Rockwell '58, the Episcopal bishop of Missouri, he had visited quietly again two years ago to help Rockwell and his wife celebrate their silver wedding anniversary. This time Tutu was here to launch the annual Providence Journal/Brown University Public Affairs Conference, which for the next week would examine the topic "One Nation Under God? Spiritual Life in America."

The topic, and Tutu's willingness to speak in Providence, marked a lull in what has been very public life. For more than two decades, Tutu's voice had helped provide the high moral ground for opponents of apartheid. From his sermon at the 1977 funeral of Steve Biko, whose death of brain injuries suffered during a police interrogation first solidified international outrage over racial conditions in South Africa, to his rousing introduction in May 1994 of newly elected President Nelson Mandela, Tutu has embodied a powerful mix of religious faith and political purpose. For him the struggle against apartheid was a holy war, waged without violence and strengthened by the discipline of hope. "The powers of injustice, of oppression, of exploitation, have done their worst and they have lost," he said at Steve Biko's funeral. "They have lost because they are immoral and wrong and our God, the God of the Exodus, the liberator God, is a God of justice and liberation and goodness. Our cause, the cause of justice and liberation, must triumph because it is moral and just and right." As Tutu's words reveal, his is a straightforward faith, and through South Africa's darkest and most violent moments, he did not waver from it.

It is because of this moral and religious authority that Mandela asked Tutu in 1996 to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was charged with detailing human rights abuses committed by all sides between 1960 and 1994. The Commission completed its controversial 3,500-page report last October, and since then Tutu has been teaching theology at Emory University in Atlanta, trying to return to his religious roots and to some semblance of a normal episcopal life.

On Sunday morning, February 21, his Eucharistic rite complete, Tutu descended the stairs to the sitting room on the first floor of Gardner House. For just over a half hour, he talked about his faith and his work. It was the only interview he granted during his visit to Providence, and he began it, as he does all his conversations, by asking the reporter to join him in a simple prayer.

BAM: May we begin with a few questions about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? The idea of reconciliation goes back in your thinking to a letter you wrote to Prime Minister John Vorster in 1976, in which you said you were "deeply committed to a real reconciliation with justice for all." Can you describe how the idea of a reconciliation commission came about?

Tutu: It's got nothing to do with me, actually. There were some wonderful people outside of the political parties who set up an organization called Justice in Transition and who took a group of South Africans to Eastern Europe to see how they were coping with the whole question of post-conflict, post-repression problems. And I think that maybe South Africans themselves were generally aware that there was no way in which you could avoid the past. They knew that they had to deal with the past.

The controversy was over how. There were those who were saying the pattern to follow would be the Nuremberg Trials: bring all perpetrators to court. And others said let bygones be bygones. And the fact that neither side [in the struggle over apartheid] had won a victory meant you had to have a compromise. You couldn't have the Nuremberg option, because no one could then enforce the justice. And many people said they wouldn't buy blanket amnesty. So we were forced by circumstances to go for a third way.

BAM: In your 1976 letter to Prime Minister Vorster, you link reconciliation with justice. And then in your 1984 Nobel address you argue that "there can be no real peace and security until there be first justice enjoyed by all the inhabitants of that beautiful land." How do you balance reconciliation with justice?

: That justice I described had to do with the fundamental oppression, injustice, and evil of apartheid. You could never have peace if one set of people lorded it over others. There's no way in which you could be reconciled with someone if you still had your foot on their neck. The fact of the matter is that reconciliation has to happen between persons, and if you have dehumanized somebody, and you let that process continue, it's not possible for you to deal with them, because you are not dealing as person to person.


I was also saying that, for the sake of the whites as well, it would be important that the imbalances of the past were addressed, and that, wonderfully, freedom was indivisible. You couldn't have one group of people free and another group unfree and hope to be able to enjoy your freedom. And it was so patently obvious at home that the white people were spending so much time and resources trying to protect their separate freedoms that they had little time left over to enjoy them. You said to them, "The only way you will be able to enjoy them is when we are all free."

BAM: What about the idea of amnesty? Over 7,000 people have applied for it in South Africa, yet only 500 or 600 amnesties have been granted. Is that correct?

Tutu: Yes. You often hear complaints from people that amnesty has been granted at the expense of justice. And one of the points that we have to make is that in fact amnesty is not automatic. Just because you have applied doesn't mean you automatically qualify. You have to satisfy some very stringent conditions. And then we've also sought to point out that there is a price that the perpetrator pays. Almost all the applications are heard in a public hearing. The penalty that the perpetrator pays is the public humiliation, in the full glare of television lights, because frequently their own community and sometimes their families are hearing for the first time that someone who had appeared to be a paragon of virtue was in fact a member of a death squad.

But we've also pointed out that it is only when you talk of justice as being retributive justice that you criticize the amnesty provision as one which does not satisfy the requirements of justice. There is something we believe in very fervently - restorative justice - where the purpose is not so much to punish the perpetrator as to heal relationships, to restore the balances that have been knocked askew. We think that if the aim is ultimately the healing of a traumatized nation, then retributive justice is the worst possible instrument to use.

And then you want to point out, too, that the amnesty is an ad hoc thing. It isn't how are we going to be operating for ever and ever in South Africa. It is something that has been structured for this particular purpose: to assist in the delicate business of a transition from repression to democracy, with the intention of dealing as adequately as you can with the past. Because if you don't deal adequately with the past, it doesn't go and lie down quietly and behave or disappear. It has this uncanny characteristic of returning to haunt us.

BAM: You speak often of a God of surprises. Were there many surprises for you during the investigations?

Tutu: Yes, yes. One of the surprises was the extent of the evil that was uncovered. I mean, you had fondly imagined that you knew how awful apartheid had been. But when the details began emerging, and especially, I think, when what had been statistics turned into persons of flesh and blood, you were shattered many times.

The second source of surprise was the role of women. I was quite struck to discover that, in a very real sense, had it not been for the women, we would not have made it. They were remarkably resilient and were really the power behind the throne, as it were.

BAM: Can you think of specific examples?

: Well, only infrequently did they think of themselves as victims. They came to the Commission and would frequently be telling of what happened, not to themselves, but to others. That may have been in part because the men and the young men were more frequently, say, detained and killed. But many women were detained, many women were tortured.


I won't easily forget a dear old lady, I think one of her family was killed and there was a funeral, and the police were harassing them and making it very difficult. Conditions had been imposed that were very difficult to keep, and somebody, a journalist, came and did a profile of her. She was then called up by the security police. She described how she walked into this room full of these guys who were running the country, really, and felt, believed themselves to be above the law. They could throw you into jail, could do anything to you. And they asked, "Who wrote this article?" You know, it must have taken a great deal of courage and character, because she said she responded, "Oh, I thought it was you." Which must have annoyed them to no end and yet, I mean, she just had this sort of extraordinary courage, almost brazen. Those are some of the people who injected into their children the capacity to face down tear gas and police whips and dogs and even bullets.

And then the third surprise for me was related to the very first that I mentioned: You were overwhelmed in the one instance by the extent of evil, and on this side you were exhilarated by the remarkable capacity of people for good, by the magnanimity, the capacity to forgive.

And, for me, the last thing was that I became more and more aware that it is so easy to demonize people. Even though some people did diabolical, evil things - even monstrous things - they did not become demons. They still remained children of God, with a capacity to change. All of us have a capacity for evil, as we have a capacity for good; all of us could easily, if exposed to the same social forces, economic forces, the same pressures - none of us can ever predict that we wouldn't turn out as those other guys.

BAM: Much of the world sees you as a political figure, but in fact your writing makes clear that you are fundamentally a man of God, driven by very deep religious impulses. I wonder if you could comment on how the world sees you and about the source of your religious strength over all these years of struggle.

Tutu: There have been those who almost all of their lives have hoped that they could consign me to hell forever. Somebody once, I think, said or implied that "yes, this a politician masquerading as an archbishop." Others have wished I would be more political. And for myself, there's never been any sense of conflict; the faith that I have is not one that has forged dichotomies. I've often said, "Which Bible do people read when they say 'don't mix religion and politics?' " The very first thing that God did in terms of the history of the children of Israel was to help them escape from bondage, which is one of the most political acts.

No, the point is that our faith is an incarnation of faith. It is of a God who, when people are hungry, doesn't say to them, "Let us pray about it" and sends them away. Instead, He says, "You will feed them. When they are naked you will clothe them. You will heal them when they are sick, and you will forgive their sins." There is no dichotomy. I used to say that if God didn't care that people were hungry and oppressed, that's not a God I would worship.

And so there were those who dismissed me, and there were those who were thrilled that we were there making the faith relevant, were making the faith one that was credible and acceptable. There was a time at home, soon after the release of Nelson Mandela and other people, when I kept a far lower profile and then people wondered what happened to me. And then there were those who had expected that once the new dispensation came into existence, I would have a political posi-tion or have a political office, and I said, "No, man, I'm not smart enough to be a politician." And I said, "I wasn't there, doing what I was doing, because I was politically motivated, I was motivated by my faith." And so they were surprised when, very soon after the ANC [African National Congress] took over, I criticized it. They hadn't expected that I was going to do that. They'd thought I was one-eyed, and they were very surprised. But I kept saying, "It's got nothing to do with my politics; it's got everything to do with my faith." And I hope it will remain that way.

BAM: What was it like, after all those years, to vote in a free election for the first time?

Tutu: Fantastic. Fantastic. I won't ever forget. I won't ever forget that experience. I said then it was like falling in love. People just went out in the streets and you hugged perfect strangers, because it was such an incredible sense that the world is safe again. You looked at the things that you had looked at before, and after this momentous thing, they looked more beautiful. People looked more attractive, more wonderful. The sky looked bluer, and you know, you were really on cloud nine.

BAM: Thank you.

Tutu: God bless you.

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March / April 1999