The African in Him

Archbishop Desmond Tutu reflects on terrorism, torture, and what the first African American president might mean for Africa.

DESMOND TUTU, THE ARCHBISHOP OF CAPE TOWN, has never been one to keep his emotions under wraps. During the apartheid era, his sorrowful visage—eyes squeezed shut, tears sliding into the collar of his ceremonial robes—became an international symbol. Since earning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, he has lent his expressive face to a vast range of causes, from lauded humanitarian initiatives to controversial political issues. America’s interrogation tactics have recently drawn much of his ire: in 2004, after writing numerous stern op-eds on the subject, he appeared in the off-Broadway play Guantanamo: Honor Bound To Defend Freedom, where he championed due process in the guise of a British judge.

But two weeks after America’s 2008 presidential election, Tutu was all smiles as he addressed a crowd of 10,000 at the U.S. Green Building Council’s annual conference in Boston. “I have come to clap you!” he exulted, his elfish frame standing barely higher than the podium. “You are the cat’s whiskers! You are a fantastic bunch of people! You are one of the craziest countries I know!” He lowered his voice to a melodious sigh. “God so often looks down on the world and weeps. But on November the 4th, God looked down, God rubbed God’s hands in joy and said, ‘Thank you! Thank you! Because you don’t know just what you have done for the world.’”

In an interview backstage after his address, the diminutive archbishop appeared even sprightlier and more eccentric than he did at a distance. Emotions crossed his smooth ebony features with the airy ease of weather patterns. One moment, his eyes widened to owlish proportions; the next, his nearly invisible brows knit tightly together. He is a religious leader at his core, and he grew quietly reverent when invoking the Holy Spirit or alluding to Jesus’ suffering. But no mood seemed to linger for long, and throughout the conversation, he seemed to be barely suppressing a sense of mischievous glee. During a particularly somber discussion of America’s torture policies, a small grammatical error on his own part was enough to throw him into a fit of jubilant, infectious laughter.

Audio: "Desmond Tutu's Laughter"
Hear the archbishop suddenly dissolve into mirth after making a grammatical error.

At no time was Tutu’s joy more palpable than when he spoke about Barack Obama. “He is an incredible guy!” Tutu chortled, and then shook his head in mock dismay. “Oh no, I’m not jealous—though he’s not only young but handsome!” Like many Africans, the archbishop seems to recognize something of himself when he looks at the new American president. He hopes that Obama, with his Kenyan heritage, will be able to address dictators like Robert Mugabe more forcefully than any white leader has ever dared. At the same time, he believes Obama himself embodies the best African tribal values. Remarking on Obama’s dignity, patience, and inclusiveness, Tutu noted that these traits reflect “the African in him.”

My conversation with Archbishop Tutu at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center took place on November 19, 2008.

—Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

During your speech just now, you spoke elatedly about the upcoming Obama era. What special significance does his presidency have for Africans?

We have a new spring in our walk. In Africa, we keep having to find things that say, “Yes, we can!” And his victory has said, “Yes, we can!”, even in Africa. We believe that he can make more accountable the leaders, especially in Africa. Because he can be rough with them in a way that Bush, or any other Caucasian, could not have been. They won’t be able to say, “Oh, no, this is neocolonialism,” when they’re referring to someone who is part Kenyan. So I hope he uses that particular clout.

The other side of it is that one hopes so very much that he will be able to make Africa be taken a little more seriously. And perhaps he will even increase aid to Africa, remembering his African roots. But it is so important that he couples that with saying, “We have zero tolerance for unaccountable government.”

Speaking of dictators, during the 1980s, you caused a stir because you were willing to speak with pro-apartheid leaders like P. W. Botha. At the time, you argued that even Moses kept trying to reason with the Pharaoh.


Obama has indicated that he might be willing to sit down with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Does that seem appropriate to you?

That is not just appropriate, it’s necessary. Belligerence is not going to get us very far. He would garner a lot of support from those who are saying they are opposed to the United States’ aggressive attitude if he says, “I am willing to sit down and talk.” And then if that guy remains intransigent, then Obama will be better able to call on the support of the rest of the world. And if action has to be taken, there will be a great deal more sympathy than there was in the case of Iraq.

Is there ever a time when a leader shouldn’t sit down and talk with an enemy?

If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies. The apartheid government in South Africa used to say they didn’t talk to terrorists, and they said Madiba [Nelson Mandela] was one of those. But of course, there’s no point in talking to someone else—someone who is not a leader, who has really no constituency—when that “terrorist,” so-called, is almost certainly the person that the oppressed regard as their leader. If you choose to talk with somebody else, the people will say, “That’s a stooge.” Any agreements you have with that one will have no credence.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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