An Interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu Archbishop Desmond Tutu, known for work in post-apartheid South Africa, talks with Debbie Elliott about getting people to look at the world in a different way... throwing away old categories and old concepts and starting fresh.

An Interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has spent much of his life getting people to look at the world in a different way. To throw out old categories, old concepts, and start fresh.

DESMOND TUTU (Archbishop of South Africa): There are other ways of looking at things. Arts like music; you know the things that don't let you use too much your cerebral part. The kinds of things that provoke our intuitive, emotional, spiritual, the things that make those take off. And you say “Now I see,” like an epiphany.

ELLIOT: Archbishop Desmond Tutu was honored this month at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. The museum showcases work from untrained artists and was founded on the idea that each of us has unlimited creative potential.

Archbishop TUTU: I'm just amazed when I see something at how people can conceptualize and then either put on paper or carve something and you see that's made me see things that I hadn't thought existed even.

ELLIOT: Art, says Tutu, is one way to break through external barriers that divide people. At the museum's tenth anniversary celebration one recent evening, he said the key to real social change is to understand one essential truth.

Archibishop TUTU: Each single one of us is said to be of infinite worth. Because the Bible says we're created in the image of God. Each one of us. That each one of us is a God carrier. Each one of us is God's viceroy. Can you imagine if we really believed that?

ELLIOT: This idea of the divine inspiration in each of us goes to the root of the museum's philosophy. Its anniversary exhibit is called Race, Class, Gender Do Not Equal Character and features works that tackle how we get past the surface to truly know one other. There is the Human Race Machine, a booth where visitors can see themselves in another skin and a huge exacto knife carving of Jesus in painted wood made by a man with AIDS who felt abandoned by his church. Covering one nearby wall, the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu himself are painted in bright red: “Opposing apartheid was a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination against women is a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a matter of justice.”

Archbishop TUTU: Good morning!

ELLIOT: Good morning!

Archbishop TUTU: Can we just say a prayer first?

ELLIOT: Please.

The next morning we met Archbishop Desmond Tutu at his hotel room. He was wearing a magenta shirt and a priest collar and a silver crucifix around his neck.

Archbishop TUTU: God and Holy Spirit fill the hearts of thy faithful people and kindle in them the fire of thy love. Send forth thy spirit and they shall be made and thou shall bring you the face of the earth. Amen.

ELLIOT: Tutu is known through the world for his work in post Apartheid South Africa. He chaired the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a process designed to let both victims and perpetrators testify about their experiences under the Apartheid regime. Those who revealed the full truth about their crimes were granted amnesty. Tutu says freely talking about unspeakable acts has a healing power.

Archbishop TUTU: Now when you go to South Africa, it's got massive problems, yeah, but I mean it's extraordinary. I mean when I became Archbishop in 1986 it was a crime for me to live in the official residence of the Archbishop because it was in what was termed a white area. Now people live; well you can live wherever you are able to afford and the sky has not fallen in. It helps to have, well, I suppose, to have the laws to say this is not permitted. Discrimination is not permitted. You remember Martin Luther King said it may be that they can't legislate to make you love me but can legislate to stop you from lynching me, and that's important for me.

ELLIOT: In this country in particular, we have laws on the books that guarantee equal rights but there are many people who don't necessarily enjoy those rights. What would you say to people who were sort of frustrated with the pace of progress?

Archbishop TUTU: I think they should continue being frustrated. Yeah, I mean it's not natural. You, the reaction against injustice is to oppose it and I think I mean yeah, you know it's like saying there is child abuse happening. People should be appalled by it you know and you should be appalled by the injustice of discrimination. But you know, I think that the United States probably needs to go through a process akin to our Truth and Reconciliation Commission process.


Archbishop TUTU: Because this country has not really faced up to the legacy of slavery or of the dispossession of Native Americans. That there is a pain which is sitting in the pit of the tummy of virtually every African American and every Native American. And it's a pain that needs to be brought to the surface, articulated, articulated in a thing like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission type where you have a safe space and people can say whatever it is that bugs them knowing that they're not going to be shouted down.

ELLIOT: You know when you talk about that process, I've covered several of the old civil rights trials in the South in this country and there are always right before those trials start people who say why are we doing this. This is just bringing up old animosity. This is just making things worse.

Archbishop TUTU: Yes. People almost always will say that. Don't bring up the past. Let bygones be bygones. Unfortunately you see they don't get to be bygones. They have an incredible capacity to return and haunt us. Now you know what, there is in fact a city in your country that has decided it was going to have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Greensboro. There was an incident in 1979 where a number of people were killed because there was a protest against a Ku Klux Klan march and some of the people who came to testify and one of the people who came and with whom I spoke was a white woman whose husband was killed.

I asked her how did you feel after you testified but she said something that we found happened at home. She said it was cathartic. I came and I told my story and I've probably told the story many times but to have told it in this particular setting just did something for me. I'm not aware, actually, of too many people who are hungry for revenge. Most people would like an acknowledgement, and being able to tell your story is that you are acknowledged. And if the perpetrator takes responsibility it goes a very long way in the healing process.

ELLIOT: Why is it that people have had such a hard time throughout history getting along?

Archbishop TUTU: Well I think we've been made in some ways to be like animals. There are instincts that we had to have to survive the earlier periods of our evolution but we've; there's a kind of atavism. We're sort of atavistic in allowing instincts that were appropriate for an earlier period, like, I mean, anything that is strange you had to say strange, enemy, danger, destroy, you know. And, and we, we, still tend to want to respond in that kind of way and forget, actually, that we, we, we were made different, not so that we should be separate. We were made different in order to know our need of one another. That you have gifts which I don't have, and I have gifts which don't, which you don't have. And God almost rubs God's hands in, in glee and says voila, now you will know you can't be self-sufficient, uh, in order to survive, you will need that other one to complement you.

So we are made for complementarity. We're made for interdependence, and, and, and that if, if, if God were to shout it out, God would say I have a dream, I have a dream that my children one day will discover that they are really just members of one family.

ELLIOTT: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speaking with us in Baltimore. To hear his entire speech at the Visionary Art Museum, go to our website

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.