LectureHop: Archbishop Desmond Tutu

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He speaks.

He speaks.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and his daughter, the Reverend Mpho Tutu graced Low Rotunda with their presence Friday evening. Social right specialist Artur Renault, with contributions from Ali Sawyer, gives you the highlights of the discussion.

The evening began as many Columbia events do: with confusion and bureaucracy. People who had registered for the event were told to wait in line and see if enough chairs were free much before the time it was said this would happen. They were confused, they were angry, they were cold, and they complained like any Columbian would if their rights were so violated.

Then, Desmond Tutu walked in and took his seat, and everyone forgot what they were whining about. The room swelled up with silence, and then with applause, as the room realized in whose presence they were sitting. Tutu simply exudes wisdom; from his grandfatherly posture to his clerical clothing to his endearing accent, which he punctuates with sincere piercing laughter, it is instantly obvious that this is a man who has the world to share. He was accompanied by his daughter, the Reverend Mpho Tutu, his frequent partner and co-author. The event touched many times on Shared Interest, a fund advised by the Tutus whose motto and goal is “investing in South Africa’s future.”

This duo was so distinguished it was introduced by three separate people. The first was Timothy Smith, board chair of Shared Interest, who explained the program and went on to moderate the discussion.

Next came Donna Katzin, its executive director. She explained the successful history of Shared Interest, which she described as “part of the economic reconciliation of South Africa, without which other kinds of reconciliation couldn’t happen.” The fund offers student loans and microfinance, among others. They have so far been able to turn $16 million in donations into $96 million in aid; they have helped 2.2 million poor black students.

Then David Dinkins, 106th mayor of New York City and ally of the anti-apartheid movement, expounded the soul of Desmond Tutu’s life work, “a lifelong commitment to justice and reconciliation.” According to Dinkins, Tutu has shared his notion of a better South Africa with the rest of the world and served as a beacon for oppressed peoples worldwide, emphasizing Tutu’s conception that forgiveness is “the best form of self-interest.” He then broke the ice with a sweet story of how Tutu yelped “yipee!” as he cast the first vote of his life, and with his inability to pronounce the name Mpho.

This relaxed tone continued through the night even as the conversation covered heavy topics, and it soon became clear that Desmond Tutu is a storyteller. After thanking the audience, he told us about how Columbia awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1982, but he was unable to come claim it because the South African government didn’t grant him a passport, so he was replaced with an empty chair containing a photo of him.

Then he remembered he meant to start with a different story—of how he was once walking in San Francisco, “minding my own business as I always do,” when someone stopped him and said “Hello, Archbishop Mandela!” He was very playful about the fact that the two are often confused, saying she got “two for the price of one.” He admired his counterpart much, saying he wondered what would have happened if Mandela died in prison, and he was amazed at how such a human was able to touch everyone worldwide—”It just happened.”

He also apologized for being a “disorganized public speaker,” often going on long tangents or forgetting what he originally wanted to say. Nobody seemed to mind.

When asked about if he ever got in trouble with the government, he told a story about when he was on Danish TV and, distracted by the beauty of the interviewer, advised the world not to buy African gold. This got him charged with economic sabotage. He maintained that economic sanctions from the West are extremely important, since they are the most effective and obvious form of nonviolence.

Great minds.

Great minds.

Mpho Tutu then talked about how apartheid isn’t really over—”the laws changed but the edifice stayed.” There is still a large socioeconomic divide in South Africa and it has a huge impact on the current situation and on the future. The Archbishop agreed. “We have not taken seriously the damage apartheid did to us as a people. We are wounded.” The exception was when South Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010—it was then when he saw true patriotism. Both talked about their new book, which offers advice on people trying to move on from the pain of apartheid.

When the floor opened to questions, the first question was about the situation in Palestine. The Archbishop replied by talking about the Old Testament, claiming God would get very upset by oppression. “He or she is incredibly biased, standing always with the oppressed.” He said there will be no peace until there is peace in Palestine.

The next question was from a woman from South Africa, who asked what the Archbishop believes her generation can do to continue the work of their predecessors. The Archbishop lauded young people as idealists and dreamers, people who have not yet been “infected with cynicism.” Unlike the “oldies,” as he jokingly referred to people his age, young people can “imagine a world without war”—and thus are in the best position to make these dreams reality.

One question asked what we might do to solve the issue of mass incarceration in the United States. Reverend Tutu joked that she “might run away from” the difficult question before issuing a call to action: when we see problems in our own countries, she said, we can interpret them as a personal obligation to work toward solutions.

For the final question of the evening, someone asked what the Archbishop might advise regarding the crisis in Sudan. His voice heavy with emotion, the Archbishop described how he sometimes questions God when violence and atrocities occur. They occur, he said, because God has granted human beings the immense “power of choice,” and, clearly, we do not always use it for good.

By viewing us as dreamers, the Archbishop gave us a refreshing new light in which to see ourselves, despite the negativity that sometimes bogs us down. The Tutus imprinted a lasting message on the audience: to carry our dreams out to the world and put them into action.

Photos of a wisdom well via Artur Renault

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1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    Last question of the evening was on SOMALIA, not Sudan. Two different countries in Africa.

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