Jonathan Kaplan: Our speaker this afternoon was a part of one of the most momentous social change movements in history. Nontombi Naomi Tutu, the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nomalizo Leah Tutu, represents the inspiring courage and profound impact of motivated humanitarians. Having grown up in apartheid South Africa, Miss Tutu has dedicated her life to public service and human rights. She is a powerful voice for eradicating gender-based violence, improving race relations, and achieving international peace. Miss Tutu has seen positive social change occur in a situation that many viewed as intractable.
Growing up in Krugersdorp, South Africa, and as “the daughter of,” offered Miss Tutu many challenges and opportunities, especially the challenge of finding her own place in the world. She has, to her great credit, accepted that challenge and found a unique role as an eloquent, tireless advocate for human rights. And now it is with great pride and honor that I introduce to you and welcome to Walden Miss Naomi Tutu.
Naomi Tutu: Thank you, thank you. Good evening.
Audience: Good evening.
Naomi Tutu: Thank you, thank you. It is a great pleasure and a privilege for me to be with you this evening, and as I was thinking about my presentation this evening and what it was from my life’s experiences that I could possibly bring to you that might serve as challenge and encouragement, I thought of using African proverbs as a way into my presentation. And there are thousands of African proverbs, and there’s been this huge upsurge of interest in African proverbs. And we keep hearing these really deep ones, like, “It takes a village to raise a child.” And I remember growing up, as a girl, that for every deep one there were thousands that don’t make sense. You know? So growing up, my mother and my aunts would say to us, “A woman dies for beauty,” while they are straightening our hair with a hot comb. And I’m thinking, “Just kill me. Forget the beauty, OK?” You know? Or, “The child that does not cry dies on its mother’s back.” What? I mean, the woman doesn’t know she’s got a baby back there? Basically to say, if you’re quiet, then we don’t know what you need. But then there was the other one that was, “The soldier that speaks during the ambush is the one who is killed.” So, “Don’t speak; you’re going to get killed,” or, “Don’t speak or you’re going to die.” I mean, either way, you speak, you die. You don’t speak, you die. Where are these things coming from? Who thinks these things up? And it always seemed to me that at the time that you needed a really deep one, a really silly one came up.
But as I was thinking, the first one that came to my mind, in looking at where I have come from and where we all are today, is that says that, “In a time of flood, the wise build bridges. The foolish build walls.” And when I first heard that, you know, I would think, “Why would you be building a wall in a flood?” I mean, why are you building anything in a flood? Why aren’t you swimming the hell away from there as fast as you can? And it took my grandmother to say to me, “You know,one of your problems, my child, is that you are too literal. These things are not meant to say, ‘This is going on right now. You are swimming or you are building, or you are building something.’ No. Move away from the literalness.” But the lesson, I believe, is that in times of trouble the wise reach out. They build bridges to connect with others. But in times of trouble the wise know that this is the time that we need one another, and the foolish are the ones who think that in a time of trouble I can protect myself by dividing myself from others. That I can build walls that will save me from the flood. Forget about the other people out there, that as long as I can build the dam that protects my little property then I will be fine. And they might be fine. You might be fine for the next week or month or couple of years. But eventually the reality is that you need other people, that it might seem that having my little garden of safety with the walls that protect me from the outside is the way to survive. The reality is that walls that we build also cut us off from those who would be able to help us.
And I use that proverb, because when I was growing up in South Africa that was one of the things that was so striking for me in driving through white neighborhoods was the walls, the walls of protection. And we would be going from Alice, where we lived, to Swaziland, where my older brother and sister and I went to boarding school. And we would drive through these towns, and on the one hand, we’d be looking at the houses in white communities and contrasting those to the houses of our family and friends and thinking, what a wonderful life. This must be great to be living in communities like this. Look, there’s a park over there. Look at that. There are movie theaters. Look at the school. And the schools were particularly striking for us because, as I said, we were driving from home to boarding school, which for me started when I was six and a half, because my parents didn’t want us to go through Bantu education. And so to be seeing those schools in those communities and knowing that white children would walk down the street from their home and go to school and be getting a quality education, and for my parents to give us a quality education, we had to drive for two days and to be away from my parents for three months at a time. And so seeing that there were those real walls that were built that divided white South Africa from black, but also the other walls, the walls that were the laws of apartheid. Laws like the Group Areas Act that designated where each racial group could live in urban South Africa; the Bantustan policy that made black South African women and children and the old—what one government minister termed a “superfluous appendage”—that were removed to those areas. Laws like the Suppression of Communism Act, and I love that, because this is one of the ways that told me how intelligent, in fact, apartheid South African government was, because that they knew that the biggest boogey in the West was communism, so if they could name a law “Suppression of Communism,” then they would get support from the West for their policies, and it worked that most Western countries turned a blind eye, at the very least, to apartheid, but that the Suppression of Communism Act had nothing to do with communism but had to do with suppressing free speech and the right of people to get together.
All of these are the walls, walls that the foolish built in the belief that it is possible to maintain a system of oppression for one group and privilege for another. And talking about proverbs, one of the ones that my parents used to use ad infinitum … there’s always the one that you’re like, oh, not again. How many ways can this work? And the proverb says, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” … And it means, “A person is a person through other people,” another way of saying “building bridges and not walls.” And my parents, as I say, they used to use this one on us at the slightest provocation or no provocation at all. We’d be having an argument amongst us siblings, and somebody would say something really nasty to somebody else. Usually, I was the one saying something really nasty. And my parents would say, “Remember, a person is a person through other people.” Yeah, right, you know. “You cannot be insulting and degrading your sister without insulting and degrading yourself.” Yeah. I won the argument, though. You know? And I come home from a great win at field hockey and say, “I scored the winning goal!” And my parents would say, “Remember, a person is a person through other people.” “How does that work there?” “If the rest of the team had not been on the field, you couldn’t have scored the winning goal.” Sure. Thank you. But I scored the winning goal.
And as they would use that, looking in South Africa, I would say, you know, that proverb was for field hockey and for family arguments. But show me how it works in the rest of the world. How does it work in reality? How can you say to me that a person cannot oppress another without oppressing themselves, when I’m looking around and what I am seeing is white South Africans living a wonderful life, living a life of privilege, having access to all the amenities that don’t exist in our communities, having, as I said, schools down the street with a quality education, having the best beaches, having parks and shopping centers, and just having what it seemed to me to be the best life ever. And so, “How?” I kept asking my parents and grandparents, “Can you tell me that when you oppress and degrade another, you really oppress and degrade yourself?” And they kept saying, “It is true. You’ll see one day. You will come to see that your actions for someone have an impact on your life. And your actions against someone have an impact on your life.” And I said, “OK. I’ll wait for that great day. Not with bated breath, of course, but I’ll wait.”
And I waited, and it came, the “light bulb moment.” And afterwards, when I was talking about it to my parents, I said, “I know that this is not exactly what you meant, but this is what opened my eyes to this reality.” And the light bulb moment, as in most light bulb moments, was actually a really stupid event, did not portray me very well. But it was that from the time I was about 12 till I was 16 our family lived in England, and I went to an all-girls school in Bromley, Kent. And I always tell my children that when I hear people complaining about wearing a school uniform, I think, how silly you are, because here we are in a school of 800 students, all dressed exactly alike, and not every teacher gets to teach every student. So when you’re getting up to mischief and a teacher comes along who doesn’t have you in class, if you duck around the corner really quickly, all they saw was a uniform. And there’s 800 of us wearing that uniform. How do they know who it was? I’m just saying. Except my mind didn’t make the necessary leap to the fact that in that 800 there were only two black students. And the other one was my sister, who we grew up calling “Holy Sister Theresa of the Can Do No Wrong.” ‘Cause she was that child that every family has to suffer, the one who is always offering to help your parents. “Can I make you tea?” And they come home from school and they do their homework right away, and, yeah, a cross that we must all bear. And if you are one of those, we continue to pray for you.
So I got into my fair share—well, more than my fair share—of trouble at Ravensbourne School for Girls. And in fact, my mother used to say that she believed there was one school secretary whose full-time job was just writing letters to my parents about me, and so [I] was punished, and as in most good schools, the punishment was either writing lines or detention, staying in school after school. And I know most of you have no idea about what you do in detention. I know. But just to share that when you’re in detention there is not much you can do. You either do your homework or you read a book or you contemplate the world’s great mysteries. And I voted for number three most of the time, ‘cause homework was not my strong point. And one day, as I was sitting, contemplating those world’s great mysteries, it came to me that detention was actually a pretty stupid form of punishment, and I accept that I was not an objective observer at that point. However, clearly in that room, bored out of our minds, thinking about what else we could have been doing after school, were those of us being punished. But also in the room with us was the teacher punishing us. And I’m thinking, I know you have better things to do in your life than be sitting here looking at a group of 12 bored teenagers. You could be doing something much more exciting. And I went home and I told my parents, “Ah! I think I get the proverb.” And they said, “Well, that’s not exactly what we were trying … no, that’s not exactly what the proverb means.” [I] said, “Well, there, she had us locked in, so she was locked in too.” It was a starting point. OK? It was a starting point.
And it was a starting point for me, because then it made me think about how to look at what that proverb meant in real life and to look for not the most obvious things. So as a young child, I was seeing the obvious, the comfort, the richness of white South Africa. But then I began to look at what white South Africa was losing, and white South Africa was as oppressed as we were, and their oppression was fear, that for all that privilege, they lived in constant fear of losing it. So they built those walls. They armed themselves. They built the walls of laws that divided us. They built the walls of laws that silenced criticism, but they couldn’t stop their fear. They arrested leader after leader. They exiled questioner after questioner. They killed activist after activist. And yet, the opposition to apartheid never died. And because that opposition would never die, their fear could never die. And as I grew older, I was struck by the fact that maybe, in fact, they were even more oppressed than we were. And the reason I say that is that people in our community died, were arrested, were forced into exile, were banned, were banished. But they suffered all of those things fighting for our liberation, while white South Africans were actually fighting to maintain their oppression. They actually fought to maintain their privilege, but completely tied into that privilege was the fear. And so I came to see in South Africa the truth of both those proverbs. The fool builds walls. The wise build bridges. The truth that a person is a person through other people, that what you do for or against another, you are really doing to yourself.
And once I started paying attention to it in the context of South Africa, I started seeing it in the context of other places around the world. And I have to tell you that once you start paying attention, then you keep seeing over and over how the proverbs that are wise are truly wise. So I was struck, for instance, that when we’re talking about Saddam Hussein and Iraq and talked about the opulence of his lifestyle and the palaces he built while the people of Iraq suffered, and so you think, so where was he suffering? And then the story came out that he had all these body doubles who would be going out so that nobody would know which one was actually Saddam Hussein. And I’m thinking, now, how more oppressed can you be than to be afraid to be yourself? How more oppressed can you be than to be having to send somebody out who kind of looks like you in order to be able to live? And it doesn’t equal maybe those whom he tortured and killed, but it did say to me that the lesson is real, that oppression cannot be divided, that degradation cannot be divided.
And part of the reason that the idea of the proverbs and the connections with my growing up came to me was because I was looking at this country today and listening to the voices that seem to be the loudest, particularly in our political discourse. And they are voices of dividing. They are voices of walls, not bridges. And I like to think that there are other voices out there that are voices of connection. And I believe that today I am speaking to people who believe that we are connected, that we are those who are called to build a better world, who believe that we are given opportunities in our lives to make a change for the better. One of the statements that I like from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is, “All that it needs for evil to succeed is for good men ...,” he said—I have this conversation with my dad all the time. I’m like, “People.” He says, “Well, men.” “No, men does not include women.” Then we move on. So I paraphrase Dr. King, “... for good people to do nothing.” And I believe that we go further than that. It is for good people to say nothing. We are people of action, and that is so important. It is important that we be activists for good, that we be those who are—as your university did in your Global Day of Action—to be those who are restoring beaches and helping build homes and feeding the hungry. And those are important, fundamentally important for our world to thrive. But I think that sometimes we forget how important it is not just to act but to speak, ‘cause in fact, very often we say, “Ah, let them talk. Actions speak louder than words.” Here I go now in the English proverbs, right? Actions speak louder than words. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Bull—excuse me. Whoops! Not true. But that we have … and we get ourselves to a place where we think we can ignore the words of hate. And maybe you are someone who is fortunate enough to be able to close out those words of hate and divisiveness, but the reality is that many, many people out there are not able to do so. And unless there are voices raised that challenge those voices of hate, then those become the dominant, the discourse that is heard.
So I come today to say that actions are fundamental in changing our world, that if it were not for the students in South Africa who had marched against apartheid, if it had not been for the communities that led boycotts inside South Africa of the cities and towns, if it were not for the students around the world who marched against apartheid in their communities, who called and made their universities divest from their investments in South Africa, if it were not for the people around the world who had applied sanctions against apartheid, then maybe today we would not have a free South Africa. So actions are absolutely necessary … the foundation, the building blocks of making positive change in our world. But I think we minimize the impact of words at our peril, that we minimize the division. We minimize the walls that are built by words to our own loss, that right now our world is calling for those who are willing to act to make this world a better place. Right now, our world is in need of leaders who will put pressure on governments like Burma to change their system of oppression. But our world also needs voices of conscience. Our world needs people who are willing to say, “Words that attempt to divide us destroy us all,” as well as those actions.
We need voices of courage, people who are willing to stand in their own communities and around the world to say, the words that are walls might seem like an easy solution in the short term, but we are in this struggle as communities. We need voices of courage, people who are willing to say that racism, sexism, homophobia—there are so many of them, aren’t there? I mean, you could be here all day coming out with all these “-isms.” But all of those things, those words that seek to divide only weaken us all, only lead us to a path of mutual destruction; that we need voices of courage, people who are willing to say that our differences exist, yes.
Now, there are many things that drive me up the wall, top of those being my three children. But one of my things that just sets my teeth grating is that we are striving for a colorblind world. I’m thinking, “Why? Why? Why would we be striving for a colorblind …?” I don’t want to be colorblind. I really don’t. I’ve heard and talked to people who are really colorblind, and they’re not enjoying the experience. OK? So why would we want to be colorblind? Why would we want to pretend that we are all exactly the … we’re not. We’re not. And those of you who are teachers: One of the things that people often say to me is that, “Oh, we should be like children. Children don’t see any difference.” And I’m thinking, which children have you been hanging around? Ask any parent. Children notice difference and they will ask about difference at the wrong time. You know? At that time when I just say, “Step away from the child. I don’t know whose child that is.” “Yeah. I really don’t know. Uh-uh.” ‘Cause it is not that children don’t notice difference; it is that their approach to difference is the one that I think we need to be striving for, which is somebody different is a new opportunity to learn. It’s a chance to expand my worldview of what is possible. It’s an opportunity to try a different way of doing something. It’s an opportunity to learn maybe even a new skill, whether it be a new language, a new way of eating, new food, new ways of interacting with my parents. And I have to tell you, as an African mother, it has been a real struggle dealing with my children, trying to try out on me what they think is the American way of being, of interacting with your parents. And I have to tell them over, “I’m an African woman paying the rent. You are free to leave at any time.”
But the reality is that for our young people, until we teach them to fear difference, for our young people difference equals opportunity. Difference equals expanding what I can possibly see, know, learn. And that’s why I say, “Why would we want to be colorblind when difference offers us different gifts, skills, experiences that can enrich our lives?” When I talk to people about difference, you know, this is where being the daughter of a priest comes in very often, ‘cause growing up with my parents and my dad being a priest, we thought, because we were taught that priests obey and respect God, and so we worked out that my mom was actually God. And so when I would think about difference and what it means, the picture that I always think of is my mother and her garden, because my mother loves gardening. I mean, she thinks that a garden says more about you than anything else in your life. And so when I lived in Cape Town I would wake up in the morning sometimes, and she’d be out there in my garden, doing my garden, because she’s like, “I am embarrassed that people know that my daughter lives in a house with a garden that looks like this.” Like, “Carry on. I’m quite happy for you to be embarrassed, if it means you’re out here mowing the lawn.” But listening to my mother planning her garden and making changes in her garden about, “OK, I think that if I move that bush over there and if I bring in some” whatever—blah, blah, blah, because I don’t know the names of flowers—it’s either a rose or not a rose. But my mother knows the names of flowers. So she’s, “I’m going to bring in this over here and bring in those colors over there, and it’s going to look amazing.” And it does. It looks truly beautiful.
And so when I think about difference, I think about if somebody were to walk into my mother’s garden and look at all that work that she had done and say, “Hmm, nice garden but I don’t see different flowers. I just see flowers.” Or even, “I don’t see the different colors of your flowers. I just see flowers.” We would not hear from the person again. ‘Cause my mother would take them out, you know. Very nonviolently, ‘cause that’s where we’re from, but she would take them out. No question. And I think that, with thinking of my mother as God, I think that’s how God feels when people say, “I don’t see difference.” Like, “What the heck? I went to all this trouble and you can’t see my work? You don’t notice? What?” And when you say that … So when people say that they don’t notice difference, I step away because I’m not going to be there when the lightening bolt strikes, you know? I’m out of that picture. So for me, what we are core to is to be those not who pretend that differences don’t exist but recognize our shared humanity. Recognize the need for bridge building rather than wall building. Recognize the call to be those who act for change and also those who speak for change. That we are called to be those who know that at least one proverb that I grew up hearing is true: Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, a person is a person only through other people. Thank you.