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A model for the world

Meghan Martin | Friday, September 12, 2003

On a day when Americans remember only fear, he spoke of hope.

At a time when revenge is often seen as the only solution, he spoke of peace.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu addressed a crowd yesterday that spilled out the doors of McKenna Hall and across the quad into DeBartolo, where students, faculty and community members watched on a closed-circuit television system.

Tutu was the keynote speaker for the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies’ “Peacebuilding After Peace Accords” conference, the culmination of a three-year initiative by the Institute’s Research Initiative on the Resolution of Ethnic Conflict that examined the issue of building lasting peace in the aftermath of political and civil unrest.

The audience, which numbered in the hundreds, assembled to hear the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner present a lecture entitled “The Struggle for Social Justice in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” but Tutu’s message reached far beyond the boundaries of his native land.

He said that the experience of South Africa can be a model for the rest of the world.

“God takes this unlikely, totally unexpected lot – God says, ‘Yes, they can be – they will be a beacon of hope,'” he said. “If it can happen in South Africa, it can happen anywhere.”

South Africa’s break from apartheid and the Afrikaner regime that sustained it was officially finalized in 1994 when, in a free election, the nation elected its first black president, Nelson Mandela. Tutu said that the country’s transition from shackles to freedom is an indication to other countries that peace and justice are both very possible.

“Nowhere in the world can anyone in the world say, ‘We have a problem that is intractable,'” he said. “God says to them: their [South Africa’s] nightmare ended; your nightmare will end, too. Peace is possible. Because it happened in South Africa, it can happen here.”

Above all others, Tutu should know.

Introduced by Kroc Institute for Peace Studies director Scott Appleby as “the world’s most visible icon of truth-telling and reconciliation,” Tutu has spent the 71 years of his life embroiled in Black South Africa’s struggle for freedom and recognition. An Anglican priest, he was elevated to the position of Archbishop in 1986, the highest station within his church, and used his station to act as a representative of his people to speak out against the social injustice and violence perpetrated under the system of apartheid.

His work, which gained international recognition for the fight against apartheid, prompted University President Edward Malloy to refer to him as “one of the world’s most prominent peacebuilders.”

“The successes of post-apartheid South Africa are in no small part due to his work,” Malloy said.

Despite such confident endorsements from Malloy and others across the globe, Tutu, who was greeted with a standing ovation as he walked to the stage of McKenna Hall’s auditorium, thanked the crowd for their part in South Africa’s liberation from apartheid.

“We are the beneficiaries of much love and communication and fervent prayer on the part of the international community,” he said. “We can never thank you enough … To all of you, especially to young people, students – thank you, thank you, thank you – we are able to say we will be celebrating ten years of freedom and democracy because of you and because of those like you out there … we are celebrating freedom because of you, we are striving today to be non-racist and non-sexist because of you. It is a debt we will never be able to pay.”

Under the rule of apartheid, the white-skinned Afrikaner minority, mostly descendents of originally Dutch and later English settlers to the Cape of Good Hope, held sway over governmental, social and economic aspects of South African society. Encouraged religiously by the teachings of the Dutch Reformed Church, they asserted what they believed to be their inherent rights of supremacy over the “black” and “colored” majorities within their society.

“It was a policy of exclusion,” Tutu said. “The vast majority of people were excluded.”

Gross violations of human rights and social justice ensued, and non-white South Africans became increasingly marginalized, losing nearly all of their freedom.

Tutu said the implications of such oppression were far-reaching, wedging into the souls of his subjugated people.

“One of the songs of our struggle is a haunting melody that asks in Xhosa, ‘What have we done? Our sin is our blackness,'” he said, chanting the lyrics.

After Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa nine years ago, he appointed Tutu as chair of the rebuilding nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body dedicated to collecting instances of human rights violations perpetrated during 34 years of apartheid, beginning in 1960 and leading up to South Africa’s free elections. The idea fueling the Commission, Tutu said, was that without forgiveness, there can be no future.

“We resolved to look the beast in the eye – to let the victims tell their story … to put on the balm of putting their voice to work,” he said. “We knew the deeds of the past had an uncanny capacity to come back and haunt people.”

The focus of the Commission’s dedication to restorative justice, he said, was based on healing, not punishment.

“Even the worst perpetrator remained a child of God with the capacity to change,” he said.

As the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission enmeshed itself deeper and deeper into the sordid stories of non-white South Africans, Tutu said his amazement at the spirit of his people grew exponentially.

“When you look back on it, you have to say the magnanimity of those who were made to suffer so was magnificent,” he said.

Tutu said that with the eradication of the system of apartheid, victims of the regime’s doctrine might use the opportunity to vindicate themselves and their cause.

“We thought people might be moved to seek revenge – we listened to some heartrending experiences – then when you think they are about to explode, you are amazed at the generosity, the nobility of human beings,” he said.

It is this display of human spirit, Tutu said, that serves as a constant reminder of the inherent goodness of people.

“We human beings are fundamentally good – the aberration is the bad – God has a dream that one day you and I will realize we are all in God’s family – we are sisters and brothers … there are no outsiders in God’s family,” he said. “We are all meant to be held in this incredible embrace of the One who will never let us go.”