Nobel Prize winner and anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke to a packed audience in Arlington Theatre on Friday night, advocating forgiveness over retribution and a belief in the essential goodness of all people.
Friday’s event, organized by UCSB Arts & Lectures, was Tutu’s first trip to Santa Barbara in nearly 20 years. When he last visited, he came to gather opposition to his home country of South Africa’s system of apartheid, which separated racial groups much like the United States’ former Jim Crow laws. It was such opposition from the international community, Tutu said, that led to the downfall of the “most vicious” regime in 1994.
“It is a wonderful privilege to return to a place like this,” Tutu said. “We used to come around and ask for help, and here we are – free. Free.”
The South African National Party government established apartheid in 1948, giving social, economic and political advantages to white citizens, who constitute a minority of the population. Black Africans, who make up the majority of the country, were excluded from most elections, running businesses in segregated “white” areas and were given an inferior education that mostly prepared them for servile jobs.
When the last remnants of apartheid ended with the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, Tutu said much of the world community, as well as the country populace, feared blacks would seek violent retribution against their former oppressors. Instead, Mandela created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Tutu chaired.
The commission granted amnesty to individuals who committed politically motivated crimes, such as killing anti-apartheid activists, if they gave a full confession of their deeds.
Tutu said taking the route of forgiveness as opposed to prosecution of apartheid criminals not only freed up the already “overburdened” South African justice system, but it allowed the country to move past its troubled history and heal.
“Truth is the way to recovery,” he said.
During his time on the commission, Tutu said, he heard confessions from both apartheid supporters who suppressed and killed black activists, and from black activists who had in turn killed white supporters of the government. He said he also heard from the victims themselves who came requesting assistance.
“I recall a mother – deeply anguished – asking, ‘Can’t you find me just a bone of my son?'” Tutu said. “We could not.”
Despite the stories of inhumane acts, conspiracy and oppression, Tutu said he continues to believe all people – even those who committed atrocities during apartheid – are in essence good. It is through forgiveness and by helping each other, he said, that even the most flawed of individuals return to their basic humanity.
“A person is a person through other persons,” Tutu said. “The solitary person is a contradiction of terms. I wouldn’t know how to walk, how to speak [without others]. … I need other humans to be human.”
Although humans put apartheid in place, Tutu said, it was humans who also took it down. Even American students thousands of miles away from South Africa helped the anti-apartheid cause, he said, by hosting classroom sit-ins and protests. Such actions prompted the U.S. Congress to pass and subsequently overrule former President Ronald Reagan’s veto of legislation imposing economic sanctions on South Africa for its government’s actions, he said.
“It was the [effort] of students … that in fact changed the moral climate in the country,” Tutu said.
Tutu said human rights activism and peace movements need to continue in order to change the rest of the world, as they changed South Africa.
“When do we learn that no true peace, no true security ever came from the barrel of a gun?” he said.