Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been a tireless voice for justice and racial conciliation. In 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the struggle against apartheid. The following is an excerpt from a 1999 conversation between Bill Moyers and Archbishop Tutu. The Archbishop discusses the draining process of facing his country's past as he chairs the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU (From speech): We have a cause that is just. We have
a cause that is going to prevail.
BILL MOYERS: He fought against South African apartheid, and dedicated his
life to peace and reconciliation.
MOYERS: Desmond Tutu was born in an impoverished township in South Africa in
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: I had a wonderful mother. I had a very strict father. My
mother was not educated, but she is she was an incredible person. She had a
natural sense of siding with the underdog. Whoever was having the worst of an
argument, whatever the rights and wrongs of it were, my mother would side with.
And I hope that I resemble her a bit in that as well.
MOYERS: He wanted to be a doctor, but wound up a parish priest and a prophet.
ARCHBISHOP TUTU (From speech): For until blacks are free, no one in this
country is going to be free.
MOYERS: For 30 years he was a leader in his people's struggle to end
apartheid, the rule of white supremacy.
ARCHBISHOP TUTU (From speech): If you think you can stop us from becoming
free, you are going to be stampeded.
MOYERS: The course was hard and costly.
ARCHBISHOP TUTU (From speech): The system tries all it can to destroy us. It
won't succeed. God is on our side.
MOYERS: In 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and appealed to the
world to join the struggle.
ARCHBISHOP TUTU (From speech): I give notice that if in 18 to 24 months from
today, February the 3rd, apartheid has not been dismantled, or is not being
actively dismantled, then for the first time I will, myself, call for punitive
economic sanctions, whatever the legal consequences may be.
MOYERS: One year later, even as his own people still could not vote, the
Anglican Church enthroned him as the first black archbishop in South Africa.
In 1994, millions of black South Africans, including Desmond Tutu, voted for
the first time. Nelson Mandela was elected president. Apartheid was no longer
the law of the land.
But the nation's healing had just begun. President Mandela asked Tutu to
chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Its mandate is to document the
horrors of apartheid and to sow the seeds of reconciliation between blacks and
MOYERS: How did you manage to sit there day after day and hear these stories
of terrible things that people had been doing to other people?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: For me, the discipline that one had got used to as a
priest was a help. My meditation, Bible study, the
Eucharist and that gave shape it gave you parameters, and it gave you structure
for your life. Otherwise, you could have disintegrated. It was terrible, and
I cry easily. I broke down on the very first day. But I then
said it wasn't fair, 'God, you couldn't allow this to happen,' because the media
then concentrated on me instead of on the people who were the rightful subjects,
the victims. And if I wanted to cry, then I would cry at home or in church. But
I was sustained by prayer, yes.
MOYERS: When you were a parish priest, you helped so many people deal with
their grief, the loss of a son, the loss of the brother, the loss of a
husband...to work through that emotional suffering that is always a part of that
kind of loss. And I wondered how have you dealt how have you grieved? You've
had a lot of loss in your life.
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Yes. Well, as I say, I cry. I cry easily. And it's in many
ways, perhaps a gift. It's a sign of vulnerability and weakness and knowing that
one doesn't have resources within one's self. It throws you back on God,
which is quite wonderful, actually, that you say to God, 'You wanted me to do
this job. For goodness sake, you are going then to have to give me the grace to
And you know, all the extraordinary people around the world praying for us that's real. Actually it's more real than many of the things that we think are
tangible, when people write to you and they say 'We are praying for you.'
When I go around the world, people say, 'I've been praying for you for years.' I
heard somebody the other day say, 'I have a yellowed picture of you on the door
of my refrigerator. And I've prayed for you.' It's very humbling. It's also very
invigorating, exhilarating. To know that prayer is for real.
MOYERS: Were there moments in the commission hearings when, among yourselves,
you thought, 'We can't go on. We can't do this. This is not going to work'?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Well, I tell you the meetings of the
commission, right from the beginning, were hell. You know, I think that there
would have been many, many more moments when we would really have broken down.
We, as a commission, were very representative of the brokenness of our
community. You know, that is one of the things that we got to discover, that
apartheid wounded us all, every single South African. And anyone who says that
they were not affected would, to that extent, actually demonstrate just how
wounded they are.
We discovered that we were, ourselves, wounded. We discovered that it wasn't
easy to jell as a commission. We were experiencing what it means to be a South
Africa who has lived in a broken society where people by law were alienated from
one another. The suspicions came almost naturally. 'Is this guy
doing what he is doing to me because I am black and he is white?,'
that kind of thing. It took quite a while for us to begin to have a measure
of trust in each other. We realized then that the healing could ultimately, actually
happen only through those who were themselves wounded, the wounded
MOYERS: When you were conducting the hearing, listening to these stories, did
you have a sense of learning something about human nature that you had not already learned about living under apartheid?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: I think that there was a shock. You thought you knew that there was torture. But it's a different thing knowing cerebrally to think, not as a statistic, but a human being of flesh and blood say, 'They opened a drawer. They undressed me and then they shoved my breasts into the drawer and slammed the drawer on my nipple.' That's a totally different ball game from intellectualizing, or saying, 'Yes, we know so many people.'
What I did learn were, as with two contrary things, that one was to be overwhelmed by the depth of depravity to which we can sink. That's the one side. And that bowls you over. But that's not the only truth that comes out because the other thing that the commission revealed is that people are incredible. People are a glorious creation; that just as much as we have the extraordinary capacity for evil, so we have a remarkable capacity for good. When you listened to people who by rights ought to have been bristling with anger and resentment showing that magnamity, that willingness to forgive. That's tremendous.
MOYERS: I can understand learning that about human nature, but what about power?
What has this taught you about power? For example, the commission discovered in
the process of your hearings that the racist government of South Africa had had
a chemical programs, a biological warfare program that was designed to kill blacks
and only blacks. In fact, to make blacks sterile, to render them sterile. When you
heard that, what did you think? This was your own government.
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: I was aware that at that particular time, my own reaction
was this is the worst thing that has come before the commission. Because the
others, you would say, 'Well, people, on the whole, did things on the spur of the
moment,' as it were. But this was so calculated, so scientific, so objective, so
cold that I said, 'For my money, this is the worst thing that we got.'
But with regard to all of that, one of our recommendations has, in fact, to
do with accountability, that we must never allow again a situation where people
have unbridled power, where they don't have to account to someone, to parliament
or to a commission of whatever. That we all of us have something in us that
makes it far too easy for us to succumb.
This is one of the glorious things, again, about theology, where you realize the importance of theology. Now you know
why in the Middle Ages it was regarded as the queen of the sciences; that, you
know there is something called 'original sin'; that there is absolutely no
reason why those who were yesterday's oppressed don't become tomorrow's
oppressors. The glory is that so many people do not stray once they
have got power. The remarkable thing is that we should still have so many
wanting to be virtuous about power... to say 'We are in this and we were in the struggle,' not for what we would get out of it.
It was not for our self-aggrandizement. We had said it was for the sake of the people.
There are those who have so quickly forgotten those ideals. But we mustn't then
become cynical. We've got to say, 'Of course. What did you expect?'
MOYERS: What does it say to you, theologically, that people who read the same
Bible, follow the same savior, pray to the same God wind up on opposite sides of
the issue of color and race... and could do this in the name of God?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Yes. Well, of course, again, if you have a sense of history,
you are not too shocked. You have the Crusades. They were undertaken and they were gory affairs. They were undertaken by people who genuinely believed that
they were doing this in the name of God. And it's never been different. The Nazis
were not pagans. I mean, the Nazis in Germany, these were very civilized
Christians, and they had German Christians who were supporting Hitler.
Mercifully, of course, we had the confessing church that stood up against them.
In your country, the United States, how could you have people justify slavery?
To own another human being. But it happened.
MOYERS: Well, answer that. How? I mean, what happened?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Because we are human beings who have been given,
extraordinarily, by this God we worship the gift of freedom. And God has such a
deep reverence for that gift, that God who alone I usually say he has the
perfect right to be a totalitarian, had much rather see us go freely to hell
than compel us to go to heaven. God takes seriously the gift that God has given
us. And we make choices. And the God, who in an omnipotent God, in many ways
becomes impotent, because God has given us the gift to choose. And God hopes
that there will be those who agitate against slavery, that we will have people
who will fight against racism, injustice, oppression, wherever.
MOYERS: But you see, I grew up in a small Southern town that was 50 percent
black and 50 percent white back in the '40s and '50s. I grew up well-taught,
well-loved and well-churched, but absolutely unaware of what life was like for
half of the population.
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Well, you know you've got to take seriously the fact that
you belong in a community.
MOYERS: Culture may be more important than theology.
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I don't. I want to say ...
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: You see, theology transcends them. Theology subsumes them,
you know. An authentic theology takes account of all of that, and the thing that
we mustn't do is to be dismissive of those who take the wrong turn, because the
grace of God is incredible. You think God doesn't do what you and I might have
wanted seen done to the perpetrators of evil, which is to dispatch them, to
snuff them out of existence. God doesn't do that. God doesn't send a lightening
bolt to strike down....He is going to wait so that God's agents will be the ones
who accomplish that. And when we fail, God fails.
MOYERS: Well, I can understand and appreciate that theology, but it's of
little comfort to the people who die in the waiting.
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Yes, but you also say to them, as we had to say to our
people, 'You know, in the end, justice and goodness will prevail.
This is a moral universe.'...In the Book of Revelation, there's a wonderful passage
where there are souls under the altar. And they cry out, as all who suffer cry out,
'Oh, Lord, how long?' Now the answer we would have expected to get would have
been the answer that says, 'Don't worry. It will be OK.' It does say that, but
it says, 'Before it is OK, a few more of you must suffer and die.' And we used
to tell our people at home, 'It is going to be OK. The victory has already been
won.' But in the process of our apprehending this victory, appropriating it,
there are going to be causalities. More of our people are going to be detained.
More are going to be imprisoned. More are going to be killed. 'But my dear
people, we used to say, 'we have already won. They have lost. Those who support
injustice have lost. They may have guns. They may appear to be powerful. But
don't let it kid you.' And we used to say to the white people in South Africa,
'We're being nice to you. We're inviting you, join the winning side.' And that
was in the dark days.
MOYERS: When did you first perceive that the government was trying to destroy
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Well, it's a thing that grows on you. But when you see a
program like that chemical biological warfare program, now that focuses a thing
that they really had been doing, the consequences of their policy. It's
encapsulated in this kind of program, that they don't actually believe seriously
in their hearts that we are quite as human as they, and that we are expendable. And
it was because, I think they were a people under siege in a way. They saw themselves as
a small group at the bottom of Africa. And they had a nostalgia, really, for
Europe. And they didn't accept that they were African or maybe they did.
And when you talked, for instance, about the so-called black on black
MOYERS: The necklacing and all of that?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: It is that the treatment that people have received fills
them with a self-hate. They then have a self-destructiveness. But they
frequently turned on others who looked like them. And I think that white South Africans,
Afrikaners especially, are in many ways very African. They are the culture, the
understanding of what a human being is in many ways is like us.
And when they discovered I think they found that they were more African
than they thought, that really made them mad, you know. I think since they
couldn't kick against themselves too much, they kicked against us.
MOYERS: What was the worst thing about apartheid?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Ultimately, it's actually the way it makes you doubt that
you are a child of God. When you are subjected to treatment that beings to work
in here, and you being to say, 'Hey, maybe they are right.' Language is very
powerful. Language does not describe reality. Language creates the reality that it
describes. And so when they call you a non-European, a non-this, you might think
it isn't working on you. But in fact, it is corrosive of your self-image. You
end up wondering whether you are actually as human as those others. You wonder 'Does God actually love me, black, as he loves a white child?'
I think that for me it was getting to say to black people, as the black
consciousness movement did, 'God didn't mistake creating you black. Celebrate
who you are. God loves you.' And that became for me very central in the sermons
that I was preaching. Actually, I preach only one sermon. I've always preached
one sermon. I thought I was preaching for black people and discovered
actually when I went back home that, in an incredible kind of way, the people who
perhaps more than others needed to hear that they mattered to God were white
people. Because they, in a remarkable way, have come to think that their worth
was extrinsic. It depended on the kind of car you had, the size of your house.
And you said to them 'No, no, no, no. Your worth is intrinsic. It doesn't depend
on status. It doesn't depend on race. It doesn't depend on anything. It's
So you don't actually need to throw your weight around to try to bolster an
emptiness that you know is inside you. You are doing many of these things
because you are actually suffering from a sense of inadequacy. Know you matter
MOYERS: I saw some footage of an angry black crowd turning on a black policeman
who the crowd suspected of being an informer, an agent, a traitor. And you were
in the picture. You put yourself, thrust yourself between that angry crowd and
Didn't you think you might be killed?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: When you're standing on the edge of a sidewalk, and there's
a little child, and there's a car coming along, and the child walks across the
street in the path of the oncoming car, do you stand on the sidewalk and say 'If
I go, I might get killed'? You don't even think, you act.
MOYERS: Did you have fear?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Not at the time. It's afterwards. It's afterwards when I saw
some of it on television and I said, 'What in the name of everything that is
good has got into me?' No, because I think most of us would do that.
MOYERS: What about the time you and a companion were on your way to visit
some clergy, Lutheran clergy, who were being mistreated in prison. And the white
police stopped you, took you out into the bush and started roughing you up. Were
you afraid then?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: We were thankful that it happened in daytime because we were
quite clear that our encounter with those police officers, had it happened when
it was dark, we might be telling a different story.
MOYERS: But was there fear at that point?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Well, you know I mean you have to believe that maybe God has
to work overtime. Or your guardian angel. Because you are human,
there are things that you feel in your solar plexus, but there are others that
are stronger than the pull. The pull maybe saying to run away, because you see,
in fact, 'Once I run away here, I'll never make it again.'
MOYERS: And that would explain why, on another occasion, where some white policemen
were attacking an older black man, you again put yourself between the perpetrators
and the victim. And you held up your bishop's cross at them until they stopped.
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: I don't remember some of these things. I would just
say that when I really ever got very angry was then they tried to get at me
through my children or my family, which they did quite frequently.
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Well I mean, one way would be if someone was telephoning the
house to give a death threat. Now you'd have thought that if I didn't answer the
telephone or my wife didn't answer the telephone, if it was one of the children,
that someone at the other end would have the gumption to know that you don't say
that kind of thing to a child. You would see the child sort of seize up. And
that really got my goat. Am I'm saying 'Look, I am the one who chose this
path. If you want to clobber anyone, clobber me, not them.'
MOYERS: Well, they tried. They withdrew your passport. There were these death
threats. Even when you received the Nobel Peace Prize, you had to empty the hall
because of a bomb threat.
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Yes, well, isn't it wonderful now to say that we were
on the winning side, that despite all their extraordinary efforts, they've lost?
Or we say to them, 'Participate now in the victory because we told you freedom
is indivisible. You will never be free until we are free.' And they thought,
'That is another Tutu slogan.' And then they discovered come April 1994, and
South Africa is free, and South Africa is suddenly warmly welcomed in the world
MOYERS: Recently, I saw a couple of disturbing reports in a survey, and that
a majority of the whites in South Africa did not believe that reconciliation is
possible. And 81 percent of the blacks, the oppressed, still believed it was
possible. The other survey was of the Human Rights commission, which
reported that five years after that marvelous date that you were just talking
about, when President Mandela was sworn in, that
racial discrimination is still deeply imbedded in the schools.
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Yes. Well, in many ways, of course, I think that we tend
ourselves to be naive, in expecting that something that has become
ingrained in people over centuries is going to slough off them in a matter
of....five years. How long have you in this country been trying to get rid of
racism? Can you imagine if the statistics you are giving me now were reversed.
If the blacks, who were the victims, were saying 80 percent of them, reconciliation
is for the birds. Where would whites be? This is 1999. Who are still the
ones who live in shacks. Who? It's blacks.
Look at the disposition of wealth. The vast majority of the wealth in our
country, the vast bulk of it is still in the hands you look at the
stock exchange, and you say, 'Who owns most of those stocks?' It's whites. You
say, 'Why are you whining? What do you want? Do you want black people to say 'To
hell with the reconciliation. We are going on a rampage.' Unless you work
enthusiastically for transformation in South Africa you are going to end up with
MOYERS: There was a moment a powerful moment in the commission hearings,
when a white South African, Mr. Ackerman his wife was killed...
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Yes, St. James.
MOYERS: In St. James Church, when some black guerrillas burst into the
service and began firing.
And there's this moment when he says, 'How on Earth are we ever going to be
reconciled?' And when I saw that I was wondering how do you forgive? What do you
actually do when you forgive someone?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Well, basically, you are saying 'I am abandoning my
right to revenge, to payback. By the fact that you have abused me, you have hurt
me, you are whatever it is that you have done, you have wronged me. By that
you have given me a certain right as over you that I could refuse to forgive
you. I could say that I have the right to retribution.' When I forgive, I say, 'I
jettison that right, and I open the door of opportunity to you, make a new
beginning.' That is what I do when I forgive you.
MOYERS: The Buddhists talk of letting go of the past, dying to the past, when
you forgive, of letting loose of the sorrow that you have brought with you from
the past. Is that what you're talking about?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Yes. The thing is, of course that I don't know that you
yourself are able, by an act of will, as it were, to let go of the pain. The
will part of it, where your will is, deliberately to say, 'I am not going to let
you victimize me and hold me in a position where I have an anger against you, a resentment, and I'm looking for the opportunity to pay back.' I am saying. 'I
want to let go of thatthat right, and begin to work for the possibility of
restoring the relationship.
MOYERS: Do I have to do anything the person being forgiven?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: For your own sake, the only way you can appropriate
forgiveness is by confessing. That opens you to the possibility
of being able to receive it. It's like opening your window. You see, forgiveness
can be likened to the fresh air that is outside or the sunlight that is outside
and you have a room and the windows are closed and the curtains are drawn. The
wind is still out there. My forgiveness is still available to you. But it won't
find access until you open the window and the light streams in. You draw the
curtains apart, and the fresh air comes in. You, by your contrition and
confession say, 'I am sorry; forgive me.' Open and my forgiveness enters your
MOYERS: We're talking about genocide, torture. Are genocide and torture forgivable?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: As a Christian, you have to say, 'Are there things that are
unforgivable?' I'm afraid we follow a lord and master who at the point when they
are crucifying him in the most painful way can say, 'Pray for their
forgiveness.' And we follow the one who says, 'Forgive one another as God and
Christ forgave you.' That is for us the paradigm. We may not always reach to
that ideal, that is the standard.
MOYERS: I saw mothers who'd lost their sons struggling Christian
mothers....struggling with this issue. They wanted to forgive and yet there was
something there that was so hard to do and I was thinking, 'Could they ever
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: That is not what you necessarily ask, you know? It could
very well be that you say, 'I have forgiven you, but I'm not going to try and
have a relationship with you. I want to walk away.' That is legitimate. I mean,
I have forgiven you. I'm not nursing grudges against you. But I don't believe I
could have a relationship with you that pretended nothing had happened. Because
I'm also a psychological being. I can be a spiritual being. But I'm also a
psychological being. I don't control my thoughts and my memories. I can hope
that my memories are healed.
MOYERS: This lack of bitterness on your part, is it something you've had to struggle for?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: I think that we have different temperaments. I have myself
been angry, very angry. As I told you, I get very angry at how other people
are made to suffer. I get very, very angry. And I remonstrate with God. I get
very angry with God, too. I mean, I hope that my relationship is one which is a genuine
relationship and I mean, that when you look at the Scriptures you do see
that if you have got that relationship or if you're trying to cultivate that
relationship, then all the worst things about you, you spill them out. I've been
angry with God. But I am fortunate....I have had to struggle, but I haven't
suffered as much as other people. I mean, it's those mothers you're talking
about who are the incredible ones.... who hear for the first time that 'My child was given a booby-trapped
hand grenade and so when he pulled out the pin, he was blown to
smithereens.' Or he or she hears that they gave him milk they gave him
laced coffee, they shot him in the head and they burned his body. And as they
were burning his body, they were having a barbecue on the side. And, I mean, you
have to sit and ...and... and... it's those mothers who are an extraordinary
bunch of people.
MOYERS: This report that you have prepared, this report that your commission
released, has been called one of the most important documents in the 20th
century. What would you like of it for the world to take it to heart?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: I would hope that the world would realize that there is no
situation that is not transfigurable, that there is no situation of which we can
say, 'This is absolutely, totally devoid of hope,' because that is what people
thought about South Africa. And that the star turns of this report are those we
wrongly call just ordinary people. There are no ordinary people in my
theology, but it is the small people, the ones who used to be nonentities, they
are the stars and for the world to know that those calledso-called ordinary people
MOYERS: Thank you very much.
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: God bless you.
Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu:
Desmond Tutu resources from the South Africa Department of Historical Papers. This web site includes quotes on Tutu and by Tutu, a biographical profile, Tutu manuscripts, photographs, links, and links to collections with material on Tutu.
NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER transcript of Mr. Lehrer's 1999 interview with Bishop Tutu.
Bishop Tutu discusses the Truth and Reconciliation Committee he chaired and his country's efforts to achieve racial healing.