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Archbishop Desmond Tutu on South Africa, Poverty and Militarism

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Nobel Peace prize-winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks after receiving an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Fordham University. He says, “South Africa, improbably, divinely amusingly, has become a beacon of hope. If peace could come to South Africa, then peace could come any- and everywhere.” [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was one of the leading figures in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and served as chair of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A Nobel Peace laureate, Tutu has been a longtime campaigner for human rights and the eradication of poverty across the globe.

On Wednesday, he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Fordham University in New York City. After receiving the award, he spoke in the University Church about South Africa, global poverty and militarism.

  • Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speaking in New York City, February 23, 2005.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: After receiving the award, he spoke in the University Church about South Africa, global poverty and militarism.

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: South Africa has become a beacon of hope for those lands racked by conflict and blood-letting. Now, who in their right mind would have wanted to set up South Africa? South Africa as a beacon of hope as an example to other lands, if it was not to have been an example of the most ghastly awfulness? Only someone with a huge sense of humor, with a hypersensitive funny bone in their makeup. I can well imagine someone earnest and upright saying to God, “God, I mean, you can’t — you can’t really be serious. South Africa?”

And God saying, “Uh-huh.”

“God, they were not even virtuous, man! I mean, they maintained their vicious policy of apartheid for all of those many years!”

And God retorts, “Uh-huh.”

“God, they were not even bright.”

They tell the story of two South Africans, one white, one black, who come visiting New York, and they get into trouble and are found guilty of a capital offense, so they are sentenced to death, but they’re allowed to choose either the electric chair or the rope. And the white South African goes in first to be executed, and he chooses the electric chair. And they strap him into the chair, and then they throw the switch, and nothing happens. And this is repeated three times. So, they say to him, he’s reprieved. And they unloosen him and tell him to go. As he goes out, the next in line for execution is his black compatriot. And so the white South African who has just been reprieved walks past and says to this man, “Choose the rope. This damn thing doesn’t work.”

Yes, the unlikely thing has happened. South Africa has indeed become a beacon of hope, an example to other parts of the world. South Africa has become a beacon of hope to a world plagued by violence and conflict, a world riddled with injustice and oppression, with the abuse of women and children, where the poor carry a heavy, unbearable burden of unpayable debt, where in order to service the debt, they spend infinitely more on that interest than they could ever be able to spend on health care, on education in their own countries. South Africa is a beacon of hope to a world where we spend what can only be described as obscene amounts — and we call them “defense budgets,” when we know that a minute fraction of those budgets of death would insure that God’s children, now our sisters and brothers everywhere, would have enough to eat, would have clean water to drink, would have adequate health care, would have good education, would have a safe environment. South Africa has become, improbably, a beacon of hope, where the world is riddled by alienation and disharmony, hatred and hostility between peoples of different faiths, people of different cultures.

South Africa has become a beacon of hope, because South Africa was helped so wonderfully by the international community that supported us in our struggle against that horrendous system of apartheid. We were prayed for. People were prepared to go to prison on our behalf. People were ready to boycott South African goods on our behalf. And when we overcame apartheid, that victory was not just our victory, it was a victory that belonged also to the world. And one of the great privileges one has is going around to places where we used to come and say, “Please, help us in our struggle.” To go back to those places and say, “We asked for help, you gave it, and today, we are free. We are free. ” And it is just a tremendous, tremendous thing to be able to come back and to say, “Thank you, thank you. Thank you for helping us to become free.”

Now, I know, I know, I know that you are very reserved. You are very shy. So, I discovered — I discovered a few years ago that I actually have a wonderful magic wand. When I wave it over people, hey, presto! They become instant South Africans. So, I wave it over you, and so now I can say: Fellow South Africans, how about giving these people a real humdinger, eh? Yes. Thank you. Oh, yes, no, and I wave my wand and you revert to your normal shy selves.

God is saying to the world through us, “Look at them. They had a nightmare called apartheid. It has ended. Your nightmare, Northern Ireland, Middle East, Sri Lanka, D.R.C., Burma, Rwanda, Darfur, Chechnya, et al., that nightmare, your nightmare, will end.” They used to have what many thought was an intractable problem. It has been solved. Nowhere can they ever again say, “Ours is an intractable problem.” South Africa improbably, divinely, amusingly, has become a beacon of hope. If peace could come to South Africa, then peace can come any and everywhere. If an equitable settlement could be achieved in South Africa, then this must be possible any and everywhere. And god says, “Yeah. Peace is possible. Yeah.” They will beat their swords into plowshares. They will turn their spears into pruning hooks. Yeah, the lion will lie down again with the lamb, for God dreams. God dreams for when you and I and all of us are going to realize, “Hey, we belong together.” We — each one of us — are members of God’s family, a family in which there are no outsiders. All, all, all, all are insiders. This incredible Jesus we worship speaking about his coming deaths says, “I, I, if I be lifted up, will draw…” — he didn’t say, I will draw some. He says, “I will draw all.” All, all, all — black and white, rich and poor, beautiful, not so beautiful, clever, not so clever, Arab, Jew, Sharon, Abbas, Bush, bin Laden. Incredible. Incredible, the family of God. The family of God, which will be held in this incredible, divine embrace that allows no one, no one to step outside. All, all, all belong. God says, “Ah, it’s beginning to happen in South Africa. It’s going to happen everywhere.” Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, has just been awarded an honorary degree at Fordham University in New York.

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