Archbishop Desmond Tutu Reflects on Working Toward Peace

When I was a boy in South Africa, thousands of blacks were arrested daily under the iniquitous pass-law system, which severely curtailed our freedom of movement. As a black person over the age of sixteen you had to carry a pass. It was an offense not to have it on your person when a police officer accosted you and demanded to see it. I remember vividly, when I would accompany my schoolteacher father to town, how sorry I felt for him when he was almost invariably stopped. Now there was something funny for you: Because my father was an educated man, he qualified for what was called an exemption. Ordinary pass laws did not apply to him in that he had the privilege denied to other blacks of being able to purchase the white man's liquor without running the risk of being arrested. But for the police to know he was exempted, he had to carry his superior document. His exemption, therefore, did not spare him the humiliation of being stopped and asked peremptorily and rudely to produce it in the street. This kind of treatment gnawed away at your very vitals.

Years later, after I was grown and married, and my wife, Leah, and our children returned from England, where I had gone to study theology, I faced an exquisite irony. My family was having a picnic on the beach. The portion of the beach reserved for blacks was the least attractive, with rocks lying around. Not far away was a playground, and our youngest, who was born in England, said, "Daddy, I want to go on the swings," and I said with a hollow voice and a dead weight in the pit of my stomach, "No, darling, you can't go." What do you say, how do you feel, when your baby says, "But Daddy, there are other children playing there?" How do you tell your little darling that she cannot go because though she is a child, she is not that kind of child. And you died many times and were not able to look your child in the eyes because you felt so dehumanized, so humiliated, so diminished. I probably felt as my father felt when he was diminished in the eyes of his young son.

When I became archbishop of Cape Town in 1986, I set myself three goals. Two had to do with the inner workings of the Anglican Church. The third was the liberation of all our people, black and white. That was achieved on April 27, 1994, when Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first democratically elected president. The world probably came to a standstill on May 10, the day of his inauguration. If it did not stand still then, it ought to have, because nearly all the world's heads of state and other leaders were milling around in Pretoria.

A poignant moment that day came when Mandela arrived with his elder daughter as his companion, and the various heads of the security forces, the police, and the correctional services strode to his car, saluted him, and then escorted him as head of state. It was poignant because only a few years earlier he had been their prisoner. What an extraordinary turnaround! President Mandela invited his white jailer to attend his inauguration as an honored guest, the first of many gestures he would make in his spectacular way, showing his breathtaking magnanimity and willingness to forgive. This man, who had been vilified and hunted down as a dangerous fugitive and incarcerated for nearly three decades, would soon be transformed into the embodiment of forgiveness. He would be a potent agent for the reconciliation he would urge his compatriots to work for, and which would form part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he would appoint to deal with our country's past.

Since that day, our nation has sought in various ways to rehabilitate and affirm the dignity and personhood of those who for so long have been silenced, have been turned into anonymous, marginalized ones. I have been privileged to be involved in the rehabilitation effort through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to which the president appointed me and sixteen others in September 1995. It was the commission's goal to reach out to as many South Africans as possible, offering amnesty to all, both those who had been victims and those who had been perpetrators during apartheid's long reign. Our slogan was: The truth hurts, but silence kills. Our aim was to engage all South Africans in the work of the commission, ensuring that all would have the chance to be part of any serious and viable proposal for healing and reconciliation.

At first we feared that few would come forward, but we need not have worried. We ended up obtaining more than twenty thousand statements. People had been bottled up for so long that when the chance came for them to tell their stories, the floodgates opened. I never ceased to marvel, after these people had told their nightmarish tales, that they looked so ordinary. They laughed, they conversed, they went about their daily lives looking to all the world to be normal, whole persons with not a single concern in the world. And then you heard their stories and wondered how they had survived for so long carrying such a heavy burden of grief and anguish so quietly, so unobtrusively, with dignity and simplicity. How much we owe them can never be computed.

The hearings were particularly rough on the interpreters, because they had to speak in the first person, at one time telling a victim's story and at another telling a perpetrator's. "They undressed me. They opened a drawer and then they stuffed my breast in the drawer, which they slammed repeatedly on my nipple until a white stuff oozed. We abducted him and gave him drugged coffee and then I shot him in the head. We then burned his body . . ." It could be rough as they switched identities in this fashion. Even those physically distant from the testimony were deeply affected. The head of our transcription service told me that one day, as she was typing the manuscripts of the hearings, she did not know she was crying until she saw the tears on her arms.

In January 1997, while still sitting on the commission, I learned that I had prostate cancer. It probably would have happened whatever I had been doing. But it seemed to demonstrate that we were engaging in something costly. Forgiveness and reconciliation were not to be entered into lightly, facilely. My illness seemed to dramatize the fact that it is a costly business to try to heal a wounded and traumatized people and that those engaging in this crucial task may bear the brunt themselves. It may be that we have been a great deal more like vacuum cleaners than dishwashers, taking into ourselves far more than we knew of the pain and devastation of those whose stories we had heard.

But suffering from a life-threatening disease also helped me have a different attitude and perspective. It has given a new intensity to life, for I realize how much I used to take for granted-the love and devotion of my wife, the laughter and playfulness of my grandchildren, the glory of a splendid sunset, the dedication of my colleagues. The disease has helped me acknowledge my own mortality, with deep thanksgiving for the extraordinary things that have happened in my life, not least in recent times. What a spectacular vindication it has been, in the struggle against apartheid, to live to see freedom come, to have been involved in finding the truth and reconciling the differences of those who are the future of our nation.



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