Piyushi Kotecha, CEO, Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, South Africa
6 October 2021 – all rights reserved
“The black voice that wins the broadest acceptance amongst blacks in South Africa these days – and thus grates the most on the ears and consciences of the whites – happens to belong to an irrepressible Anglican churchman, Bishop Desmond M. Tutu,” wrote Joseph Lelyveld in the New York Times in 1982, two years before now Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for bravely and eloquently speaking truth to power against his country’s draconian racist policies that had been in place since 1948. Tutu celebrates his 90th birthday in Cape Town this week.
After Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress was elected in 1994, Tutu continued his bold legacy as a feisty and fearless megaphone for moral rectitude, never hesitating to call out South Africa’s governing black majority party if he believed they crossed ethical lines or failed to put the needs of suffering, impoverished and oppressed people front and center. Beyond practising his faith in radical ways to disrupt unjust and oppressive systems across the world, Tutu spoke out on other matters as well.
In 1996, Archbishop Tutu, who we now fondly call “the Arch,” telephoned President Mandela’s then-partner, Graça Machel, to advise her that he believed the two must marry rather than live together, that it could send the wrong moral message to young people. (President Mandela married Ms Machel two years later on his 80th birthday).
I first came across Lelyveld’s NYT article, “South Africa’s Bishop Tutu” a few days ago while preparing for our 11th annual Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture to be held on Archbishop Emeritus Tutu’s 90th birthday on 7 October.
An utterly genuine person of character, the Arch is a fearless cleric and interfaith peace-seeker and the real deal. Love or dread him, he’s a rare leader who lives his values with every fibre of his being. A razor sharp intellect with a renowned sense of humour, the Arch is a real privilege to work for at the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation.
This year’s birthday tribute, entitled “Truth to Power: No Future without Justice,” features four previous Tutu peace lecture laureates: former Irish President Mary Robinson, who currently chairs The Elders, former South African public prosecutor Thuli Madonsela, humanitarian social justice advocate Graça Machel (now Mandela’s widow), and the Arch’s close spiritual friend, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.
In a league of his own during an era marked by growing political polarization, economic disparity, environmental degradation, corruption and greed, emulation of the Arch’s fearlessly outspoken and principled global leadership is needed now more perhaps than ever before in recent history.
“He works tirelessly for truth, honesty and equality. He doesn’t see any differences,” said the Dalai Lama about the Arch. “Wherever there is abuse of human rights or people’s freedom is being snatched away, be it Burma or Tibet, he is always the first person to speak against it.”
In the past 40 years since the 1982 NYT feature article, the Arch’s audacious interfaith voice of moral authority in support of justice and peace has raised hackles and eyebrows of global leaders at highest levels of power, not just in South Africa but across the world, from China, England, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Myanmar, Palestine, Syria and the USA to African brothers and sisters in Liberia, Nigeria, Sudan and Zimbabwe. The ever-expanding circles of his influence
Moral leadership, accountable governance, peaceful inclusive transitions, democratic values, social and economic justice, urgent environmental action, LGBQTIA+ rights, women and children’s rights have all been passionate priorities during the Arch’s almost 70 years of tireless work giving voice to the voiceless, dignity to the downtrodden and a deep-hearted joyful laugh, often when you most need and least expect it.
The late UN secretary general Kofi Annan called the Arch “the foremost moral authority of our time”. Like the Ghanaian global leader Annan, the Arch never fears to speak his truth to the world’s mightiest powers to try to transform the world to a more just and equitable place, especially for the poorest of the poor from any nation. But unlike Annan, the Arch is rarely constrained by diplomatic subtleties.
“You are either for or against apartheid, and not by rhetoric,” the Arch famously told a hearing at the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C in 1984. “You are either in favor of evil or you are in favor of good. You are either on the side of the oppressed or on the side of the oppressor. You can’t be neutral,” he exclaimed to a rare standing ovation as he attacked President Ronald Reagan’s so-called constructive engagement policies, implemented ostensibly to keep an open door to the racist National Party regime which it considered a bulwark ally in the proxy Cold War fight against communism.
The Arch’s first response to injustice over the decades has always been to call upon his deep Christian faith for wisdom and prayerful guidance through extremely violent and tragic times, but he is first to admit he is neither perfect nor a pacifist.
“Sometimes I get angry,” the Arch explained in a 1986 interview in the Washington Post. “Sometimes that feeling of anger is so intense that I have to ask myself if it isn’t, you know, bordering on hatred.”
“I pray for the (South African) government by name every day. If you take theology seriously, whether you like it or not, we are all members of a family — God’s family. They are my brothers and my sisters, too. I might not feel well disposed toward them, but I have to pray that God’s spirit will move them.”
Eventually the US imposed economic sanctions against South Africa in October 1986, a move often credited with prying open South Africa’s door to non-racial democracy, especially because sanctions blocked South Africa’s popular rugby team, the Springboks, from playing international test rugby.
The sanctions removed, the Springboks famously won the 1995 rugby World Cup in Johannesburg, a huge step forward for racial harmony in the country when Mandela put on the Springbok jersey and went onto the field (but a huge headache for his frightened security team).
Officially retired as Cape Town’s first Anglican Archbishop in 1996, the Arch began his iconic journey as a self-appointed envoy for peace and justice in the 1950s, guided only by his conscience. Resigning from his missionary school teaching post as a newly-married young teacher, one of his first stands was against the Bantu Education Act, newly oppressive and racist legislation in 1953 that mandated that black schools must only teach students the skills needed to enable them to be docile servants who could provide efficient services to their masters.
Over the years, the Arch’s ground-breaking roles have been well reported: the first black secretary general of the South Africa Council of Churches leading a 13+ million Christian membership (80% black), first black Bishop of Johannesburg and first black Archbishop of Cape Town, together with his post-retirement appointments by President Mandela as Chair of both South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and The Elders.
Less well known is the Arch’s prominent global influence in volatile hotspots as he worked for peace and justice, from 1982 until more than two decades after his ostensible retirement in 1996, always seeking to instill hope at times of crisis and despair and keeping faith in the indivisibility of justice.
While Lelyveld’s prescient article highlighted the Arch’s emergent voice speaking for justice and dignity in South Africa in 1982, that same year, the Arch, as a young cleric (not yet an Arch!) was also busy writing letters to the Prime Minister of Israel calling him to stop bombings in Beirut and to Yasser Arafat appealing to him to give more recognition to Israel. Tutu’s advocacy for peace and justice in the Middle East and for the rights of Palestinians in particular, is well known.
“He speaks his mind on matters of public morality and has from time to time annoyed many of us who belong to the new order,” the Arch’ friend President Mandela once observed. “But such independence of mind, however wrong and unstrategic it may at times be, is vital to a thriving democracy.”
In tribute to his nine decades of ever-expanding circles of influence, a selection of nine places where the Arch made a global footprint speaking truth to power illustrates his unrestrainable voice of conscience in the midst of conflict and division.
- USA (America)
In the 1980s, the Arch often visited the USA to lobby for economic sanctions and later taught at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. In 1988 he was awarded an honorary degree at Emory. In 1992 he took a several month sabbatical there and later scheduled a visiting professorship where he taught and wrote after completing his work as Chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Standing at a global podium on 11 September 2002, the Arch delivered a sermon at the Washington National Cathedral on the one-year anniversary of the Twin Towers attack in New York City. At this sober occasion, he said to congregation of mostly still shell-shocked American Episcopalian parishioners:
“You have inspired the struggles for justice and freedom in many parts of the world” he said. “In your love for freedom, in your respect for the rule of law, in your passion for justice, our freedom over the viciousness of apartheid was due in large measure to your wonderful support…”
“But,” he continued, “in this family, there are no outsiders. All, all are insiders. Jesus said, ‘I, if I be lifted up, will draw, not some, but all, all to me.’ Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Palestinian and Israeli, Roman Catholic and Protestant, Serb and Albanian, Hutu and Tutsi, Muslim and Christian, Buddhist, Pakistani, Indian, …all, all belong…”
“So Arafat and Sharon belong together,” he said. “Yes, George Bush, Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, God says, all, all are my children. It is shocking. It is radical.”
Speaking nine years later on the 10th anniversary of the September 11, the Arch remarked in a manner typical of his interfaith healing leadership and focus on human rights without borders:
“We may be differently pigmented, have different facial features, speak different languages and worship in different temples. But we know that we can successfully transplant the heart of a member of the Christian faith into the body of a Hindu patient, or a Jewish accident victim’s kidney into a Muslim.”
“We failed the biggest test posed by the 9/11 outrage,” he continued. “In our anger and dismay we failed to recognize our common humanity, that we are made for love and that acts such as those committed on that day are an aberration.”
Enjoying his own first vote at age of 62 in 1994 when South African blacks were first allowed to vote, the Arch spent most of his life fighting for the voices of all people to be heard and respected. Living on a continent with particularly fragile democracies, he was alarmed about the apparent risk to voting rights he saw in the world’s oldest democracy.
Always one for action, on 15 February 2013 the Arch signed an open letter to the US Supreme Court (Re: Shelby County v. Holder, No. 12-96) calling for voting rights of Americans to be upheld and protected: “Beyond your borders, the global march toward justice will suffer grievous harm should you surrender to those who seek to disenfranchise American citizens,” the statement said.
- Iraq (USA and UK)
In September 2012 the Arch refused to share the stage with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a conference in South Africa exclaiming: “If leaders may lie, then who should tell the truth?”
He went on to share a story about his own efforts to stop the Iraq War in 2003: “Days before George W Bush and Tony Blair ordered the invasion of Iraq, I called the White House and spoke to Condoleezza Rice, who was then national security adviser, to urge that United Nations weapons inspectors be given more time to confirm or deny the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Should they be able to confirm finding such weapons, I argued, dismantling the threat would have the support of virtually the entire world.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Beyond his homeland South Africa and the Middle East, the Arch embarked on many other priority peace and justice priorities close to his heart; one is Ireland. On his way to the pick up his Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, he stopped by Dublin where he’d visited many times before and joined the march with anti-apartheid strikers. Over the years he joined other Irish marches commemorating the terrible famine in the 1840s, a hunger crisis which he credits with giving the Irish people a unique empathy for people facing poverty and starvation globally.
In 1998, the Arch travelled to Belfast to lead a workshop of community and peace groups, also meeting with Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and Northern Ireland’s First Minister at the time, David Trimble. Commenting on violent divides and challenges shared across distant oceans and histories, the Arch observed:
“For far too long we in South Africa, as in the North of Ireland, have been defined in terms of what we are against. Surely the time has come for us to be defined more by what we are for. This raises two crucial questions: What values do we witness to? How do we give witness?”
In July 1994, barely three months after South Africa’s historic elections, the Arch addressed the Liberian Transitional Assembly to try to calm a nation destabilized by violent strife since the toppling of military leader Samuel Doe in 1989. With deployment of a peacekeeping force, East African soldiers, and UN military observers, very little disarmament had occurred despite the signing of a peace accord. There he invited the armed factions to consider face-to-face talks to end the fighting.
“If South Africa could achieve accommodation among its diverse ethnic, racial, and cultural groups, what prevents Liberia from doing likewise?” he reportedly asked. No such meeting had taken place in Liberia since the conflict began
With a heart to speak to and for the voiceless across the world, in 2017 the Arch decided to take on another human rights challenge. With the spiralling Rohingya abuses in Myanmar deeply offending the human rights community globally, many seemed to remain silent out of lingering respect for the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi who was eventually elected into power in 2012. In 2010 she had been released after spending 15 of the previous 21 years under house arrest.
Although the Arch prayed for Aung San Suu Kyi for decades and even saved a chair for her at The Elders for when she might eventually be released by the military government, in a public letter he spoke his truth to a high-powered friend once again:
“I am now elderly, decrepit and formally retired,” he wrote, “but breaking my vow to remain silent on public affairs out of profound sadness about the plight of the Muslim minority in your country, the Rohingya.
In my heart you are a dearly beloved younger sister. For years I had a photograph of you on my desk to remind me of the injustice and sacrifice you endured out of your love and commitment for Myanmar’s people. You symbolised righteousness. In 2010 we rejoiced at your freedom from house arrest, and in 2012 we celebrated your election as leader of the opposition.
Your emergence into public life allayed our concerns about violence being perpetrated against members of the Rohingya. But what some have called ‘ethnic cleansing’ and others ‘a slow genocide’ has persisted – and recently accelerated. The images we are seeing of the suffering of the Rohingya fill us with pain and dread.
We know that you know that human beings may look and worship differently – and some may have greater firepower than others – but none are superior and none inferior; that when you scratch the surface we are all the same, members of one family, the human family; that there are no natural differences between Buddhists and Muslims; and that whether we are Jews or Hindus, Christians or atheists, we are born to love, without prejudice. Discrimination doesn’t come naturally; it is taught.
My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep. A country that is not at peace with itself, that fails to acknowledge and protect the dignity and worth of all its people, is not a free country. It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country; it is adding to our pain.
As we witness the unfolding horror we pray for you to be courageous and resilient again. We pray for you to speak out for justice, human rights and the unity of your people. We pray for you to intervene in the escalating crisis and guide your people back towards the path of righteousness again”. He signed the message with his signatory sign off to all, even his adversaries: Love and God’s blessings.
In 1995, the Arch called for an oil embargo, international economic sanctions and freezing of Nigeria’s international accounts after the hanging of environmentalist and playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and several other Ogoni activists by General Sani Abacha’s military government. The country was suspended from the Commonwealth for the move.
The Arch warned: “The last message we want to send to Abacha is this: You have already lost. There is no way in which your evil and injustice and oppression can prevail forever. Join the winning side. Join the side that seeks to establish democracy.”
- Darfur, Sudan
On its first ever mission in October 2007, “The Elders,” an independent group of global leaders of human rights and peace activists, chaired by the Arch, travelled to Khartoum in Sudan, Africa’s largest country, to visit the violent conflict in Darfur.
Together with entrepreneur, Sir Richard Branson, and musician Peter Gabriel, Mandela just had launched The Elders initiative to give a platform for globally influential older leaders to “speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes on whatever actions need to be taken…to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair.”
Led by the Arch, the 2007 Darfur mission team included Jimmy Carter, Graça Machel and UN Special Envoy Lakhar Brahimi, the Elder’s statement explained: “We, the Elders, are here because we care deeply for the fate of our planet, and we feel intensely the suffering of millions of people in Darfur who yearn for nothing more than peace and dignity….We are here in Sudan because we want to listen to the voices of those who have not been heard and want to explore ways that we can lend our own voices to peace.”
The war in Darfur began in 2003 and by the time of the visit, 200,000+ people had already died in the conflict between black African farmers (some who belonged to rebel movements), and Janjaweed militias (including Arab nomadic tribes). 2 million had been forced from their homes, thousands which were pillaged. 10 African Union peacekeepers had just been killed and several were missing presumed captured.
In March 2009 the Arch penned an op-ed entitled “Will Africa Let Sudan Off the Hook? At the time an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes was in the works for Sudanese President Omar Hassan-al Bashir. Meanwhile the African Union had issued a communique asking the UN Security Council to suspend the ICC’s proceedings.
“Tomorrow presents a stark choice for African leaders,” he wrote. “Are they on the side of justice or on the side of injustice? Are they on the side of the victim or the oppressor? The choice is clear but the answer so far from many African leaders has been shameful…”
He went on to write: “Because the victims in Sudan are African, African leaders should be the staunchest supporters of efforts to see perpetrators brought to account. Yet rather than stand by those who have suffered in Darfur, African leaders have so far rallied behind the man responsible for turning that corner of Africa into a graveyard.”
“African leaders should support this historic occasion,” he warned, “not work to subvert it” noting that “there can be no real peace and security until justice is enjoyed by the inhabitants of the land…”
In July 2012, The Elders continued to seek action in Sudan as the newest country in the world, South Sudan, celebrated its first anniversary of independence while the humanitarian situation remained dire with renewed battles forcing a torrent of refugees to flee into Ethiopia and Sudan.
The Arch went to both Juba (South Sudan) and Khartoum (Sudan) together with Mary Robinson and Marrti Ahtisaari (former President of Finland and also a Nobel Peace laureate) to “try to ensure the terrible lessons of war are not forgotten – and to share our hope that these two beautiful countries can find a path to peace.”
- Tibet and China
On a February 2012 visit to Dharamsala in India to visit his friend, the Dalai Lama who wasn’t able to attend the Arch’s 80th birthday because of the South African visa debacle, he shared a message of peace and justice at a public ceremony organized by Tibet’s government in exile:
“I want to say to the Chinese government that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the most peace-loving person on this earth. I want to say to the Chinese government that the Dalai Lama has no army, he cannot command his people with guns, he’s not a separatist.”
In 2002, a disputed Presidential election in Zimbabwe put liberation leader President Robert Mugabe back in power after two years of violent attacks on opposition parties and white farmers. As the Arch watched the violent campaign unfold before the election, he did not mince words. Whilst nearly none of Africa’s elder statesmen dared speak out, the Arch lamented:
“It is a great sadness what has happened to President Mugabe. He was one of Africa’s best leaders, a bright spark, a debonair, well-spoken and well-read person,” he said. His next comment made international headlines: “Mugabe seems to have gone bonkers in a big way.”
“It is very dangerous when you subvert the rule of law in your country,” he warned, “when you don’t even respect the judgments of your judges, when there is no security for your citizens, when one section of your community is immune and above the laws of the country – then you are on the slippery slope of perdition.”
Six years later in December 2008 the Arch voiced shame for South Africa’s response to the violent democratic crisis unfolding once again in Zimbabwe after another disputed presidential, parliamentary, and local election between liberation stalwart Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change which was eventually forced into a government of national unity.
“I am deeply, deeply distressed that we should be found not on the side of the ones who are suffering,” the Arch said. “We should have been the ones who for a very long time occupied the moral high ground. I’m afraid we have betrayed our legacy.”
The following year, towards the end of a CNN exclusive interview between Christiane Amanpour and President Mugabe, Amanpour played a clip showing Tutu exclaiming: “He has destroyed a wonderful country which used to be a [bread basket], which has now become a basket case itself. He is responsible for gross violations.”
An agitated Mugabe replied: “That’s nonsense. It’s devilish talk. He doesn’t know what he is talking about. The little man!”
In another exchange about the same governance crisis, Mugabe called the Arch: “an angry, evil and embittered little bishop.”
While interventions in the world’s most fractious conflicts are regularly conducted by elected leaders, envoys and their teams, the Arch rarely let himself be delayed by protocol or mandate-seeking. Modest but loud, when the Arch spotted injustice, he spoke up boldly, then followed his words with actions, always with a focus on healing leadership, even when others demanded he at least acknowledge the need for angry revenge. While his candour denouncing some unjust and oppressive situations was sometimes not appreciated, it was always well intentioned and without secret agendas. In short, the Arch practiced what he preached, and demanded others do so, too.
In 2016, a new father in Massachusetts wrote to ask if the Arch would send a letter to his newborn daughter as he was collecting a book of letters for her. Now 20 years into his so-called “retirement” from public life, the Arch took the time to write the newest generations inheriting our messy maelstrom of a world:
“Hello, little sister.
You don’t know me. I am a very old grandfather from South Africa nearing the end of my journey on earth while your journey – on another continent many miles away – is just beginning.
We may never meet on earth, so I thought to send you a secret. Well, it’s not really a secret because we should all know it. So I don’t mind if you tell everyone else.
Did you know that all people belong to one family; the human family? That although we may look nothing like each other, live in separate homes, practise our own cultures, subscribe to different religions – and some of us have more money than others – we are all sisters and brothers in God’s family?
You and I, and everyone else, were born with the same purpose. For love, for goodness and for one another.
God Bless You.”
Diminutive in height but a skyscraper of moral conscience, the Arch stands tall amongst the world’s justice seekers and peacemakers. Already an exceptional legacy figure, he starts a new decade this week as a consistent, uncompromised, fiercely independent affirming voice of healing, justice, faith and unconditional love.
In his typical candor, the Arch once said, “I wish I could shut up, but I can’t, and I won’t”. I am sure as he blows out his 90 birthday candles maybe a few times this week, one of his deepest wishes and prayers will be that when future generations see inequality, poverty, and injustice, they won’t shut up either.
Piyushi Kotecha is Chief Executive Officer of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, whose headquarters are in Cape Town, South Africa.
Photo credit: Bromberger Hoover Photo/Getty Images