Transcript: Desmond Tutu Interview 2009

Desmond Tutu: If we could just have a moment’s silence… Come Holy Spirit fill the hearts of thy faithful people and kindle in them the fire of thy love. Send forth thy spirit and they shall remain and they shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

That’s an ecumenical prayer. Alright, here is the shorn lamb being led to the slaughter. Welcome to our office here. I learned that you have prepared questions. I am not promising I am going to answer them, but I’ll have a shot at it.

Dawie Crous: Archbishop, just to fill you in they have been in the country for about two weeks, they have been to the apartheid museum, they have been to Soweto, they have been to the Cradle of Human Kind, we took them out to the Kruger Park and we took them out to our farm. They brought a lot of gifts for Philani, your favorite charity.

Desmond Tutu: Yes, yes, thank you.

Jack Massion:  Hi, My name is Jack and I have a question about the post apartheid period. My question is we have heard stories and seen pictures of this extreme sense of bliss after apartheid was ended. My question to you is, was the end to apartheid just one step in a process you had been planning or was it kind of like, it ended and all of a sudden you had to go what next? What is my next step?

Desmond Tutu: Yes. I would have expected that we… we said, I mean yes it was an epoch that ended and we were looking for a new kind of society. The previous one had been marked by separation, discrimination, racism, and we said we wanted a new kind of society with non-racial… It is all so cliché yes, non-racial, non-sexist, and we hoped that we would have a society that celebrated its diversity. And you will see frequently references to the rainbow nation where we said a rainbow is a rainbow precisely because it has different colors. They don’t merge into each other and they are different and yes they coalesce. And yeah, I think too that we had, I should think most of us probably had unrealistic expectations of the post-apartheid period where we though that the idealism that characterized the anti-apartheid period, the struggle period, the high ideals, the altruism where people were involved with struggle not for what they would get out of it. We thought that those automatically transferred to the post-Apartheid period and clearly we were wrong. I sometimes say that at least it showed we were human. That so called “original sin” does not know any racial discrimination. We are all afflicted by original sin; people succumbing to temptations to do and to be, like many of the things that they opposed in the apartheid period. And you have seen the stark differences and cheek by jowl we have very wealthy and very, very poor. There are levels of poverty in our country that are totally unacceptable. I mean there are people who go to bed hungry, and that is unconscionable. I would go on but I mean maybe we should give a chance to other people. You will see that I used to be a teacher and as a teacher in order not to have to answer too many questions, you stretch your answers, but I won’t do that. I will try and take as many questions as possible because I think you deserve that. I learn, Ingrid LaRue who is our family physician was deeply impressed with yourselves. She told me this morning when we were at coffee that you went out to clean windows and cut grass and paint, thank you very much, at Philani. You should also have taken them to Tygerbert Hospital. (Speaks to Dawie in Afrikaans) Alright. We are saying nice things about you don’t worry.

Erin Mitchell: I have a question. My name is Erin. You wrote in one of your books that God has a soft spot for sinners. If God is so forgiving, what gives a person incentive to change?

Desmond Tutu: Ah, yeah. How old are you?

Erin Mitchell: I am seventeen.

Desmond Tutu: Ah, then you must have a boyfriend. Why I am saying that… The point is when you are in love you strive to do the things that will please your lover. And the way God operates is on the basis of love. God is trying to woo us into a love affair with God. The way sometimes we preach we make out that God is waiting eagerly to catch us out. It’s not that way at all. I mean, it is extraordinary because it almost is as if God in fact wills us also to sin, but that is not true. The thing is God has been incredible in creating us to be persons. God could have created us to be automatons who were always choosing the right side, making the right decision. It is an incredible thing, God said “I want persons” who therefore have freedom. The real freedom although obviously I mean it is, it is a freedom that… We are given an autonomy and the real autonomy… and God would much rather we went freely to hell than compel us to go to heaven. And the way is, God says “This is what I would love you to be, but I am not going to constrain you. I want it to be your choice.” And it is a fantastic thing because even at the moment when I am making the choice to reject God, I would depend from moment to moment, you know that beautiful image of God creating by breathing God’s breath into this lump of clay, making it a human being. It’s not like God… you know when you have a balloon, you can blow the balloon up, inflate it, and then you can tie it and the air remains and the balloon… no. It’s a fantastic thing that from moment to the next moment if God were to have stopped for a split second we would disintegrate into nothingness. And the incredible thing is that God breaths this breath and keeps each of us in existence, in being, even when we chose to reject God. Now if I had that kind of power I would snuff you out! But God doesn’t. God says “I have given you this gift, and it is a real gift. I want you to love me freely, and I will do anything, anything up to giving up the most precious thing I could say I have, my son, to prove I love you. Please come back.” So, when God invests in the sinner, as in the story of the hundred sheep and the lost sheep. We miss the point of that story because in most, when you go to church, most churches when they have images of the good shepherd, they show Jesus carrying a nice fluffy lamb. Now fluffy little lambs don’t stray from their mommy’s. The sheep that will stray is the most obstreperous, troublesome one. And the point of the story is that God is prepared to leave 99 perfectly well behaved sheep to go and look for this one. And remember that they say not “there is great joy”, they say “there is greater joy in heaven over this one than over the 99.”

And so to answer your question, which is the whole gospel I mean, you know really. It is that God hopes that we are going to love God back. That our lives that are a response to a love that we already have received. Most of us tend to be… our parents will maybe sometimes when they are upset with us and we have been troublesome say something like “Mommy really doesn’t like a naughty child.” And we think that we have to earn the approval, earn the love of our parents. And then we transfer it to God and think we have to earn… We don’t have to earn it! God loves us. There is this incredible thing in the prophet Jeremiah where Jeremiah is scared of becoming a prophet and God says to him “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” That is, each one of us is not a divine afterthought. Incredible! I mean you know, really. To think that God loved me before I actually was. That I am not an afterthought I am not an accident. You are not an afterthought, you are not an accident. Some of us might look like accidents, but I mean none of us is in fact an accident. And so, I invest and hope that you will see, this is my lover and I want to please my lover.  Yes ma’am.

Haley Turner: I’m Haley. Personally, forgiveness has been challenging for me, especially when I feel like the other person that’s hurt me isn’t being punished in a certain way. So my question is during the truth and reconciliation commission how were people able to let go of their anger and forgive without feeling like a punishment was needed.

Desmond Tutu: Forgiving is not easy. It is not cheap. And those of use who came to be Christians get to remember that forgiveness cost God the death of God’s son. It’s an expensive thing in many ways. But you see, one of the things that we try to tell people is that there are two forms of justice. There is what is called retributive justice and there is restorative justice. Retributive justice is one that says clobber him or clobber her because they clobbered me. So it emphasizes punishment. Restorative justice says “No, the offense affected a relationship” and what you are seeking for is to restore the relationship, to heal the relationship. Because you see, if you say… you think sometimes that maybe if the person who hurt you is clobbered you will feel a little better. But it actually doesn’t. Let’s take an extreme example. Supposing it is someone who killed your mom and as happens your country still believes in capital punishment, on of the greatest obscenities is the world, but never mind that is another story. Does taking the life of the perpetrator return your mom? No. You ask when is it that you can say yes we have had enough. It is enough revenge and I think now we have restored the equilibrium. It never happens! And we also say though that revenge has a way of corroding you, the revenger. You know it doesn’t heal you. It is tough, but people were incredible. It’s not a peculiarly African thing. In the TRC one of the stories that we had was of somebody called Amy Beale. You’ve  heard of Amy Beale? Amy Beale was a Fullbright Scholar who came to a university here called the University of the Western Cape. And one day she gave a lift to one of her colleagues in the university who lived in one of the townships here. She was a black colleague. They drove into the township, and it was during the times of the uprisings and turmoil and there was a particular political group that used to say “One settler, one bullet.” Amy Beale drove into the township and there was a mob of young people belonging to this group and they say Amy Beale and they ended up killing her. She stopped the car, tried to run, she fell and they stoned, she was killed quite gruesomely. Her parents came, I mean they found two of the leaders of that mob and were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. These guys then applied for amnesty and Amy Beale’s parents, her father has since died, they came to South Africa and said they supported the granting of amnesty to the people who had killed their daughter so gruesomely. And they have now set up the Amy Beale Foundation in here, and one of the things it has done is they have started a bakery and all kinds of other projects and at least one of the people they employed was one of the two guys who killed their daughter. So I was going to say, you don’t think we have a copyright to forgiveness, it is done by people everywhere. And I hope that you would be one of those who says the person who has hurt me, and we mustn’t pretend that they haven’t hurt you, but if you do not for give you actually are tying yourself to the perpetrator, that you are going to live your life as a victim. And you won’t experience a liberation that comes from forgiving. Uhhhhhhhhhhhh (laughs) Yes I was just trying to think (Speaks Afrikaans to Dawie). Yes alright, let’s go.

Mara Getz: It seems to me that through your dedication to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that you have a very deep faith in humankind. I was wondering how that came about and if you have ever doubted it.

Desmond Tutu: I have to say that I have very little to do with the setting up of the TRC. I just had the great privilege of being invited to become its chair. Because other people who had done marvelous work long before the end of apartheid who said what are we going to do post apartheid and they looked at various models. But I think all of us who were involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission realized that we were being asked to participate in a process that was quasi-legal but deeply spiritual. Forgiveness is not generally something that you find as a coin to be used by politicians. Most people would admit that it was something spiritual. People say, men mostly, that they would have been influenced by whatever faith they have, it’s a religious category. And before we started, and there were Christians, there were Jews, there were Muslims, and there must have been people who were maybe atheists or humanists or non-believers. I said that before we began our proceedings we should have a silent retreat and we had a day when we went off as the commissioners and had someone very sensitively conduct the retreat. And also it was accepted too that when we had meetings of the commission we would stop midday for a time of reflection and I would invite one of us maybe a Muslim, maybe a Hindu, maybe a Christian to collect our prayers and so we would pray. And generally when we had a hearing for victims who were coming to tell their story it was, well most people in our country would have been surprised if we had not begun with hymns and prayers. So there was a great deal of the spiritual. And when we finished our work we went to Robben Island and we had another retreat there. We had a day silent retreat. We went into the former cells and we just thought that it was appropriate to end this enterprise with a retreat and our last meeting was held on Robben Island. And I had also invited the monks and nuns of the Anglican church around the world to sustain us with your prayers. Yes and you have to say that we have faith in human kind, that human beings are fundamentally good. And that is something that surprised me in a way. What I took away at the end of the process three years or so down the line. I mean, after we had been exposed to some of the most awful atrocities, people telling us some of the things that they have done, and you were quite devastated by the accounts that they gave. I thought that was what one would take away, this feeling of just how depraved we can be. But I was surprised that wasn’t what one took away. What one took away was also a knowledge that yes we have an incredible capacity for the worst possible evil, all of us, it was that we also have this incredible capacity for good. And that is why we are all of us appalled when something bad happens. Because if the bad was the norm, we would just shrug our shoulders and say “well tough luck, this is how the cookie crumbles” kind of thing but none of us does that. I mean when we hear a story of the abuse of a child or the abuse of women almost all people are appalled by instances of that kind. And even the worst dictator, there is not a single one of them who would say “Oh yes, I violate human rights.” They all claim “oh no, we respect human rights” even when they are doing the most egregious things. Of course it is that we are fundamentally good, and evil is an aberration. And you see too with the kind of people we revere, not just admire, you know I mean when you think, most people would say “Ah, Mahatma Gandhi, what a wonderful man, Mother Teresa, maybe Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Dalai Lama.” And when you look at those people it’s not the macho, aggressive, successful people, we may envy them, their bank balances and kind of thing, yes and for being successful. But we do not revere them. Mother Teresa, you could say many things about her, but certainly you would not say she was macho. Anything but. And why? You must have heard about this African saint, one of the greatest minds of the early church, St. Augustine of Hippo, that he said about god “thou has made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” We were an extraordinary paradox. We are finite creatures made for the infinite. Incredible. People come a cropper each time, some might say “well I want to be successful and very rich” and they discover that if they turn that (inaudible) into their God it turns into dust and ashes. It doesn’t actually give them the contentment, the satisfaction they thought they would get. Sex, or drugs, or whatever because we are incredible. We are made by God, we are made like God, we are made for God. Incredible creatures. Right you are. Okay.

Mari Fox: So yesterday our group traveled to the township of Khayelitsha to visit the Philani Child Health and Nutrition Project and while we were there an outreach worker took some of us out into the township and into the homes of the people who live there. She informed us that many of the people that live in Khayelitsha are living there because that is where they were put during the apartheid. And I was just wondering if you ever felt a sense of failure because you worked so hard to end apartheid and people are still living under the sane conditions that they were living under during apartheid.

Desmond Tutu: I wish that we did have a magic wand which we could wave and hey presto! Magic! Unfortunately life is not like that. A paradigm that we used quite a lot was speaking about the exodus. We said God is on the side of the oppressed and as God showed when God sided with a bunch of slaves. God would come down and lead us out of bondage. And God led us out of bondage. Most of us have made the mistake that after they crossed the Red Sea they spent 40 years in the wilderness fighting amongst each other. If you read the accounts, they were constantly bickering. There were some who then said, it gave us the English expression “the flesh pots of Egypt.” There were those who longed and said “No man, freedom is too demanding, we want to go back to Egypt, we were well fed there, we are tired of this manner. God can you change the diet, man? Please change the menu.” No, 40 years you are going to eat this stuff and sometimes you will get birds also. Then after 40 years some who had left Egypt crossed the Jordan into the promised land. We need to keep being reminded that if we are following that paradigm, being formed into a nation takes some doing. And you have seen you own country; you have seen after Katrina just what failures there are in American Society. And you have been free more than 300 years. Give us a chance. But no, it is a very important question. One of the things that has always surprised me is why the people are so patient. Because they have seen not just that freedom has come, what they have seen is that there are some who used to be poor who are very rich, stinking rich some of them. And they still live in shacks or RDP houses which are awful actually. There are improvements. You drive along the N2 and you see on the left when you are going to the airport on the left is that N2 complex. But when you come away from the airport on the left its all of those shacks. When a fire starts in one it just races through. And that is in a way unconscionable. I think we are beginning to see some of the dissatisfaction with people going on demonstrations. They were stoning cars and things on the N2 because they are feeling they are the left behinds. We are going to have to be very careful that we give people the hope that freedom is actually better than unfreedom. They may question this you know, they could say under apartheid because of the very strict laws… part of the problem is apartheid had a very strict, they called it influx control, they kept most black people out of the towns with the pass law system. When freedom came, that barrier was lifted and people rushed, as they do almost everywhere in the world. People almost always imagine that life is going to be better in town and that the streets of the town are paved with gold, and so people come and there is no (inaudible) provision for them. I think we have got to put fire under the feet of all kinds of people. Are you still eager to ask?

Camille Schwartz: We named our project Project Ubuntu because we are searching for a true meaning of community and trying to explore our relatedness to others. In trying to define the concept we have discovered that is very large and very multi-dimensional. What I want to know is how did you come to you interpretation of ubuntu because it seems like there are many different interpretations? And has what you see as ubuntu changed over the years?

Desmond Tutu: It’s not really my interpretation; I think that most of us would say that ubuntu basically speaks about what it means to be human. And what it means to be human is that you are not meant to be (inaudible). It speaks about sharing, it speaks about being compassionate, it speaks about knowing that we are interconnected. And when the humility of someone is undermined, whether I like it or not mine is undermined as well. I am less that what I would be had it not happened, I would have been a far better person. And that is not theory. In the TRC you heard how people have done quite dehumanizing things and they thought it would hit the victim and they were shocked to find that it actually was like a boomerang. You throw it over there and it comes back to hit you. Some would say we gave him drugged coffee and shot him in the head and then we burned his body. And while his body was burning, it takes 9 or so hours for human body to burn completely, you can’t actually credit that people could do what these guys said they had done, which it that while this guys body was burning they were having a barbeque. But then it is that when you pull down someone inexorably you find you have to join them in the gutter. To keep them in the gutter you join them there. It is for real; you see it when you do something good, let’s say like you guys did at Philani sweeping and painting and cutting grass. Yeah you are doing it for them, but there is a spin off for you, even just the spin off of feeling good. But it does something for you. It is like forgiving. When you nurse a grudge it is not good for your health. You find you might begin to have a high blood pressure, you could even develop an ulcer. So forgiving, I didn’t say this earlier, but forgiving is good for your health. So ubuntu really says if you want to be nice to yourself, start in a way by being nice to the other. Find your own definition of ubuntu… but it is wonderful when you think of it in a captured form as “ a person is a person through other persons.” Now that is not my definition, its really what our people say. And the highest pray that our people can give you is to say that this person has ubuntu. That is the highest praise, when they mean that you are generous, you share, you are welcoming, you care about others more than you care for yourself. They would have said it about yourselves yesterday. They would have said these children have ubuntu from the things that you did yesterday. Hey! Come on be nice to me!

(conversation in Afrikaans)

Dawie Crous: I think they would like to sing for you.

Desmond Tutu: Sing!!! Ahhhhhhhhh. Now that is something yes.

Dawie Crous: They prepared this song on the bus for you, I think we can do it right here.

Desmond Tutu: Oh that’s lovely, thank you. But I mean the other people will want to have… yes, alright.

SN: let’s sing for him and then let’s ask the closing question. First we have to build him up.

Group sings South African National Anthem

Desmond Tutu: ooooooooooh! Very good, lovely! Wonderful, wonderful, lovely. Now what else have you got?

Sara Birns: You have given us a lot of really good advice; do you have anything in particular you would like to give us as a group to take back to the US?

Desmond Tutu: well I would want to say that I have a lot of time for young people. When we were struggling against apartheid I was one of the few people who could travel and I was asking for (inaudible) and so forth. And young people, not exclusively, but young people particularly were amazing. President Reagan was firmly opposed to sanctions and he was hugely popular so it was very difficult to thinking that your congress would pass the legislations, but I mean because of the demonstrations especially by young people, but as I said not exclusively, at colleges and universities, they actually achieved something that was fantastic, the changed the moral climate in the US. Congess not only passed the legislation but they managed a presidential veto override. So I would want to say to you young people: dream, drea, dream about a world hat is better than our world. A world where there is no war, a world in which we are not going to be spending billions on instruments of death. Where a small fraction can insure that people everywhere have enough to eat, have clean water to drink. And you know God is forever using especially young people, not oldies like us, God likes using young people. I hope that you will be amongst those young people who say we worked to change the world. We worked to make the world a more gentle, a more compassionate, a more caring world. Yes that is what you can take back.