Tutus Message Forgiveness Peace

March 28, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s passion for life took center stage Tuesday at the Van Andel Arena.

Tutu accepted a key to the city from Mayor John Logie and told a crowd of some 6,000 that they were “very good people at welcoming people from elsewhere.”

At turns playful, somber, exuberant and reflective, the renowned South African clergyman and civil rights activist addressed the struggle for social justice and human rights, drawing examples and analogies from South Africa’s historical struggle against white domination of the black majority and its former apartheid system of racial segregation.

Tutu’s address was intermittently interrupted by thunderous applause throughout the evening. He was in Grand Rapids as the capstone speaker for this year’s World Affairs Council of Western Michigan Great Decisions Foreign Policy Lecture Series. Tuesday’s visit here was his only appearance in Michigan.

Tutu, who received the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his work against apartheid and his contribution to the cause of racial justice in South Africa, said the civil rights movement in the United States inspired many South Africans.

Racial discrimination was institutionalized in South Africa in 1948, and race laws touched every aspect of social life. A little more than 10 years ago, South Africa was convulsed by bloody violence that seemed on the verge of becoming endemic, he recalled.

South Africa had been in turmoil following the 1976 Soweto uprising. From 1978 to 1985 Tutu served as General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC). Under his leadership, the SACC became the voice of millions of South African Christians and the guiding light in their spiritual and political development.

“Awful things were happening in our land. People were dying as if they were but flies. Very many were predicting that the most awful racial confrontation was waiting to overwhelm our land — that we would be devastated by a racial bloodbath. We did seem to be on the brink, on the verge of the most awful catastrophe.”

But South Africans triumphed over apartheid in 1994, and Tutu recalled the “magical” day in April of that year when people of all races lined up at the polls to cast their votes in the first democratic election ever held in the country.

“We won a great victory. Indeed, you could say we won a spectacular victory over the awfulness of a vicious system. That victory would have been totally impossible had it not been for the quite remarkable support we received from the international community. We were the beneficiaries of quite extraordinary praying.

“We came asking for help, especially for improving economic sanctions on the apartheid regime. We came asking for help, you gave that help. It helped Nelson Mandela walk out of prison. It helped all of us, black and white together, to become truly free in a new South Africa, a free South Africa, a democratic South Africa. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Mandela, who had been long and deeply involved in passive resistance efforts against the apartheid regime, was imprisoned for 27 years. He was elected as president of the African National Congress in 1991, a year after his release from prison.

“It is only those who have been ‘un-free’ who will know the exhilaration of having the shackles knocked off your ankles and wrists,” Tutu stressed.

He recalled that members of the former apartheid regime had predicted that when the black-led government came to power, “an orgy of retribution” and revenge against them would occur.

The orgy didn’t happen. Instead, the world watched, “perhaps with some awe,” Tutu said, as the process of the truth and reconciliation commission unfolded. Rather than put all perpetrators on trial, the commission decided to grant amnesty to those who fully disclosed the truth about their offenses and participation in atrocities against blacks. The general emphasis, he recalled, was to let bygones be bygones.

What Tutu learned from the experience was that every human being has an “extraordinary capacity” for evil, he said. He recalled hearing stories that were “hair raising and almost unbelievable” in terms of the depravity and cruelty people were capable of.

But he also witnessed reconciliation efforts between many victims of apartheid and their former oppressors.

“At the end of the process of the truth and reconciliation commission, I came away exhilarated, exhilarated by the fact that, yes, we have this capacity for evil, but we have this remarkably glorious capacity for good. We are fundamentally good!” he exclaimed.

“We are an incredible paradox; we are finite creatures created for the infinite.”

In response to a question about what Americans can do about racism here and abroad, Tutu said in order to solve a problem, the first thing people have to do is to recognize that there is a problem.

“I don’t think until you deal with the legacy of slavery and what happened to Native Americans will you be able to deal with the albatross around your neck,” he said.

Asked whether the truth and reconciliation process could work in Iraq as it did in South Africa, Tutu said it could work anywhere.

“I have often said to people that God has a kind of sense of humor. Because no one in their right mind would ever have imagined that South Africa would be an example of anything but the worst possible ghastliness. That’s precisely why it can now become a beacon of hope. If it can happen is South Africa, then it must be the case that it can happen anywhere.”

Questioned as to whether he thinks the U.S. attack on Iraq constitutes an abuse of power, he responded: “Power can be a wonderful instrument for good, but it can also be a thing that is corrupting. When we were struggling with apartheid, we drew considerable inspiration from your history. I ask, if you have the legacy enshrined in helping to release Nelson Mandela from prison and a whole people from apartheid, nonviolently, why tarnish it?”     

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