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.

How does peace come? Peace doesn’t come because allies agree. Allies are allies—they already agree! Peace comes when you talk to the guy you most hate. And that’s where the courage of a leader comes, because when you sit down with your enemy, you as a leader must already have very considerable confidence from your own constituency. Then, when you do things that are risky, your people know that you are not likely to do something reckless. If you are doing something that is a bit dodgy, they will give you the benefit of the doubt.

Obama has said that “capturing or killing” Osama bin Laden is an essential step toward getting rid of al-Qaeda. If bin Laden were captured, would America be justified in killing him?

The mistake that the Bush administration made was to regard the people who perpetrated September 11th as a country. They were not a country. They were criminals. The appropriate thing even now is to say that Osama bin Laden is a criminal—actually, we mustn’t even say he is a criminal. We must say he is an alleged criminal. Because the rule of law says someone is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. But since everything indicates that he is a suspect, we already have an instrument for dealing with such: the international criminal court.

The trouble is that America refused to use this instrument. The world would have rallied around America and said, “We’re going to help you look for these criminals.” Because they are not any country. They might be Iraqis. They might be Afghans. But it was not any country that was committing these crimes. So why wage war against a country?

How do you think Obama should deal with the suspects who are already being held at Guantanamo Bay?

He must close Guantanamo Bay immediately. That must be one of the first things he does. You know, for someone who comes from South Africa, it is one of the greatest letdowns I’ve ever experienced that America, Britain, whom we had regarded as—I mean, they were our starlode. Or is it lodestar?


Hoo hoo! Yes, our lodestar. These countries were so insistent in the days of apartheid. When we had detention without trial in South Africa, they condemned it out of hand. I mean, it is one of the greatest letdowns that these countries should, without batting an eyelid, be using the same arguments that were used by the apartheid government. You feel so, so despondent.

During the mid-1990s, you were the chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. You sat there while torturers stood up and spoke about the acts they’d committed. Why did you feel it was important to grant these people amnesty?

Forgiveness is saying, “Whatever you may have done, however awful, it does not define you completely. Even if you committed murder, even the most gruesome murder, it doesn’t then turn you into a demon. You still have the capacity to become a saint.” Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.

But a person has to want that chance. Can the American government forgive someone like Osama bin Laden who is still actively trying to destroy the country?

No, no—you can forgive. It’s an important distinction. Take a woman who is raped. There will be a time when she will say, “I am not yet at a point where I can forgive the perpetrator,” and that is understandable. But she’s not going to move on, she’s not going to get on with her life, as long as she is bound to the perpetrator. If the perpetrator does not want to ask for forgiveness and she says, “My forgiveness depends on the perpetrator,” then it will be ghastly. She’ll always be caught up in her victimhood.

Fortunately, we have a wonderful example in Jesus Christ. Remember, when the people were nailing him to the cross, and they had not asked for forgiveness, he had already prayed to the Father, “Please forgive them!” He even found an excuse for them: “They don’t know what they are doing.”

Because forgiveness is like this: a room can be dank because you have closed the windows, you’ve closed the curtains. But the sun is shining outside, and the air is fresh outside. In order to get that fresh air, you have to get up and open the window and draw the curtains apart. You have to appropriate the forgiveness.

How does justice figure into this?

Most of us think of justice as being retributive. But I say, there is this other kind of justice—restorative justice—where the basic thrust is not punitive, it is healing. Healing both for the victim and the perpetrator.

You’ve described America as a “crazy country.” In your mind’s eye, what is America’s ideal role on the world stage?

The world accepts America’s leadership. But the world has been let down in the last eight years. The kind of America the world wants is not the unilateralist America, not the America who leads by being a bully-boy. The world wants the America who leads by collaborating, who leads by consulting.

You see already some examples of Obama’s style of leading. Right after the election, he was sitting with McCain and they were agreeing. That’s a fantastic image! It doesn’t happen in many countries in the world that people who are so at each other’s throats at a campaign can then sit and say, “We are going to collaborate.” That’s the style of leadership the world is so hungry for, where the leader asks, “What is your opinion, what is your opinion?”

The African in him is the one who is making him ask, “What is the consensus?” That’s the African way at its best. The good leader in Africa is the leader who keeps quiet and lets others speak and then says at the end, “I have heard you all, and this is our mind.”