Lessons Young People Must Learn From Archbishop Desmond Tutu

South Africans have a lot to feel let down about. We carry around a thick dossier of all the transgressions of our past and current governments, ready to be pulled out at a moment’s notice. Our grievances are justifiable.

The so-called “new South Africa” in which we find ourselves today is not what we expected it to be. For many of us, it has been an epic and embarrassing failure. To our shock and dismay, there was no proverbial pot of gold at the end of our democratically elected rainbow.

We have been humbled and have stopped believing in our own potential as a people. It is much easier to point a collective finger at the elders who sold us a pipe dream and then failed to deliver it, or to complain about the current crop of leaders who add insult to injury almost daily.

We have a tendency to put those we admire on a pedestal. In the case of our political leaders, we expect them to single-handedly lead us to the promised land, while relegating to ourselves the role of loyal subjects and expectant beneficiaries.

We vacillate between hero-worshipping them when they deliver, and blaming and shaming them when they do not. We fail to appreciate that life is not a spectator sport. In order for us to succeed as a nation, the best efforts of our best leaders must be accompanied by the best efforts of all of us – and followed by the best efforts of future generations. We are learning the hard way that, if no one takes up the baton, momentum is lost and we regress. Life demands that we jump into the muck and get involved in cleaning up, but too few of us are willing to take on that responsibility.

However, there is hope. We simply need to look up from our collective despair and see the many young people who are doing what they can to make a positive difference where they are. They are everywhere, these doers, and they need our help. They need to be nurtured, encouraged and emboldened, lest they be swallowed up by all the negativity. We can inspire them with lessons from those who have gone before – those who, faced with similar and worse odds, managed to change the trajectory of this country.

We all come from somewhere and for the majority of us in South Africa, that “somewhere” is a place of neediness and trauma. Yet despite this, we have managed to produce some of the best leaders the world has ever known, with many more waiting in the wings. We all have the capacity to rise above our circumstances and not be defeated by them. What really helps is having someone take a genuine interest in us and support us as we navigate life’s inevitable hardships. Challenges can either break us or help us build resilience.

For those who do not see any role models to learn from, I offer the lived example of the late Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

There was nothing special about the Arch’s childhood – at least, nothing that hinted at the global icon he would become. In many ways, his early life story is relatable.

He was born in what today would be called an informal settlement. His father was a school teacher who later became a principal, upgrading the family to a four-roomed house in the township. His mother was a domestic worker and later a cook at a school for the blind. There was domestic violence in their home. Young Desmond’s father would beat his mother when he was drunk.

Growing up, the boy overcame a number of health challenges and worked hard to be accepted into medical school – but there was no money to send him to university.

Instead, he enrolled in a teacher’s training college. However, early in his teaching career, he decided to quit in protest at the apartheid government’s introduction of Bantu Education. It was only then that he opted to enter the priesthood, leaning into what he would eventually see as his calling.

One way of appraising a person’s life and legacy is by studying the impact of their words and deeds on humanity. This is an important exercise, as there is much to learn from their wisdom and achievements. However, done in isolation it again verges on hero-worshipping, portraying them as superhuman.

The approach to which I am more partial is attempting to understand what made these ordinary human beings choose to bravely step up and do extraordinary things. It is not an easy thing to raise one’s hand and keep it raised in a decades-long fight that takes a toll on oneself, one’s family, friends, colleagues and millions of one’s fellow citizens.

I have learnt that, loud and sociable as the Arch was, he also spent a lot of time in silence. He was diligent in doing the inner work needed to make a real impact on the world. His spirituality was the well from which he drew a deep understanding of his own humanity as a flawed person, capable of both good and evil.

That was where he found compassion for other human beings, even the vilest ones, who he knew were likewise capable of both good and evil. That was where he calibrated his moral compass, found clarity of thought and sharpened his argument for what he believed to be right and wrong.That was where he sought direction and relied on his intuition to guide his response to the challenges facing him. That was where he found the courage to act on his convictions. His spirituality was the source of his persistent fight against apartheid and other forms of injustice throughout his adult life.

While the Arch’s context was very much steeped in Christianity and the Anglican church, my belief is that spirituality is not the sole prerogative of the religious. We all have the capacity to go to a place where we can get in touch with who we are by listening to our inner voice/the universe/God, or whatever we call the centring place or thing which is the source of meaning for us.

The Arch regarded himself as a servant of all people fighting for justice. He saw that, as human beings, we are all interconnected, despite our differences. He consistently spoke truth to power and to both friend and foe. He was authentic and showed his true emotions. He leaned into courageous actions. He was grounded in hope and saw beyond current realities. He held fast to his vision of a better world and communicated it with clarity and certainty. He trusted his intuition and was able to inspire others to join him because he truly believed. All of this shows that what counts is not one’s particular line of work, career or cause, but how deeply one believes in it and how much one is willing to fight for it.

The Arch said: “Do your little bit of good where you are, as it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

His example demonstrates that our “little bit” expands exponentially as we ourselves expand as human beings – and the ripple effect of our efforts is even greater when we partner with others.With the many seemingly insurmountable challenges we face in the world, let us celebrate those who are willing to start where they are with whatever they have. Let us help them build the internal and external capacities to be more and do more, so that they make an even greater impact on humanity.

We have a moral obligation to nurture the next crop of inspired, courageous and values-driven leaders. One way of doing this is by distilling the lessons from those who came before us and gifting them to current and future generations. This is surely better than crying over spilt milk and making a pastime out of predicting our own demise.

This article was authored by Phumi Nhlapo, chief operating officer at the foundation, and first published in City Press.

Photo by Gallo Images/Sunday Times/Sydney Seshibedi