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Canada: Speech by Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Posted on: February 24, 2000 4:52 PM
Related Categories: Canada

Excerpt from a speech by Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the University of Toronto where he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree

By Archbishop Desmond Tutu

I am very greatly honoured in being- asked to give the keynote ad-dress for this major international symposium: "Justice, Memory, and Reconciliation."

Zachariah proclaimed on behalf of God about the restored Jerusalem: "Jerusalem shall be inhabited like villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and animals in it. For I will be a wall of fire all around it, says the Lord, and I will be the glory within it."

We experienced a like wall of fire in the support, the prayers and the concern of the international community during our struggle against the viciousness of apartheid. I met a nun in New York once and I asked her to tell me about her life. She said she was a solitary and lived in the woods in California at the time. Her day started at 2 in the morning and she added that prayed for me. I said, "Hey, here I am being prayed for at 2 morning in the woods in the California; what chance does the South African apartheid government stand?"

Yes, we are the beneficiaries of the commitment of many who demonstrated on our behalf, who staged rallies for us, who agitated for sanctions against the apartheid government. And here we are - today we are free, democratic, seeking to be non-racial and non-sexist. We have won a spectacular victory over the awfulness of apartheid's injustice and oppression. If you asked even the most sober students of South African affairs what they thought was going to happen to South Africa a few years ago, then, almost universally, they predicted the most ghastly catastrophe would befall us; that we would be devastated by a blood-bath. It did not happen. Instead the world watched with amazement, indeed awe, at the long lines of South of all races, snaking their way to their polling booths on April 27, 1994. And they thrilled as they witnessed Nelson Mandela being inaugurated as the first democratically elected president of South Africa on May 10, 1994. And nearly every-one described what they were witnessing, a virtually bloodless, reasonably peaceful transition from injustice and oppression to freedom and democracy, as a miracle.

We could not have achieved it without your help. What a great privilege to be able to return to the people from whom we had asked for help, to return to say you gave it and look at the result, to return to say on behalf of millions of my com-patriots: "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. Our victory is in every real sense your victory!"

When the disaster did not over-take us at the transition, there were those who said, "Wait until a black-led government takes over. Then these blacks, who have suffered so grievously in the past, will engage in the most fearful orgy of revenge and retribution against the whites." Well, that prediction, too, was not fulfilled. Instead, the world saw something quite unprecedented. They saw the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when perpetrators of some of the most gruesome atrocities were given amnesty in exchange for a full disclosure of the facts of the offence for which they had applied for amnesty. Instead of revenge and retribution, this new nation chose to tread the difficult path of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation. It has not been an easy path to walk, but it is now nearly six years since we embarked on this experiment in race relations, seeking to weld former adversaries, alienated from one another by deliberate government policy, to weld them into a nation that would seek to celebrate its diversity and glory in being the rain-bow nation of God.

Looking at what has happened in Russia, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, all the upheaval, instability and bloodletting, you have to say that we, South Africans, have not done too badly. We have already had a fairly uneventful second general election. Not only that, we have witnessed a transition from a highly revered and charismatic first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, to the more hands-on, pragmatic, Thabo Mbeki. The turmoil and instability that ninny feared would accompany these crucial events have not occurred. Why? Well, first, you have prayed for us and, if miracles had to happen anywhere, South Africa was a prime site for a miracle of this sort.

We have been richly blessed to have had at such a critical time in our history a Nelson Mandela. He was imprisoned for 27 years. Most expected that when he emerged from prison, he would be riddled with bitterness and a lust for revenge and retribution. Instead, the world has been amazed at this one who, instead of spewing calls for revenge, has urged his own people to be ready to forgive and to work for reconciliation. He has preached this gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation a great deal more by example than by precept. He invited his former jailer to attend his presidential inauguration as a VIP guest. He has had lunch at the presidency with Percy Yutar, who was the prosecutor in the Rivonia trial, where Mandela and his colleagues were sentenced to life imprisonment. He invited to lunch the man who had argued for the death sentence to be passed in that trial.

Wonderfully, Nelson Mandela has not been the only person committed to forgiveness and reconciliation. Less well known people, sometimes erroneously described as the "ordinary" people - in my theology no one is ordinary, for each one of us is created in the image of God and, thus, is God's viceroy. Many of the previously more anonymous, faceless victims of apartheid have shown that they are the real heroes and heroines of our struggle. One woman was injured in a hand-grenade attack by one of the liberation movements. She went into the intensive care unit and when she came out of hospital, she was still so badly injured that her children bathed her, clothed her and fed her. She came to tell us her story - that she could not go through a security checkpoint at the airport because she still had shrapnel in her body and all sorts of alarms would have been set off. She described the experience that left her in this condition - she said it "enriched" her life. She said she would like to meet the perpetrator, she, a white worn an, and he, almost certainly, a black man, in the spirit of forgiveness.

The daughter of one of four African National Congress whom the police ambushed and then killed gruesomely (their mutilated bodies were found in their burnt out car) came to tell her story. She said the police were still harassing her mother and her children, even after their father had died. When she finished, I asked her whether she would be able to forgive those who had done this.

"We would like to forgive," she replied. "We just want to know whom to forgive."

We were exhilarated as we heard people who had suffered grievously, who by rights should have been baying for the blood of their tormentors, utter words of forgiveness, reveal a willingness to work for reconciliation, demonstrating magnanimity and nobility of spirit.

Yes, wonderfully, exhilaratingly, we have this extraordinary capacity for good. Fundamentally, we good; we are made for love. for compassion, for caring, for peace and reconciliation, transcendence, for the beautiful, for the true and the good.

Who could have imagined South Africa would be an example of anything but the most awful ghastliness? And now we see God's sense of humour, for God has chosen this unlikely lot and set us up as some kind of paradigm, as some kind model that just might provide world with a viable way of dealing with a post-conflict, post-repression period. We have not been particularly virtuous. We are not particularly smart. God wants to point at us as this unlikely bunch and say to the trouble spots of the world: "Look a them. They had a nightmare called apartheid. It has ended. Your nightmare, too, will end."

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a Nobel Peace Prize winner and the former Anglican primate of South Africa.

Item from: The Toronto Star