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The Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture

The point, Plato tells us in Volume 1 of his Dialogues, is not who says the words, but whether they are true or not.

When Frederick Douglass delivered his cutting indictment of prejudice, in 1845, The Hypocrisy of American Slavery, there were relatively few people in the room. Yet (without any social media) his words had a profound effect on the trajectory of history and continue to reverberate across time and continents today. His words struck a chord because they were true.

The same applies to Emmeline Pankhurst’s lecture entitled Freedom or Death, in 1913, when, speaking of the women’s rights movement, she warned: We wear no mark; we belong to every class… And to Nelson Mandela’s iconic speech from the dock, in 1964, laying out the vision of a, “democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities”.

Despots and authoritarianism come and go, societal conventions and systems change, but the words and deeds of those able to articulate meaningful truth about our world and species achieve a sense of timelessness. They have long-term value.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a member of an extraordinary cohort of global thought leaders who rose to prominence between the Second World War and the War on Terror, in what might be termed the human rights era. They spoke truth to power, represented promise and hope, and helped usher in a new understanding of global, social, economic and environmental justice. Other members of this group included Mother Theresa, Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.

The Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture was designed as a platform for the next generation of thinkers and leaders to reflect the wisdom of their elders and articulate new human solutions for today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. It is an annual stage for the passing of the baton, in Africa.

The first annual lecture was shrouded in controversy by the South African government’s refusal to grant a visa for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to enter the country. Instead of cancelling the event, Google stepped in to create a live video link between Cape Town and India, and an audience at the University of the Western Cape was enthralled to witness a conversation between the two holy men – one on the stage and the otheron a screen.

Since then, the platform has been graced by a diverse line-up of thought leaders, addressing diverse issues of our time.

  • In 2012, Mrs Graca Machel isssued a powerful call for a renewed societal focus on upholding the value of the family unit;
  • In 2013, the late Kofi Annan spoke of overwhelming evidence that the healthiest societies are those that promote gender equality and invest in the education of girls, appealing to students – “the first generation
    of true global citizens” – to step up, take responsibility, and lead.
  • In 2014, Mrs Mary Robinson reflected on climate justice and women’s participation. “Women’s participation in the prevention and resolution of conflicts is critical to building sustainable peace because  no society can develop – economically, politically or socially – when half of its population is marginalised,”  she said.
  • In 2015, South Africa’s former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela said the rule of law belonged to all citizens
    and not only to lawmakers. “It’s not the job of lawyers, lawmakers and those in government. The rule of law  belongs to all of us.”
  • In 2016, Advocate Hina Jalani of the Pakistan Supreme Court, lamented that instead of restoring security,  global responses to conflicts and crises – whether political or economic – leaders had themselves become  part of the problem.
  • In 2017, South Africa’s globally recognised conflict resolution expert, Advocate Vasu Gounden said South  Africans had a choice between civil war and civil peace. “With political intolerance and instability, unemployment, divisions in the leading party, and inequality are the seeds to Civil War – history shows us  this,” he said.
  • In 2018, newly elected South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa said efforts to radically transform the country’s economy and make it more inclusive “should be located in the context of the restorative justice  that defined the work of Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the TRC on and beyond. In this sense, the process of  truth and reconciliation will not be complete until we have acknowledged the economic and social injustices of the past, and corrected them”.

If we tackle corruption, no child would sleep hungry, there would be no injustice, every child would be in school. The most powerful force against corruption is one person saying “no”.

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