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Desmond Tutu and the Power of Apology
“It’s quite amazing how powerful ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me’ can turn out to be when it is genuine,” Rev. Desmond Mpilo Tutu said when Fania Davis and I interviewed him and his daughter Rev. Mpho Tutu van Furth for YES! Magazine in 2015.
“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. …” And Rev. Tutu van Furth added, “Job discrimination, redlining …”
Indeed, in recent years, there has been increasing discussion of what reparations might look like in the United States. Annually since 1989, the late Democratic Rep. John Conyers introduced into Congress a national commission to study reparations. That bill, now championed by Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, made it out of committee for the first time in 2019.
To Rev. Tutu, the starting point for such a reparations process is clear: “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.”
In other words, the process of reparations—the means by which long-standing wrongs are made right—must take place in a way that is defined by those most harmed. Doing so is the right thing to do, and it also helps rebalance power and establish the equity that has been missing from society for so long.
Rev. Tutu, who died on Dec. 26, 2021, at the age of 90, is being celebrated around the world as a leading advocate for justice and peace.
Prior to the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the fall of the racist apartheid system in South Africa, the United States treated the White apartheid establishment as an ally and the African National Congress as a “terrorist” organization. But Rev. Tutu, serving as general secretary of the South African Council of Churches from 1978 to 1985, supported international sanctions against the apartheid regime.
After the fall of apartheid, Rev. Tutu went on to lead the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to bring about a national reckoning on the horrors of apartheid.
In that 2015 interview, Davis and I asked Rev. Tutu and Rev. Tutu van Furth what lessons Americans might learn from South Africa’s truth and reconciliation experience. Davis, a leading advocate of restorative justice in Oakland schools and for the nation as a whole, had recently proposed a truth and reconciliation process here in the United States. What would make real reconciliation possible in the context of hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, White supremacist violence, job discrimination, segregated schools and neighborhoods, and police violence?
Uncovering the full truth of apartheid was a starting point, the Reverends told us. It was necessary to fully understand the impacts that systemic White supremacy had on the lives of Black South Africans, especially those who were tortured and imprisoned, and the families of those murdered.
But there are other crucial steps that are needed between “truth” and “reconciliation.” Among those less often discussed by those seeking a quick and cheap path to forgiveness is reparations.
Davis and van Gelder interviewed the father and daughter via emailed questions; the two answered with an audio recording. The full audio recording can be found here, and full text of the interview (excerpted below) can be found here.
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!: 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!: 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: 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.
Read the full interview with Rev. Tutu, Rev. Tutu van Furth, Sarah van Gelder, and Fania Davis here.
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.