Can America Heal Its Racial Wounds? We Asked Desmond Tutu and His Daughter
South Africans surprised everyone by transitioning to a relatively peaceful post-apartheid society. Here’s what Americans can learn.
Can we recover from the legacy of slavery, lynching, land theft, disenfranchisement, redlining, job discrimination, and mass imprisonment? We turned to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter the Rev. Mpho Tutu for wisdom on this question. Desmond Tutu led the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed in 1995. Many people anticipated violence and a breakdown of society as decades of apartheid ended. Instead, the country transitioned relatively peacefully to a multiracial democracy, in part because of the truth and reconciliation process.
As Archbishop Tutu describes, the process was tough but redemptive. Those seeking amnesty for human rights violations had to fully disclose their actions. Some apologized and asked for forgiveness, but not all; in the end, only 850 of the 7,000 amnesty applications were granted. Across the nation, South Africans watched the televised proceedings, witnessing the grief of survivors and regret of perpetrators, and the discussions within the formal proceedings were mirrored in discussions throughout every level of society.
Enabling the spirit of forgiveness was Ubuntu, an ancient southern African belief. Ubuntu holds that individuals exist only in relationship with other living beings: I am because we are. It is our responsibility as relatives to take care of one another.
Might truth and reconciliation, informed by the ideals of Ubuntu, play a role in the United States? Is it time—as Fania Davis proposed in an article for yesmagazine.org—for truth and reconciliation processes to examine and attempt to heal the police violence aimed at black people?
Archbishop Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, claims to be retired at age 83, although he continues to be sought out for his wisdom and counsel. The Rev. Tutu, is an Episcopal priest, the executive director of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, and coauthor with her father of The Book of Forgiveness.
Fania Davis and Sarah van Gelder interviewed the father and daughter via email questions; the two answered with an audio recording. To hear the full audio click here. An edited version of the conversation follows.
YES: You speak of the idea of Ubuntu. That concept seems like one that we in the West should understand better. Could you explain what it means?
Desmond Tutu: Ubuntu speaks about how we need each other. God, quite deliberately, has made us beings that are incomplete without the other. No one is self-sufficient.
Mpho Tutu: Ubuntu recognizes in the most profound way that we are interdependent, and that any action that I perpetrate against you has consequences for me and for my life. And so, the golden rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you—is a more Western expression of the concept of Ubuntu. What you do to me lives on in you.
YES: Can you speak of a moment that brought you to your deep appreciation of Ubuntu? And how has Ubuntu informed your work?
Desmond Tutu: One is constantly aware of it, but I think many people would be able to appreciate this instance: People who had been ill-treated, subjugated, instead of seeking revenge, were ready to speak about reconciliation, forgiveness. Of course, they were given a wonderful example by the magnanimity of a Nelson Mandela, who came out of prison not spitting blood and fire, but saying we need to understand the other person and we need to forgive. And our country was saved from devastation by this willingness to understand and to forgive.
“No one is self-sufficient.”
And it’s not a one-way thing—the generosity of spirit from one side provokes a response in kind from the other side. People wondered when they saw the caterpillar that had been South Africa—repulsive—turning into a gorgeous, beautiful butterfly.
YES: In the United States, how might we interrupt cycles of historic racial trauma that began with slavery, then morphed into lynching, and then into the racial violence associated with Jim Crow, and today into mass incarceration and deadly policing? Could truth and reconciliation have a role?
Mpho Tutu: For it to work in the United States, there has to either be a willingness for both sides to engage in the process, or there needs to be some sort of carrot and some sort of stick. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered the carrot of amnesty to perpetrators, and the stick of possible prosecution.
YES: What is the role of truth-telling, and how do we get to reconciliation from truth-telling?
Desmond Tutu: Obviously, if we want a reconciliation, it’s not going to happen if you tell half-truths. That is why here in South Africa, for people to be granted amnesty, it had to be quite clear that they had made a full divulgence, and you had people who were checking the veracity of those who were applying for amnesty.
YES: Reconciliation is often disdained as something that comes from a position of weakness, of making up and letting bygones be bygones, and as surrender and giving in. How do you view reconciliation?
Mpho Tutu: I think that reconciliation is actually a demonstration of strength. It takes incredible courage to go through the process that will lead you to reconciliation—to tell the story, to be able to articulate how you have been injured in ways that may feel excruciatingly painful and shameful. To name the hurt: shame, feeling disdained, feeling belittled or demeaned. And then to be able to grant forgiveness!
“It takes incredible courage to go through the process that will lead you to reconciliation.”
You get to tell your own story in your own words and to say that the perpetrator is not the person who describes who you are. Because when somebody injures you, it’s as though they define you. If somebody slaps your face, they then define you as the person whose face can be slapped. When you are able to forgive someone for slapping your face, what you’re then saying is, “No, actually, I’m better than what you say I am. I am not the person whose face can be slapped. I am the person who can say, ‘That doesn’t happen. I’m done with you, or I’m done with being in this kind of a relationship.’”
YES: How do we get to a common understanding of history, especially when the experience of whites and blacks has been so different? Is it even important that we come to a shared understanding?
Mpho Tutu: I think I would call it a shared narrative rather than a common narrative. We’re not telling an identical story. We’re telling the same story from different perspectives.
In the United States, in Richmond, Virginia, there is a statue of an unknown Confederate soldier. Richmond was the transshipment point for slaves—first slaves coming from Africa, and then, once the trans-Atlantic slave trade stopped, it was the place where black slaves were sold down the river to the plantations in the South. And the Richmond slave trail begins at what is now that memorial to the Confederate dead.
The story of slavery and the story of the American Civil War is not only a story of a war that brought an end to slavery, but is also a story of hundreds of thousands of white Southerners whose brothers, fathers, sons died by the thousands and by the tens of thousands. These, too, are people who have a story and a perspective and a passion.
When my son dies, it’s my son who dies. I don’t frame my son’s death in your narrative; I frame my son’s death in my narrative. You frame my son’s death in your narrative.
YES: You talk about the South African Truth and Reconciliation process both revealing “an extraordinary capacity for evil” and “a marvelous magnanimity” on the part of victims. What has that insight led you to believe about human nature?
Desmond Tutu: That we are extraordinary beings! All of us have the capacity for the greatest possible evil. All of us! None of us can predict that under certain circumstances we would not be guilty of the most horrendous atrocities and cruelty. That is why, when they said in the newspapers that someone was a monster, I kept saying, “No. That person carried out monstrous acts.” That person can change.
“We’re not telling an identical story. We’re telling the same story from different perspectives.”
And, yes, it taught me that human nature can plumb the worst possible depths, and race has got nothing to do with it. And human nature can also scale the highest heights of nobility, and, again, race is not a determinant factor.
YES: Truth and reconciliation often takes place after a traumatic period is over. Is this process possible in the United States, where racial violence and exclusion continue today?
Mpho Tutu: Yes, it is possible. Truth and reconciliation are processes, and because they’re processes, they’re ongoing. In a place where racism continues or where the harms continue, we can still engage the process. We go as far as we can go. We tell the truth as much as we can tell the truth. We tell our story as much as we can tell our story. We explain as much as we can explain what the impact of the action is on us, and those who are able, forgive. For those who are not able to forgive, they reset and start telling the story over again.
YES: Would a truth and reconciliation process here in the United States differ from the South African process? And if so, how?
Mpho Tutu: Oh, I think that an American process really would have to be homegrown. The South African process isn’t a template. It’s not a one-size-fits-all pattern. In every society and in every situation, you will tailor the process to fit the realities on the ground.
YES: Many well-meaning white Americans welcome the idea of “forgiveness” and are perhaps too eager to close the door on our history of racial trauma. What has to happen before we reach the phase of seeking forgiveness?
Mpho Tutu: We describe in our Book of Forgiving what the process of forgiving is. It begins with telling the story, so you can’t get to forgiveness without confronting the reality of what happened. And you must name the hurt. You can’t get to forgiveness without saying, “This is how I have been injured.”
It is only after you have done those two things that you actually get to forgiveness. So forgiveness isn’t a cheap “OK, everyone, let’s just forgive and forget!” No, you can’t. You have to actually remember in order to be able to forgive.
YES: What is the role of apologies and reparations?
Desmond Tutu: It’s quite amazing how powerful “I’m sorry, please forgive me” can turn out to be when it is genuine.
But the genuineness will be tested, in fact, by whether you are prepared to make up as far as you can. Are you ready to provide material resources that will seek to redress the balance? In the United States, that’s schools, and housing, and work, job—
Mpho Tutu: Job discrimination, redlining—
Desmond Tutu: Yes. Things that actually you can get to work on.
And those who have been hurt must be the ones who have the right to propose what it is that will begin to assuage the anguish, or you’ll just be repeating the same cycle of the perpetrator, who is a top dog, prescribing.
YES: Why do you say, “Without forgiveness we have no future?”
Mpho Tutu: Even the most cursory glance around the world can show you the difference between countries that have engaged in some kind of process of truth-telling, reconciliation, forgiveness, and those that have not.
In places where no effort has been made to forgive, the cycle of violence continues, generation after generation, century after century. In other places, the leaders have decided that it stops here.
“You can’t get to forgiveness without confronting the reality of what happened.”
So for instance, Rwanda is not necessarily a shining example of what a country should be, but it is a shining example of what a country can be on the way to being. Having engaged in a reconciliation process and in a truth-telling process, that is a country that is beginning to flourish, as opposed to, say, Syria or Egypt, where the pattern has been retribution that begets retribution yet again.
YES: On a more personal note, I wonder if you can give an example of how truth and reconciliation worked within your family? Was there a time when you as father and daughter had to tell difficult truths within your family and seek reconciliation?
Desmond Tutu: Hmmm!
Mpho Tutu: I think that our family is, unfortunately, not unique. We’re like every other family. We have fights and struggles. We have times when we turn away from each other, and times when we actually have the courage to face each other, and tell our truth, and seek reconciliation. But, no, it’s not easy. We have to work at it, too.
Desmond Tutu: I agree! (Laughs)
YES: You suffered for years under the apartheid system, and you have witnessed terrible atrocities during your travels to places like Rwanda. How do you achieve the inner peace you seem to have?
Desmond Tutu: I am very fortunate because I know that there are many people praying for me, and I am the recipient of the gift of their praying for me.
I laugh easily, but I cry easily, as well. I cry quite a bit.
And I try to bring things to our Lord. During apartheid times, I used to go into the chapel and remonstrate with God, saying, “How can you allow such and such a thing to happen, for goodness sake?”
Mpho Tutu: The benefits of some wonderful spiritual guides. I don’t know which one it was who said, “You can either be a vacuum cleaner or a washing machine.” If you’re a vacuum cleaner, you suck it all up, and you hold it until you explode. If you’re a washing machine, you let it in, and you let it out. You hand it over to God. It’s impossible to carry all the pain, but God can carry it all.
Sarah van Gelder is a co-founder and columnist at YES!, founder of PeoplesHub, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America.
Fania Davis is a civil rights attorney, restorative justice practitioner, social justice activist, writer, scholar, and co-founder and executive director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth.