Tutu embraces forgiveness in post-apartheid South Africa
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu says he became a political leader by default.
“The real leaders were in prison, in exile or were under some restriction,” he said of the years he emerged as an outspoken anti-apartheid activist.
|Lin Jones, U-M Photo Services
Tutu rose to international fame during the 1980s as a deeply committed advocate of nonviolent resistance to apartheid. President Mary Sue Coleman honored his courageous actions Oct. 29 by presenting him with the 18th U-M Wallenberg Medal. The award is named after Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, a 1935 graduate of the College of Architecture who saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews near the end of World War II.
“Where Raoul Wallenberg toiled underground to save countless Jewish lives, Archbishop Tutu raised his voice to tell the world of black lives being lost to racism, poverty and sheer brutality. He rightly called apartheid ‘evil and unchristian.’” Coleman said during a ceremony at a crowded Hill Auditorium. “Both men placed themselves at great personal risk to help others. In doing so, they not only rescued individuals from violence and death, they showed society the futility of intolerance, and the timbre of courage and decency.”
Tutu said he was humbled by the award.
“I see myself receiving such an honor in a representative capacity,” he said. “The people we really want to honor are the many, many millions who are part of the struggle in which I was lucky enough to have been a leader.”
Four years after apartheid fell in 1994, the first free multi-racial elections in South African history led to a black majority government. The new president and formerly imprisoned anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela asked Tutu to investigate atrocities committed on all sides during the apartheid years. Mandela then appointed Tutu chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Tutu described the process of the TRC as using “restorative rather than retributive justice, which is a kind of justice that says we are looking to the healing of relationships.” Tutu’s memoir “No Future Without Forgiveness” is an account of his work on the commission.
“Our country has shown remarkable stability and maturity,” he said.
While many people questioned the effectiveness of a commission that offers amnesty to perpetrators of heinous crimes, Tutu said it offered something much more powerful: the opportunity for closure.
“None in the community could claim we had not ourselves been deeply wounded by the ghastliness of apartheid,” Tutu said. “We chose to walk the path of forgiveness and reconciliation rather than revenge and retribution.”
In addressing Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and the Nov. 4 national election, Tutu urged students in the audience to embrace the message of hope.
“Don’t allow us oldies to infect you with our cynicism,” he said. “If you doubted young people actually cared, can you see how they have been galvanized by Obama?
“I’m glad to be here in the eve of a seemingly historic election in the United States. If the polls are accurate, one can see a new era will dawn. I think it will be epoch-making change.”
When describing South Africa’s first multi-racial elections in 1994, Tutu was at a loss for words.
“How do you describe falling in love? … How do you describe voting for the first time at 63 years of age in land of your birth?” he said. “We won a glorious victory over the awfulness of apartheid. But what was so marvelous was that it was your victory, too.”
Raising his arms to the sky, mimicking an eagle’s flight, Tutu urged the crowd to be agents for change.
“Soar toward goodness, transcendence,” he said. “God didn’t create the world perfect because he is looking to you and me to be fellow workers … to turn his home into the world he wants it to be.”