Mpho Tutu on religious leaders and politicians – 18 September 2013

Address by Reverend Mpho Tutu to the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum on 18 September 2013


For many centuries – perhaps since the birth of humanity, itself – people have contrived extraordinary means of cruelty to physically and economically dominate those they identify as “different” to or “lesser than” themselves.

The Persian, Roman and Arabian Empires conquered vast tracts of land. More recently, we endured the crusades, the colonial era, Adolf Hitler, apartheid, Bosnia, Rwanda… In each instance, the actions of the aggressors were underpinned by affiliations to particular sets of cultural and/or spiritual beliefs, and misguided senses of their own superiority and supremacy.

We are still doing it, not least in Israel and Palestine, in the broad confrontation between the Judeo-Christian and Muslim worlds that has characterized the 11 years since 9/11, and within our communities, in the expression of xenophobia and homophobia and violence against women and all the other forms of intolerance we can think of.

We are so consumed with the “others” that we fail to recognise the most simple truth, that no matter where we come from or what we call God, we are members of one family, the human family, and we are made for goodness. We are made for unity. We are made for reconciliation. We are made for love.


South Africans have very recent memories of the corrosive effects of a state claiming a divine right to discriminate against certain of its citizens.

It is said that adversity hones the most extraordinary human attributes, endeavours and achievements. The interfaith movement that was spawned in opposition to apartheid was one such achievement.

We thank God that there were people of the caliber of the then-Bishop Storey, Rabbi Harris and Imam Hasan Solomons who understood the most profound truth: Human beings are human beings, regardless of how we look or where we worship.

These religious leaders, and many others, understood that when Muslims and Jews and Christians and Hindus and Bhuddists – and all of the other faith groups, not excluding those who described themselves as atheists – held hands and walked together, the fantasy that God favoured a certain bunch of people of a particular skin-tone was doomed to failure.

They understood that the people acting in unison for a righteous cause constitute an irresistible force. A force more powerful even than the batons and the bullets and the bullies – and the overall might – of a militarised state.

“We marched in Cape Town and the Berlin Wall fell,” is how the then-Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town described it.


When political parties were unbanned and the people were at last free to express their political beliefs and affiliations, a number of Anglican priests were naturally very keen to sign on as members of a particular political organization. But the Archbishop told them, please do not. As religious leaders it was their role to serve all the people.

Some members of the clergy were pretty dismayed. After being denied the right to join political parties of their choice for so many years, they were being discouraged from doing so again.

But there was a virtual civil war raging at the time in KwaZulu-Natal, and on the East Rand, the Archbishop said. Religious leaders should be able to straddle social and political divisions and minister to all.

Then we voted for the first time, and negotiated a new Constitution that was the toast of the world. We had Nelson Mandela as our first president. We thought we were the cat’s whiskers, and in many respects we were.


Over the past 20 years we have been coming to terms with what the Constitutional Court has termed “the progressive realization of our rights”.

In simple terms, what this is saying is that the Constitution has set the standard we want to achieve over time. Of course it is much simpler to guarantee the rights of women to safety and dignity on paper than it is to do so in practice. It is easier to agree on the principle of universal access to quality education and health care than it is to actually deliver it.

Yes, we have made some great strides in the delivery of basic services. We have stricken hundreds of perverse discriminatory laws from the statute books.

But at the same time we have witnessed many of the very politicians whom we believed could virtually walk on water sinking in the quicksand of personal aggrandizement and greed.

Many South Africans continue to live miserable lives; infants die preventable deaths due to poor sanitation – no women or children are safe from the scourge of sexual predation that seems to have beset us.

The job of transforming our society is far from over.


It is the job of religious leaders to call societal attention to things politicians would sometimes prefer to ignore, to jab society in the ribs when it becomes complacent, to provide comfort where people are in distress.

Party political allegiances render the maintenance of critical distance extremely challenging, if not impossible. It is the role of religious leaders to provide spiritual and moral guidance, while it is the role of government to provide infrastructure and services.

If we allow politics or politicians to set the faith agenda, we break our sacred trust as the voice of the voiceless, to speak for the poor, the powerless, the destitute, and the marginalized. It is they who must set the faith agenda.

As religious leaders we bring people together, we encourage active citizenry, we engage the issues that challenge us – from sanitation to gangs to sexual violence.

We criticize politicians where criticism is due, and applaud them for doing the right thing. But our applause is only meaningful when it is trustworthy.

In my view, it is impossible to trust the words of faith leaders who speak from the back pocket of a political party rather than as representatives of the community, particularly the most marginalized and poor.