The Passing of a True Icon
“Do your little bit of good where you are, it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world”.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
On December 26th 2021, the world lost a truly remarkable man. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, lovingly known to many as the “Arch” passed away after a long and difficult battle with prostate cancer. For many of us who hold an interest in, and indeed those of us working in, the peacebuilding field, working towards restorative justice and reconciliation, his death was one which caused an outpouring of emotion. People across his native South Africa, and many across the world, feel a deep sadness at his loss.
Desmond Tutu was born on the 7th of October, 1931, in Klerksdorp, a small mining town in South Africa before his family moved to Johannesburg. His father was an elementary school teacher and his mother worked at a school for the blind which may have been what influenced Tutu in his early years to be a teacher. Tutu was born at a time when apartheid had an iron grip on society and where there was established racial segregation. This was reflected in the Bantu Education Act of 1952 which lowered the standard of education for black South Africans, limiting the possibility of receiving good quality higher education. While teaching Tutu tried to provide his students with a high level education but grew frustrated because of the Act which promoted inequality and a corrupt educational system. As a result of these frustrations and the political situation at the time, especially concerning the oppression of black South Africans, Tutu left teaching to join the clergy at the Anglican Church and quickly rose through the ranks.
There was a lengthy period of significant unrest in South Africa and this culminated in June of 1976 with an uprising in the black township of Soweto which boiled over into riots and sparked international outcry. The protests were led by black students and were triggered by policies of the apartheid government including the Bantu Education Act of 1953. While the government claimed that just 23 students were killed in the uprising, estimates on the numbers of people who died range anywhere from 176 to 700 people, and over 1,000 people were injured over the course of the protest. The uprising spread country-wide leading to a significant change in the socio-political landscape.
After hearing about the student protest, Tutu mobilized and spent time engaging with students and parents about the wide-scale rebellion against forced Afrikaans school language instruction and inferior education. It was out of this engagement with Tutu that the Soweto Parents Crises Committee was formed in the aftermath of the unrest and killings. In the years that followed, Tutu rose to the position of Archbishop of Cape Town and gained international recognition as one of the anti-apartheid movements strongest advocates. His fight for South Africa eventually earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.
Tutu’s desire for forgiveness and reconciliation was born out of the Ubuntu philosophy which believes “I am human because you are human. My humanity is caught up in yours. And if you are dehumanized, I am dehumanized” (PBS News Hour 12/27/21). Tutu understood that anger and revenge were detrimental to the greater good. His commitment to reconciliation and his belief in Ubuntu is why Tutu was a strong proponent of restorative justice rather than retributive justice.
In 1996, Tutu stepped down from his duties becoming Archbishop emeritus but continue to reach out to those beyond the borders of South Africa. He also spoke out on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, liking some of the Israeli governments actions to apartheid and had a few words of criticism towards the post 9/11 U.S. led war in Iraq. For all that Tutu represented President Obama award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. On Tutu’s 79th birthday, his gift to himself was to end his public life and to spend more time with his family and deepen his contemplative life. As Tutu once said: “I really want to engage in the contemplative life, because, you know often, when people are in love, they just want to sit and be together. And I want to try to be a bit more of that with God, but to also have some quality time with the mother of my children” (PBS Hour 12/27/21).
Tutu was the moral conscience of South Africa. He had a strong moral compass which guided his words and actions. He was outspoken not only concerning the injustices taking place in South Africa, but also concerned with international human rights issues such as those in Tibet, Palestine, and the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Tutu fostered true forgiveness and reconciliation. He strongly believed that forgiving our enemies, no matter the wrongs that had been committed, was the only way to true peace. His thinking was reflected in the changes which took place in South Africa. He believed in building a culture of forgiveness and to seek not only justice, but justice with love, what he called restorative justice. It was this approach which transformed the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission which Tutu lead as Chair of the Commission having been appointed to the role by then President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.
Desmond Tutu was a truly transformative figure and is recognised as such Internationally, but what does his legacy mean for the United States and the world? Tutu’s legacy was to teach us about forgiveness and reconciliation, something which was, and is, in very short supply. The message of forgiveness and the idea that we can come back together may seem completely unattainable, particularly in today’s world of profound divisions and polarization taking place within the United States. The ending of apartheid in 1993 also seemed unattainable, but attained it was. If learning how to forgive wasn’t hard enough, Tutu also spoke of the importance of reconciliation, the revolutionary idea that you must not only forgive those who wronged you, but you also must have the courage to reconcile and to find the common ground so people and communities can live more peacefully together and break the destructive cycles of the past. It is that kind of change in mindset that we need to strive for, and it is that which is so challenging in the United States today.
What does forgiveness and reconciliation truly mean? Those whom we have the most resentment towards, those we fear the most and those we say we hate are precisely the people we need to understand more deeply and bring closer to us. We must try harder to understand why and how they choose to see the world so differently and find commonalities and ways to heal the divide which is so painfully experienced in our society today. It is Tutu’s thinking which provides an answer that can guide those of us in the United States, and around the world. In his own words Tutu leaves us this message.
“Forgiveness is never cheap, never easy, but that it is possible, and that ultimately real reconciliation can happen only on the basis of truth. In reality, there can be no future without forgiveness, for revenge merely begs further violence, causing an inexorable spiral of reprisal, provoking counter reprisals ad infinitum”.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu will truly be missed. He was a bright beacon of light giving hope to this world. He was a true leader, transformative in his approach and strong in his convictions. This kind of leadership is sorely lacking today. As Tutu showed throughout his life and work, nothing is unattainable. Let us find his wisdom comforting and guide us in the days to come so that all of us can live in a better world and strive to achieve that progress which is deemed ‘unattainable’.