Recognizing the “Rabble-Rouser for Peace”: Going to South Africa to Bestow the Straus Institute’s Inaugural Peacemaker Award on Desmond Tutu

Thomas Stipanowich travels to South Africa to bestow the Straus Institute's inaugural Peacemaker Award on Desmond Tutu.

“You could have knocked me down with a feather . . .  [I]t was almost mindboggling, that a white man could doff his hat to my mother, a black woman, really a nonentity in South Africa’s terms.” In the world of South African apartheid, a world in which racial heritage and skin color determined as a matter of law where and with whom you could live, your education and job prospects, and who you could marry, an Anglican priest’s small, instinctive act of courtesy to his mother made a huge impression on young Desmond Tutu.  Years later, as a leader among South African clergy, Tutu would provide the moral leadership to help bring about the end of apartheid, transform South African society, and start the process of reconciliation and healing.

Having been, as he says, “grabbed by the scruff of neck by God,” Tutu has worked tirelessly and passionately for peace, justice, understanding, and forgiveness among members of the human family.

This July Archbishop Emeritus Desmond M. Tutu became the first recipient of the Peacemaker Award from the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution and the School of Law.  I traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, with documentary filmmaker Karen Hayes to present the award, which recognizes the archbishop’s “achievements as a peacemaker on a global scale and promoter of peace, human rights, and reconciliation, often at great risk and cost to himself and his family.” I also videotaped interviews with the archbishop and others who helped transform South Africa, promote peace and reconciliation, overcome the barriers that separate races and economic classes, and aid and empower the disadvantaged.

Desmond Tutu’s life is a testimony to the power of a commitment to strengthening the bonds that unite all of us as humans. In addition to promoting the scriptural instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself” and Jesus’ admonition to love your enemies, he seeks to put into practice the African concept of ubuntu: the notion that “you can’t be human all by yourself.”  Put another way, we are all connected, and what each of us does affects all of us.

Reverend Tutu returned to South Africa from ministry in England in 1975 as dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral, not long before violence exploded in Soweto. Nelson Mandela was in prison, the African National Congress was outlawed, and Tutu and other religious and community leaders stepped into the political leadership vacuum among those opposed to apartheid. A forceful and persuasive voice among the chaos, Tutu stood firmly for “nonracialism” and nonviolence. Especially after his appointment as episcopal archbishop of Cape Town, his was a tough balancing act. Some wondered why a religious leader would become involved in politics and call for foreign disinvestment in South Africa, while others criticized him for his moderation when many were advocating anti-government sabotage and violence.  Time and again he put himself in harm’s way, on more than one occasion wading into a murderous mob to save the life of potential victims.

Upon Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, Archbishop Tutu immediately stepped back from the sphere of political leadership. Instead, he and other religious leaders played a crucial role as mediators among emerging political factions in an effort to avoid a bloodbath in the critical period of transition to elective democracy between 1990 and 1994. During my interview with Reverend Tutu, he emphasized the importance of continuous, dedicated communication with God through prayer in sustaining him during those difficult times—a practice he continues to this day.

In 1995 Tutu was appointed by Mandela’s new Government of National Unity to chair the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC.  In the words of Tutu, the TRC was established “to help South Africans come to terms with their extremely troubled past . . ., to investigate the violations that took place between 1960 and 1994, to provide support and reparations to victims and their families, and to compile a full and objective record of the effects of apartheid on South African society.” Under Tutu’s leadership, the TRC sought to serve these goals by steering a course that was neither a Nuremberg-style proceeding to establish and punish criminal culpability, nor an exercise in “national amnesia.”  He presided over many months of sessions punctuated by often horrific accounts of political bloodletting and, sometimes, expressions of forgiveness.  During our interview, he explained to me that although evil was much in evidence during those hearings, his paramount image of the TRC was of goodness—of the extraordinary ability of individuals to open their hearts to wrongdoers.

Believing that “there can be no future without forgiveness,” Reverend Tutu has in recent years made efforts to promote broad-based reconciliation in places like Rwanda and the Solomon Islands. He is prominent among “The Elders,” a group of world leaders that has sought to address some of the globe’s most intractable disputes.

During our time in South Africa, I also had the opportunity to put Archbishop Tutu’s contributions in perspective through a series of taped interviews and conversations with other individuals. In company with Eddie Daniels, who spent 15 years at Robben Island prison in Cape Town harbor with Nelson Mandela, I visited that cell block. Daniels offered an extensive, disturbing personal view of life under apartheid. He also spoke of the extraordinary impact of Nelson Mandela who, like Archbishop Tutu, exerted critical moral leadership that helped avert civil war in South Africa. He also showed to me the character of one who, having suffered numerous and sustained wrongs, is no longer a victim, having unburdened his heart of hate and the desire for vengeance.

My interview with John Allen, the author of Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorized Biography of Desmond Tutu, richly revealed all of the reasons why Archbishop Tutu was the ideal choice for our first Peacemaker Award. As a young newspaper reporter covering the struggle over apartheid, Allen was especially impressed with Reverend Tutu’s ability to reach across the political divide. When Tutu became archbishop in 1986, Allen became his press secretary, and experienced firsthand Tutu’s courage, empathy, and sensitivity.  Ten years later he moved with Tutu to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and observed the extraordinary force of Tutu’s leadership role on the workings of the TRC and its broader impact on South African society.

South Africa continues to struggle with serious problems—racial separation, grinding poverty, violence, and disease—some of which reflect the impact of apartheid. In this setting, Archbishop Tutu’s positive influence is reflected not only in the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, but also in organizations affiliated with Anglican Church like HOPE Africa. During my conversations with HOPE Africa CEO Delene Mark and her colleague Patrina Pakoe, I learned of the organization’s efforts to work collaboratively with other groups to empower individuals in disadvantaged communities to end the cycle of destitution by developing their own resources. Mark also detailed the work of another important program aimed at forgiveness, reconciliation, and helping victims of oppression, the Institute for the Healing of Memories, an organization founded by the Reverend Michael Lapsley.  Through the Reverend Mpho Tutu, I also became familiar with the international work of organizations such as the Tutu Foundation UK.

As he reminded me during our interview, Archbishop Tutu continues in the firm belief that human beings are fundamentally good, and that all of us have the capacity to do goodness.   He observes that in an ever-shrinking world, “people of many cultures, races, religions, and ethnic backgrounds share neighborhood,” and that “each year we inch toward a more perfect way of living as a global community.” As explained in Made for Goodness, the book he coauthored with his daughter, the Reverend Mpho Tutu, “God has set in motion a centripetal process, a moving toward the center, toward unity, harmony, goodness, peace, and justice; a process that removes barriers.” Directly and indirectly, Desmond Tutu has set in motion or facilitated many efforts to overcome racial, cultural, and economic barriers and to promote nonviolence, justice, and harmony in the global community.

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