Nineteen eighty-six Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmond Tutu talks to Ode about the necessity for forgiveness.
The Most Reverend Desmond Mpilo Tutu stands out as a man of conviction and compassion. Raised and educated under the racist South African government, as a young man he battled authorities on behalf of black children seeking better schools. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1960. After living in England for several years, studying theology and working for the World Council of Churches, he returned to South Africa and became a leading campaigner against apartheid. In 1984, he won the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1986 was named the first black Anglican archbishop of Cape Town. He was a key leader in the struggle for South African freedom and a strong moral force in the shaping of the new black-majority nation—including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to come to grips with the awful crimes of apartheid.
He talks here about forgiveness with activist and photographer Lekha Singh in an interview that took place in Dallas, Texas, on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack.
Lekha Singh: When black South Africans finally came to power in 1994, the world expected a bloodbath. Why didn’t that happen?
Desmond Tutu: “At that point in the history of our country we had just the right leadership—Mr. Mandela on one side and Mr. de Klerk on the other. It could quite easily have remained intransigent, both sides saying, We will fight until the last drop. And we also had been supported so much by the international community. We knew we were being prayed for, but even more than just that, people around the world went to demonstrations, vigils outside many South African embassies. After the remarkable first election, many were fearful there would be an orgy of revenge.
“Instead of that, though, we had the Truth and Reconciliation process. It was mainly from the ANC [African National Congress], but there were other organizations in South Africa that were looking at what to do after apartheid. In fact, the person who ended up being the deputy chair of the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission], Dr. Boraine, had an organization that was called Justice in Transition, and he was a very close friend of the Dalai Lama.”
LS: And as South Africa’s troubles were coming to an end, Rwanda’s just began…
DT: “Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering—remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.”
LS: This triumph of peaceful means in ending the apartheid dictatorship coincided with the horrible news of genocide in Rwanda.
DT: “We visited Rwanda very soon after the genocide. I preached at Kigali in the stadium. I think the Rwandan people show incredible resilience. It was amazing that people could laugh and sing so very soon after that awful trauma.
“But what I tried to say to them then was that their history up to that point was that at one time the Tutsi were at the top. Then the Hutu were fighting to get to the top. Then the Tutsi tried to do the same thing. And I said to them, You can’t go on like that. You must decide to break that cycle by introducing something quite radical. Somebody must forgive somebody else.”
LS: Why is forgiveness so radical?
DT: “It’s very, very difficult. I find it difficult to say sorry to my wife in the privacy of my bedroom. In the TRC, you were expecting people to say sorry under the glare of television lights.
“Forgiveness is a deliberate act. Really you are giving the other person a chance to make a new beginning. I don’t know whether you saw it recently, but a former apartheid cabinet minister, Adriaan Vlok, has been going around washing people’s feet. He used to be minister of police, law and order. They were saying he went to wash the feet of the mothers of the ‘Mamelodi 10’ [young, black political agitators trapped, killed and torched by the apartheid police]. It is an extraordinary thing he should do that.
“In many ways, from the African perspective, forgiving is not being altruistic; it’s the highest form of self-interest. If you cannot forgive them, if you are nursing a grudge, then you are actually at the mercy of the perpetrator. You know, you remain locked in your victimhood. If you don’t forgive, you’re tied up in knots. And yet, if you forgive, you free yourself.
“Without forgiveness, there is no future.”