History Podcasts

Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Truth and Reconciliation

Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Truth and Reconciliation

On October 29, 1998, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, released its final report about crimes and atrocities that occurred during apartheid. Upon presenting the 3,500-page report to Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Tutu delivers a speech focusing on healing the divided country.

Truth & Reconciliation

SHOW: On Being | Length: 51:19 | Audio Format: MP3
South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded its work in 2004. An exploration of the religious implications of truth and reconciliation with two people.

Extra: Desmond Tutu at the National Press Club

SHOW: On Being | Length: 17:40 | Audio Format: MP3
Listen to the Nobel Laureate and former Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Past Lectures

On February 16, 2004, at Church House, Westminster, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, gave the Third Longford Lecture.


Introduction by Antonia Fraser, writer and daughter of Lord Longford.

‘It was a privilege to be there… to hear him… I felt privileged to be present…’ Afterwards – at the traditional party – I found that there was real unanimity in reaction to the Third Longford Lecture, given by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, despite a very disparate audience. We all, in our various ways, understood that we had witnessed something special, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we had listened to someone special bearing witness.

There were various elements which went to make the occasion on 16 February 2004 at Church House, Westminster, so remarkable. First of all, there was the timing. As Archbishop Tutu reminded us, the tenth anniversary of the freedom of South Africa was approaching: in fact it fell on 27 April. This was a time, perhaps, for assessment and if so, who better than the Archbishop himself? For ten years as Archbishop of Cape Town and Metropolitan of South Africa, his noble career of fighting against apartheid was crowned in 1995 when he became the first Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is now an unbelievable 71 years old – I had to go home and look that up in Who’s Who to be convinced – incarnating in himself the whole history of his country’s struggle during that period.

And what an incarnation, by the way! Archbishop Tutu’s energy, his bright sharp eyes transfixing us, his glee in answering questions (he even treated us to a little dance upon occasion), the dignity which never precluded humour: all this reminded me of a phrase learned in my Catholic convent girlhood. ‘The saints were merry,’ declared Mother Ignatius. That far-off lesson that true sanctity is not necessarily next to dolefulness suddenly made absolute sense.

The second remarkable element was the Archbishop’s emphasis on the practical meaning of the words ‘Truth’ and ‘Reconciliation’. As he spoke they stopped being harmless do-gooder concepts, and became the planks of a real programme, hard to carry out at times but essential. In this connection I was especially moved by the Archbishop’s reference to Frank Longford’s own valiant efforts at truth and reconciliation as Minister in charge of Germany in the immediate post-war Labour Government. I can still remember the shock-horror of the tabloids (as they would now be called) when my father, then Frank Pakenham, declared that he was praying for the Germans. The horrified headlines – PAKENHAM PRAYS! – might have been referring to the activities of a war criminal. Yet, fending off the unthinking insults of my contemporaries about my father’s apparently heinous behaviour (something all the Longford children had to learn to do over the years in one context or another), I never really saw the other side of the question until after his death in 2001. Then I received a letter from a German women who had been a 16 year old girl in 1946. At the bottom of despair at what had been done in her country, starving and feeling she deserved it, she found that my father’s message of reconciliation gave her hope to go on. In short, as Archbishop Tutu told us so memorably in 2004, ‘no one is a totally hopeless and irredeemable case.’

This is not to suggest that the Archbishop’s lecture was without bite: that was very far from being the case. A storm of clapping greeted his reference to ‘Bush’s militarist policies’, calling the recent invasion of Iraq ‘an immoral war’. The Archbishop made it clear that while preaching reconciliation, he had no time for ‘an unexamined and [thus] unacknowledged past’. But the story on which he ended, the meeting of the American couple Peter and Linda Biehl with the parents of their daughter Amy’s black South African murderers, was the real measure of this awe-inspiring occasion. Not only did the Biehls speak up for amnesty for their daughter’s killers: but they set up the Biehl Foundation to salvage black youths from the violence and dead end of ghetto life – a foundation for which their daughter’s murderers now work. As the Archbishop concluded: the two mothers, American and South African, weeping as they embraced, symbolised ‘the possibility of new beginnings… of life out of death’. It was an image which would have moved Frank Longford as it moved all of us present that night.

The 2004 Longford Lecture Text

Thank you for the great honour of giving a lecture in this distinguished series. Lord Longford was famous for his advocacy of a new approach to penal practice and was passionate in his faith in the essential goodness of people. He refused to give up on virtually anyone believing that we all deserved another chance to make a new beginning. It did not always make him the blue-eyed boy of those who held on to traditional ways of doing things and he was often vilified and pilloried so that he spoke of himself as the ‘outcasts’ outcast’. He believed fervently in helping others to make a new start so that in the Post War Government he was the Cabinet Minister responsible for helping to set so many on the path to reconstruction and revival so much so that Chancellor Adenauer commended him warmly for his efforts. Even for this he was castigated as caring more for the enemies of Britain than for Britons. Looking at modern day Germany and its prosperity and economic clout we must admit that Lord Longford had done a splendid job of foundation laying.

The Truth and Reconciliation Process During the period preceding our historic first democratic elections of April 27th 1994 which we will commemorate as we celebrate a decade of freedom, the negotiators had to decide how to deal with the horrendous legacy of our immediate past, the ghastly prelude to the advent of freedom and democracy. Some, especially of the apartheid regime advocated that a general amnesty or blanket amnesty be granted to all, so that as they imagined bygones would be bygones, that the past would not hold the present and future hostage. Mercifully we don’t possess a fiat by which we can declare “Let bygones be bygones” and they dutifully become bygones and go and lie down quietly. They have an uncanny capacity to return and haunt us. An unexamined and unacknowledged past finds all kinds of skeletons emerging from all sorts of cupboards to bedevil

1the present. Just ask General Pinochet. Santayana declared hauntingly “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”

And general amnesty victimizes the victims a second time round by asserting that either what happened to them did not really happen, or worse, that it was of little moment and so they are not able to experience closure and will nurse grudges and resentments which may have dire consequences for peace and stability as their anguish festers and they may then one day take their revenge. Some others thought the easiest path would be to follow the Nuremburg trial option and arraign all who were known to have committed or were suspected of committing gross human rights violations. Nuremburg happened because the Allies defeated the Nazis and could impose what has been called victors’ justice. In our case neither the apartheid Government nor the liberation movements of the ANC and PAC defeated their adversaries. There was a military stalemate. It is almost certain the apartheid security forces would have scuppered any scheme at the end of which they might be indicted. And South Africa could not afford the long trials nor could an already overburdened judicial system have coped.

The negotiators opted for a principled compromise – indi vidual amnesty not general amnesty in exchange for the whole truth relating to the offence to which amnesty was being sought. “Amnesty for truth” – many have asked in genuine concern, “But what about justice? Are you not encouraging impunity?” First of all it is important to stress that this way of going about things was deliberately designed only for this delicate period of transition, ad hoc – once for all. It would not be how South Africa’s judicial system operates to free people who had committed crimes if they made a full disclosure. Far from encouraging impunity this way of going about things stressed accountability since the amnesty seeker had to admit committing an offence. Innocent people or those who claimed innocence obviously did not need amnesty.

As to “What about justice?” it was clear that most who asked this question thought in terms of only one kind of justice, retributive justice which is what obtains overwhelmingly the world over.

The purpose of it all is punitive to ensure that the offender is punished. That is the primary aim of retributive justice. Its advocates might point to the biblical injunction of an eye for an eye as justification for it. It is in fact a misconstruing of the biblical injunction to think it sanctions revenge when it was intended to restrict blood feuds to targeting only the culprit and not others whose one fault was to have been related to the offender. It has seemed in fact that harsh penalties for crimes have not always had the desired effect. There is no doubt that in a moral universe such as we inhabit, flouting its laws should indeed have consequences for those breaking those laws, that they should not contravene them with impunity. But it is an incontrovertible fact that the penal systems of most countries have failed to stem the tide of recividism. The first time offender who

is sent to prison for his crime is as likely as anything going to end up being a repeat offender, that harsh sentences designed to be only punitive are turning out to be quite costly. Prisons are overcrowded. In this country they have been sentencing motorists to prison for motoring offences in a bid to deter others. It does not seem to be working and there are now all kinds of suggestions about how to reduce the prison population including avoiding custodial sentences for motoring offences.

Countries that have maintained the death sentence do not show a drop in crimes of violence or murder. The death sentence does not appear to have much to show as a deterrent. There is no marked drop in the numbers of those sentenced to death. Columbine happened in the United States where 2 students shot and killed fellow students and fairly recently a school boy of 14 shot and killed his teacher. Then there was the panic caused by the sniper in Virginia. This in a land they knew would sentence them to death if found and convicted. And even more significantly there have been no appreciable increases in serious crimes in countries that have abolished the death penalty, certainly not increases that could be linked directly with that abolition. If there are now increases they are not related to the absence of the death penalty coming as they do so many years after the ban on death sentences. It does appear as if the death penalty makes very little difference to the crime statistics. What it seems to be doing is to brutalize society.

President Bush was Governor of Texas which is notorious for the high number of executions that state carries out. It may not be fanciful to see a connection between this and the belligerent militarist policies that have produced a novel and dangerous principle that of pre-emption on the basis of intelligence reports that in one particular instance have been shown can be dangerously flawed and yet were the basis for the United States going to war dragging a Britain that declared that intelligence reports showed Iraq to have the capacity to launch its Weapons of Mass Destruction in a matter of minutes. An immoral war was thus waged and the world is a great deal less safe place than before. There are many more who resent the powerful who can throw their weight about so callously and with so much impunity. We see here on a global scale the same illusion that force and brutality can produce security as we note at national and communal levels that harsh sentences and being tough on crime necessarily make our neighbourhoods safer. How wonderful if politicians could bring themselves to admit that they are only fallible human creatures and not God and thus by definition can make mistakes. Unfortunately they seem to think that such an admission is a sign of weakness. Weak and insecure people hardly ever say “sorry”. It is large hearted and courageous people who are not diminished by saying “I made a mistake”. Pres ident Bush and Prime Minister Blair would recover considerable credibility and respect if they were able to say “Yes, we made a mistake”. I hold no brief for Saddam Hussein – if now the reason being trumpeted for the war is regime change why there and not, for example, Burma or North Korea and who makes the decision about which regimes should be changed and what authority do they have to do whatever they may think is right or is it a matter of might is right and to hell with the rule of international law?

In the South African experience it was decided that we would have justice yes, but not retributive justice. No, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process was an example of restorative justice. In our case it was based on an African concept very dificult to render into English as there is no precise equivalent. I refer to Ubuntu/botho. Ubuntuis the essence of being human. We say a person is a person through other persons. We are made for togetherness, to live in a delicate network of interdependence. The totally self-sufficient person is sub-human for none of

us comes fully formed into the world. I need other human beings in order to be human myself. I would not know how to walk, talk, think, behave as a human person except by learning it all from other human beings. For ubuntu the summum bonum , the greatest good is communal harmony. Anger, hatred, resentment all are corrosive of this good. If one person is dehumanised then inexorably we are all diminished and dehumanised in our turn.

A criminal offence has caused a breach in relationship and the purpose of the penal process is to heal the breach, to restore good relationships and to redress the balance. Thus it is that we set out to work for reconciliation between the victim and the perpetrator. There may be sanctions such as fines or short exile but the fundamental purpose of the entire exercise is to heal. In the retributive justice process the victim is forgotten in what can be a very cold and impersonal way of doing things. In restorative justice both the victim and the offender play central roles. Restorative justice is singularly hopeful, it does not believe that an offence necessarily defines the perpetrator completely as when we imply that once a thief then always a thief. There were many instances when ghastly hair raising revelations were made about the awful atrocities an amnesty applicant had committed. “We gave him drugged coffee and then we shot him in the head. We burned his body and whilst this was happening and it takes 6/7 hours to burn a human body we were having a barbecue and drinking beer.” You wondered what had happened to the humanity of someone that they could be able to do this. Quite rightly people were appalled and said people guilty of such conduct were monsters or demons. We had to point out that yes indeed these people were guilty of monstrous, even diabolical, deeds on their ow n submission but, and this was an important but, that did not turn them into monsters or demons. To have done so would mean that they could not be held morally responsible for their dastardly deeds. Monsters have no moral responsibility. But even more seriously, it meant we were shutting the door to any possibility on their part to improve and if that were so we should really shut up shop because the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was based on the premiss that people retained the capacity to change, that enemies could become friends.

Ubuntu and so restorative justice gives up on no-one. No-one is a totally hopeless and irredeemable case. We all remain the children of God even the worst ones. We all retained the capacity to become saints. For us as Christians the paradigm was provided by our Lord and the penitent thief on the Cross. He had led a life of crime presumably until he was crucified. Some might be appalled at this death-bed repentance and conversion, but not God whom we seek to emulate – “be as perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” is Jesus’ exhortation. We are not able to declare categorically that so and so has a first class ticket to hell. We shall be surprised at those we meet in heaven whom we least expected to be there and perhaps also by those we do not find there whom we had expected to be there.

Lord Longford was constrained by his deep Christian faith to make what for others might have appeared provocative and unfeeling appeals for parole on behalf of those who were regarded as being totally beyond the pale. Relationships are a matter of faith otherwise we would not have so many being divorced who when they married were madly in love. You stake your life on this one as an act of faith hoping that it will turn out all right. So too we must having taken reasonable precautions as in any relationship, have faith in those who might have fallen foul of our laws that many do want to go straight, do want to be rehabilitated, do want to be decent and productive members of society. They need someone to have even a modicum of faith in them and they can turn the corner.

We can say that the principles of ubuntu have helped in our case in South Africa to avert a catastrophe of monumental proportions in substituting forgiveness for revenge and reconciliation for retribution. It may be prudent to see what it can do to redeem a penal system that clearly is not delivering the goods.

It does seem as if in this case as well there is no future without forgiveness, for forgiveness means the offended being willing to give the offender another chance to make a new beginning.

We were exhilarated by many examples of victims forgiving the perpetrators in a display of remarkable magnanimity and generosity of spirit. It was not just black South Africans who did this. Many white South Africans did as well. What is more it was not confined only to South Africans. Peter and Linda Biehl were an American couple whose daughter Amy, a Fulbright scholar, was killed brutally by stoning by a mob of young blacks chanting the blood curdling slogan ‘One settler, one bullet’ – irony of ironies was that Amy had been a passionate supporter of the anti apartheid movement. Her parents (her father has since died) attended the Amnesty hearing of the 4 young blacks who were serving sentences for their part in her murder. And the Biehls spoke up in favour of granting amnesty. Not only did they do that they set up the Amy Biehl Foundation to try to salvage as many black youths from the violence and dead end of township ghetto life. Their daughter’s murderers now work for the foundation which is doing outstanding development work in the townships where their daughter was murdered. They are giving new beginnings to many. One of the most moving scenes were Linda meeting with the mother of one of her daughter’s murderers and the two mothers united by this awful tragedy embrace one white the other black, one South African, the other American, bound by the bond of humanity, the bond of ubuntu connected by their essential humanity and the mothers in embracing with tears streaming down their faces speak of the possibility of forgiveness and reconnection, the possibility of new beginnings, of healing and restoration, of life out of death.


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Apartheid Desmond Tutu’s Key Role in the Truth & Reconciliation Commission

Colleagues such as Mary Burton of Archbishop Desmond Tutu discuss how he got involved with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) assembled in South Africa after the end of apartheid. The TRC reviewed thousands of statements from witnesses and victims of human rights violations during the apartheid as a method of catharsis. TRC commissioners describe Tutu’s mission to hear the “stories of the little people,” whose sufferings had been previously ignored and how within the second day, he broke down from all the deeply heartbreaking stories he heard. But a colleague says that Tutu recovered and said, “‘This shouldn’t be about me. This should be about the victims…I can learn to control my emotions.’ There after, you would see him biting his hand when he was getting emotional to ensure the focus remained on the victims.” The TRC was set up in 1995 and the hearings began in 1996.

Desmond Tutu

Photo of Desmond Tutu
(Photo Courtesy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Desmond Tutu was an important figure throughout South Africa during the anti- apartheid movement to help promote human rights and justice. He is one of the most well known leaders who was able to fight for the human rights of black people all around South Africa. Tutu was ordained as an Archbishop, protested aparthied, was a founder of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and earned the Nobel Peace Prize.

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born on October 07, 1931 in Klerksdorp, South Africa. He had a challenging childhood due to the Apartheid movement and having to constantly deal with segregation when he was growing up. Even though his childhood was hard, he still managed to enjoy it. Tutu enjoyed to read as a child when growing up. A few of his favorite things to read were comics, Aesop’s fables, and plays from William Shakspeare.

At the age of 12, Tutu and his family moved to Johannesburg , South Africa where he attended Johannesburg Bantu High School. His father was a teacher where he attended high school while his mother cooked and cleaned at a school for the blind. He graduated from high school in 1950. He was diagnosed with Tuberculosis while in high school. This had a significant impact on him and made him want to become a doctor to find a cure for it. He was accepted into medical school so he could follow his dream of becoming a doctor, but his family could not afford the cost. In 1953, Tutu ended up receiving a scholarship to study education at Pretoria Bantu Normal College and graduated with his teacher’s certificate in 1953. In 1954, he earned his Bachelor’s degree from the University of South Africa and then spent three years teaching history and english at his alma mater high school in Johannesburg ( Biography ). Due to the Bantu Education Act, Tutu wanted to terminate his teaching career in 1957 and de decided to go against the educational opportunities for South Africans. He got married in 1955 to his wife Nomanlizo Leah Shenxane and currently has four kids ( Pettinger ).

In 1958, Tutu wanted to begin his religious career and attended St. Peters Theological College in Johannesburg to further his education. Then, in 1960, Tutu was ordained as an Anglican Deacon and as a priest in 1961. Over the next few years, Tutu received a scholarship from the World Council of Churches and obtained his master’s in Theology from King’s College in England in 1966. After a few years spent in England, he returned to South Africa and worked alongside the clergy constantly jumping around positions. He became very involved in the anti- apartheid movement and was starting to become a very influential figure in South Africa. Tutu was the first African appointee to become a Anglican Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg (Pettinger) .

During his role in this position, he became a powerful advocate against apartheid which made him more well known around the world and not just in South Africa. Eventually, he obtained the role as Bishop of Lesotho and became the first black General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (“Desmond Tutu- Biographical”) . During his career time while he was in the clergy, he was appointed as Archbishop of Cape Town ( “Archbishop Desmond Tutu- Biography” ). Tutu was the first black person to obtain the role as Archbishop. This role as Archbishop is the highest role in the Anglican Church in South Africa. Tutu’s role as Archbishop was to help organize peaceful demonstrations with many people walking alongside him and supporting him. On December 10, 1984, Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his hard work and dedication to the anti- apartheid movement by speaking out against it. Tutu was only the second South African to be awarded this. This accomplishment of Tutu’s, made him a more well known and respected leader all around the world. This award Tutu received allowed for the anti- apartheid movement to become much more powerful and supported through his hard work (Biography). The government of South Africa was unable to acknowledge Tutu and his award he had received.

Tutu acknowledged South Africa as “The Rainbow Nation” during the 1990s when South Africa was starting to become more of a democracy to keep the concept of bringing everyone together in harmony and making sure that there was no racial division between blacks and whites (Pettinger) . Tutu was a key figure in bringing apartheid to an end in 1993.

After the end of apartheid , Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, advised Tutu as the leader of the Truth and Reconciliation Commision in 1994. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a court-like restorative justice body assembled in South Africa after the end of Apartheid . It was a way to expose the many abuses of human rights during the time of apartheid and their findings had been reported to the government. The model Tutu used during his time working on this commision was “based on truth as a foundation for forgiveness and reconciliation, was central to healing South Africa’s divided society” (The Elders)

Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africa
(Photo Courtesy: Benny Gool—Oryx Media/Desmond Tutu Peace Centre)

Tutu had many other accomplishments throughout his life and has been awarded many other impactful awards since the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. Since working on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Tutu had been seen as an influential person around the world to this day. Desmond Tutu is currently retired from public life and has recently turned 88 years old just last month. He has been in and out of the hospital for having prostate cancer but is still alive and seen as a prominent figure for many (SAHO).


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I remember that day very clearly. I was born and lived during the almost 50 years of Apartheid in South Africa. A relative of mine was arrested and thrown into jail because she happened to be sitting on the front seat of a car, next to an Indian, who happened to be a friend of the family. So there was no reason for her to sit in the back seat.

We were invited to the family's daughter's wedding, and had to apply for permission to go. We were refused. So we weren't even allowed to befriend people of other races, let alone "consort" with them. Trevor Noah speaks about how he was "born a crime". His mother was a Zulu woman, his father a Swiss immigrant. I'm sure most people in America have at least heard of him, or follow his show. If you haven't read these two books, anyone reading this post, make the effort to find them: Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah, and A Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela.

As a white family, we watched television with a fair amount of trepidation. Had Mr Mandela gone the Trump route and said "kill the Boer", there wouldn't have been a white person left in the country to live to tell the story of now 27 years of freedom.

Not only have we lived with freedom, but on 27 April 1994, we stood in long lines that snaked from the voting booths for so long, they had to allow people to vote the next day. My eldest son celebrated his 21st birthday on that day. He and his brother stood proudly voting for the first time, for Nelson Mandela to be our president. On that day, in a country still riddled with crime, not a single crime was reported. The police vans stood empty while white policemen, who a year before would've been ordered to shoot before asking, stood with their black co-workers waiting to be let off duty to vote. Unoccupied for two days, everything went to the new normal when Nelson Mandela was declared the virtually winner with 62.5% of the vote. Considering that a year before the Nationalist Party could've held another virtually unopposed vote, they went into a coalition with the ANC, while the official opposition became the Democratic Alliance, a party cobbled together with people of all races, and to which Mr de Klerk now belongs.

A brief personal history. When I was in high school, my two last years, I opted for a new subject because politics has always interested me. I was taught Commercial Law by Mrs de Klerk, the young lawyer married to Mr de Klerk who ran a legal practice in our town in the 1960s. Sadly they divorced and he remarried, and she moved to a small village where she was murdered in 2001.

Over the next years, Mr Mandela in co-ordination with representatives from all political positions in the country, initiated the writing of our Constitution, the most liberal one in the world. It is worth reading the rights afforded South Africans. He with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, himself more of a political voice than a religious one, set up a "Truth and Reconciliation commission" where all previous threats on every side were able to admit their faults, and crimes, and where they received, mostly, absolution. We became Archbishop Tutu's "Rainbow Nation" with a new anthem that included several of our now 11 languages, and a new flag that flies proudly over our teams when we compete against other nations in various sports and the Olympic Games.

If a country of the type of racial hatred and divisions can overcome their differences, to find what makes them similar, rather than different, with Indians, Africans, white people, Portuguese, and Italians living in the same street and reminding each other of covid lockdown curfew time by sounding noisy vuvuzelas, America and overcome its divisions, and possibly achieve that "more perfect union".

New book explores how Desmond Tutu’s Christian mysticism helped unite a nation

(RNS) — Much has been written about the Nobel Peace Prize-winning South African Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu, revered by generations as a kind of elder statesman for his efforts to peacefully end apartheid and bring justice and reconciliation to that country he calls a “rainbow nation.”

But Michael Battle, a professor at New York’s General Theological Seminary who directs the Desmond Tutu Center there, wanted to draw attention to the particular Christian vision that animates Tutu. It’s a subject Battle has devoted much of his professional life to — ever since he was a Ph.D. student at Duke University in the early 1990s.

In his new book, “Desmond Tutu: A Spiritual Biography of South Africa’s Confessor,” Battle delves into Tutu’s religious formation — he was baptized a Methodist, but as a teen came under the influence of a white Anglican monk who impressed on him a mystical Christian vision grounded in prayer and silent contemplation. Those practices served a larger vision of community that ultimately sought integration between the spiritual and the secular.

Into that Christian mystical tradition, Tutu also wove in the African view of “Ubuntu,” a term meaning “humanity” but more broadly a collection of values Africa’s Black people view as making people authentic human beings.

That African-infused Christian mystical tradition was powerful enough to help topple apartheid and unite a riven nation. Tutu is probably best known for his role as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which he oversaw South Africans confess to the crimes of the apartheid era and begin to mend the relations between them.

Battle calls Tutu a saint, and his love for Tutu, who officiated at Battle’s wedding and baptized his three children, is evident.

Religion News Service spoke to Battle about his book and about how Tutu’s life’s work exemplifies the ways deep faith can undergird transformational leadership on the world stage. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

First, how is the archbishop’s health?

“Desmond Tutu: A Spiritual Biography of South Africa’s Confessor” by Michael Battle. Courtesy image

He’s doing well. He’s living in an intentional community where he gets wonderful care. He’s 89 years old and still mobile. But he doesn’t travel at all internationally. He was not infected by the (coronavirus) pandemic. So all things being equal, he’s doing well.

What drove you to meet and write about Tutu?

I was trying to make a decision about my dissertation. I had an epiphany walking through the corridor of Duke Divinity School when a professor of spiritual direction asked me, “What do you want to write on?” Tutu immediately came up. Tutu was on sabbatical at Emory University that year. I was bold enough to go down and have an audience with Tutu and pitched my idea to do a Ph.D. on him and take his theology seriously. The first thing he said was, “Let us pray.” 

Subsequently, I went to South Africa. I thought I’d stay in a youth hostel and do research in the libraries and maybe get some interviews. But Tutu invited me to live with him. They didn’t have a chaplain for him. I was in the ordination process in North Carolina, but I was able to finish the process there and Tutu ordained me a priest. I was his de facto chaplain. I had full access to all his writings — even things he wrote on napkins.

You start your book by saying Tutu is a saint. You acknowledge that’s a controversial thing to say as a biographer. So why say that at the outset?

I felt the authenticity living with him for two years and seeing his public persona. Here’s someone who has integrity behind the scenes, just as much as he has in the public limelight. To me, that’s really the hallmark of what it means to be holy. The Christian church has always tried to hold up the institution of saints not just as an exclusive men’s club, but as exemplars of what it looks like when you’re held accountable for a well-lived life. Tutu is an exemplar of that.

You say Tutu is a mystic and that helped him articulate a vision of community that is also the image of God. Explain that.

In our day and age, we’ve lost that mystical sensibility because of the institutional church. Institutions have a job of making things that are transcendent, practical, pragmatic, linear, methodical. But for most of church history, the way we understood being a church and having access to God was through the mystics, the monks, the saints. Christian mysticism is important because it taxes the Christian imagination to move beyond the binaries we often find ourselves in, such as Protestant and Catholic, conservative and liberal. Christian mysticism is always trying to tear down these idols we’ve built. In institutionalized westernized Christianity, mysticism may seem irrelevant but in fact it’s extremely important in terms of the Christian imagination for things like restorative justice.

Tutu merges his Christian vision with the African understanding of Ubuntu. Is that something South African society was able to weave into Christianity?

Ubuntu is a word in the system of languages known as Bantu that means “to be human.” But it carries a whole lot more. To be human is to understand humanity through the other. So the proverbs “I am because we are” and “A person is a person through other persons” — that’s the connotation of what it means to be human. You can’t know what your gifts are unless there’s a community to make those concepts intelligible. The way Christians understand God is very similar to that concept of Ubuntu. The concept of the Trinity and how you make sense of that one God (in three persons) is through that very same proverb: A person is a person through other persons.

The subtitle of your book is “A spiritual biography of South Africa’s confessor.” Why is confession so central to Tutu?

Retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, South Africa. Photo courtesy of Templeton Prize / Michael Culme Seymour

A confessor is the priest who hears the confession. It comes out of the Roman Catholic Church and the rites of reconciliation.

When all is said and done, Tutu will be remembered for chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where as long as you confess what you did between 1960 and 1994 you could be forgiven and granted amnesty. Nelson Mandela asked Tutu to be chair of that. Tutu made it work. It was a unique practice of a nation-state in which people came and disclosed secrets in a public arena. In many ways it healed South Africa and prevented it from becoming a quagmire of cyclical violence.

Can Tutu’s example offer lessons to other conflict areas around the world?

On the macro level, we have a virus of the North Atlantic slave trade and the hierarchy of existence that occurred when Black people were viewed as subhuman. Unless there is some public way in which the institutions that have benefited from the North Atlantic slave trade can admit the benefits they received, publicly and systematically, then we’ll keep the virus of police shooting Black men and the virus of hindering Black people from voting. The United States could benefit from a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We have some segments doing that — George Washington University is giving free tuition to descendants of slaves. Instead of doing this in a piecemeal way, we could do it more systematically, like South Africa did.

Desmond Tutu: Reconciliation

Teacher will ask students to read the interview with Archbishop Tutu from Speak Truth to Power and view “Desmond Tutu: Truth and Reconciliation.” (symbol for link) In this lesson, students will gain a greater understanding of the ways to resolve conflict.

After reading the interview and viewing the video, conduct a class discussion based on these questions:

  • How does Archbishop Desmond Tutu define forgiveness?
  • What examples of forgiveness does he write about?
  • What are the three ways the Archbishop gives as examples on how to deal with post-conflict reconciliation? Give your interpretation of each example.

What did Archbishop Tutu mean when he said, “The past refuses to lie down quietly,” with regard to reconciliation after apartheid was outlawed?


  • Carousel Activity:
    • Write the following words on flip chart paper and post them on the classroom walls: Punishment, Revenge, Reconciliation, and Retribution.
    • Ask the students to write their “first thoughts” about each word.
    • After they have completed responding to each word, ask the students to write one word or statement under the appropriate word.


    • Give students the following quotations and discuss their meaning.
      • “Until we can forgive, we will never be free.” – Nelson Mandela (anti-apartheid activist, former President of South Africa)
      • “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” – Nelson Mandela
      • “Reconciliation is to understand both sides to go to one side and describe the suffering being endured by the other side, and then go to the other side and endure the suffering being endured by the first side.” – Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnamese monk and activist)
      • One side should argue that reconciliation is necessary.
      • One side should argue against reconciliation.
      • Reconciliation includes justice.
      • Use this quote: “Reconciliation should be accompanied by justice, otherwise it will not last. While we all hope for peace, it shouldn’t be peace at any cost but peace based on principle, on justice.” – Corazon Aquino (former president of the Philippines first female president in Asia)

      Become a Defender

      • Watch the video clip Desmond Tutu: Hope in Troubled Times. While Archbishop Tutu is widely known for his role in the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa, he is as passionate believer that each and every person can make a difference.
      • Start a peer mediation program in your school. If there is one, become involved.
      • Create materials such as posters and brochures to use in a teach-in at your school, community center, faith-based group, or civic group. The materials should specify a global conflict (including the USA) and attempts to reconcile the parties’ differences. Consider how these local groups could assist in helping the global organizations.
      • Draft a play using a global conflict that is in a state of negotiations for reconciliation. Use information from the Archbishop’s interview and videos, as well as knowledge of social studies to write a convincing argument for reconciliation.


      The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights is sponsoring an annual contest honoring a student who submits the best advocacy activity based upon the lesson studied. A goal of the lesson is to instill into each student that one voice, one person can make monumental changes in the lives of many. Tell us how you “Became a Defender”!


      • A one-page summary of the advocacy activity
      • Digitized copies of materials that can be sent electronically
      • Photos of the activity (please include parental consent form)
      • A one-page summary of how the activity made a change in the lives of one person or many
      • A week long “virtual” internship at RFK Center
      • An opportunity to meet the defender through a SKYPE visit,
      • A visit from Kerry Kennedy or a defender to your school
      • A poster of a Speak Truth to Power Human Rights Defender
      • A donation of a signed copy of Speak Truth to Power for the school library

      The application and instructions for entry can be downloaded here (link for materials)

      The deadline for all applications is the third week in November.

      The winning student and teacher will be notified by the last week of January.

      Reconciliation Resource Network

      The Reconciliation Resource Network is an online initiative coordinated by International IDEA. This network is comprised of reconciliation experts and holds periodic meetings to support the overall development of its work.

      SAHA products, projects and collections related to the TRC

      Reflecting an ongoing commitment to the process of transitional justice envisioned by the TRC, as well as the significance of the TRC in accessing information otherwise obscured by the previous political regime, SAHA has accumulated a large number of collections related to the TRC.

      The TRC archival project

      Conducted from 2003 - 2006, this joint archival initiative by SAHA and Historical Papers at the University of the Witwatersrand, funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies, aimed at identifying, preserving and promoting public access to the TRC archive, and producing:

        identifying where in South Africa various TRC collections are located, and describing these collections
    • A Select Bibliography To The South African Truth And Reconciliation Commission identifying key published articles, books and book chapters, theses, online and audiovisual resources about the TRC, from conception to aftermath
    • The TRC Oral History Project (AL2985), featuring interviews with 63 individuals who worked for the Commission in various capacities and in different locales
    • The TRACES OF TRUTH website, featuring digitised copies of key archival materials relating to the TRC housed at SAHA and Historical Papers. These materials are organised into five broad categories - background, human rights violations, amnesty, reparations, and aftermath, with accompanying narrative, in an attempt to contextualise, compare and contrast these archival fragments.
    • The addition of new collections relating to the TRC to both SAHA and Historical Papers' archives
    • TRC Special Report Multimedia Project

      Between 1996 and 1998 the TRC Special Report was broadcast weekly, reporting on the different aspects of the public TRC hearings taking place across South Africa. SAHA is in the process of finalizing a unique resource aimed at making the work of the TRC even more accessible.

      Paper Wars

      The second chapter of Paper Wars, written by Piers Pigou, is dedicated to the relationship between freedom of information and the TRC. It is entitled 'Accessing the Records of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission'. The collection was edited by Kate Allan, SAHA's FOIP coordinator between 2005 and 2007, and published in 2009 by Wits University Press.

      Watch the video: desmond tutu truth and reconciliation (January 2022).