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What it Takes - Desmond Tutu

What It Takes - Desmond Tutu
What It Takes - Desmond Tutu
What It Takes - Desmond Tutu
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00:00:02 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:00:08 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:00:14 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:00:19 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:00:27 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:00:35 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:00:40 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:00:53 DESMOND TUTU: I have an easy name, Tutu, and any European can say, any American can say, “Tutu.”

00:01:00 ALICE WINKLER: That would be Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa trying to humbly argue here that his name had something to do with why he was chosen for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

00:01:15 DESMOND TUTU: Whereas if I had been something like “Matashavalla,” that might have made it a little more difficult.

00:01:21 ALICE WINKLER: Well, anyone who knows anything about South Africa knows that “Tutu” was more than just an easy and fun-to-say name. The archbishop was one of the leading forces behind the dismantling of apartheid. The Nobel Prize he received that year energized the movement against apartheid worldwide, but it would be another ten years before that brutal system of segregation was finally buried in the dung heap of history.

00:01:53 DESMOND TUTU: I never should have doubted that, ultimately, we were going to be free because, ultimately, I knew there was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life. What, I have to say, really bowled me over was how quickly the change happened when it happened.

00:02:25 I mean how quickly it came, because one moment, Nelson Mandela is in jail, and the next moment, he's walking a free man. One moment, we are shackled as the oppressed of apartheid, the next, we are voting for the very first time. I was 63 when I voted for the first time in my life in the country of my birth. Nelson Mandela was 76 years of age, but it happened. It happened.

00:03:01 ALICE WINKLER: Welcome to another episode of What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement. And I'm going to insert a little plug here. Please, follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @WhatItTakesNow. Thanks. When I dipped into the Academy's archive this week, I discovered several interviews with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and several speeches, all recorded between 2002 and 2007.

00:03:30 Listening to the hours of tape, I was kind of overwhelmed that this icon of freedom and justice, this fearless champion of what is right, is also a tremendously joyful and funny man. He often howls with laughter or squeals out an excited phrase, and he's always quick with a joke or a hilarious metaphor, even when he's talking about the most sacred stories in Christianity.

00:03:58 DESMOND TUTU: Knock, knock. Who's there?

00:04:02 Gabriel.

Gabriel who?

00:04:05 Gabriel the Archangel.

00:04:09 Hi, Mary.

00:04:12 Hi, Gabriel.

00:04:15 Mary?


00:04:19 God would like you to be the mother of God's son. WHAT!

00:04:27 You know, in this village, you can't scratch yourself without everybody knowing about it, and you want —

00:04:34 And you want me to be what?

00:04:37 An unmarried mother! Sorry. I'm a decent girl. Try next door. I mean...!

00:04:46 We would have been in a real pickle.

00:04:48 ALICE WINKLER: The archbishop did not always know he was headed for a life in the Anglican Church, and he could never have predicted he'd help take down the apartheid system. Growing up, he said, oppression was just all around him, but it didn’t stop him from having a happy childhood.

00:05:06 DESMOND TUTU: It was fun. It was fun because I don't think, at the time, that you sat around and felt sorry for yourself. You had friends. You kicked a football around, you fought, and you had caring parents.

00:05:27 ALICE WINKLER: His father was a schoolmaster, and the schools for black South Africans were abysmal, so that was where Tutu began to recognize the inequities.

00:05:37 DESMOND TUTU: Yeah, we lived a segregated life. When you went to town where the whites lived, you saw their schools, much, much, much better in equipment, better grounds and, even more extraordinary — you see, I used to — my father bought me a bicycle, and I was about the only kid in the ghetto who had a bicycle, and he would send me into town.

00:06:13 And frequently I would see black kids scavenging in the dustbins of the schools, where they picked out perfectly okay apples and fruit. White kids were being provided with school feeding, government school feeding, but most of the time they didn't eat it. They preferred what their mommies gave them, and so they would dump the whole fruit into the dustbin.

00:06:53 And these kids, coming from a township, who needed free meals, didn't get them, and so they got — it was things that registered without your being aware that they were registering, and you're saying, there are these extraordinary inconsistencies in our lives.

00:07:16 ALICE WINKLER: Luckily for Tutu, his father taught him Aesop's Fables and the stories of Shakespeare, and let him devour comic books, which gave Tutu a lifelong love of reading. And the dedicated teachers at his school made all the difference, too, making him feel that the sky was the limit, even with all the obvious obstacles in view.

00:07:38 When Tutu was a freshman in high school, for instance, the school was so inadequate that four classes met at the same time in a church hall instead.

00:07:48 DESMOND TUTU: You had to have a teacher who was engrossing because you could hear what the teacher in the other class was saying, and if that was more interesting, your teacher really had his job cut out to keep your attention. And we didn't have desks. We sat on benches that were used on Sundays as the pews for the church, and you sat when the teacher was holding forth.

00:08:23 Then when you wrote, you knelt behind the bench, and where you had been sitting was now your desktop.

00:08:33 ALICE WINKLER: He could easily have become bitter, but quite early in life, Tutu says, he remembers getting his first inklings that all people have some essential humanity.

00:08:44 DESMOND TUTU: Human beings are odd. I would go to town, in part to go and buy newspapers for my father. And, before taking them home, I would spread them on the sidewalk, the pavement, and I would kneel to read. Now this is a racist town. I can't ever recall any day when a white person would walk across the face of the newspaper.

00:09:19 I mean I still am puzzled that they used to walk around this newspaper, with this black kid kneeling down there reading, when you would have expected that they would have made my life somewhat uncomfortable. I mean I cannot understand that particular inconsistency. It is, therefore, one of my memories that — now why, in the name of everything that is good, didn't those whites actually just be nasty? And they weren’t.

00:10:00 ALICE WINKLER: That was a powerful realization for young Desmond Tutu. Other revelations came soon after that would also shape who and what he would become.

00:10:10 DESMOND TUTU: I mean I recall, when I was about nine, picking up a tattered copy of Ebony magazine, and I think — I mean maybe journalists ought to know just how much power they actually have, because here I was, 10,000 miles away from America, with this copy of Ebony magazine, and it was describing the exploits of Jackie Robinson, and how he broke into major league baseball.

00:10:44 Now I didn't know baseball from ping pong, but what was so important for me, what made me grow inches, was to know that a black guy had triumphed over all of the obstacles that were placed in his way, and there he was now playing for something called Brooklyn Dodgers.

00:11:12 ALICE WINKLER: Whatever the Dodgers were, no matter, Tutu says. Reading that issue of Ebony helped him to exorcise the most awful consequence of racial injustice, what Tutu calls “the demon of self-hate.” Lena Horne helped him on that front too. When Archbishop Tutu met her later in life, he confessed he'd loved her since he was nine years old and had seen Stormy Weather, with its all-black cast.

00:11:51 ALICE WINKLER: Desmond Tutu had a pretty good sense — by the time he was nine, in other words — that he would not be limited by the story the apartheid system told about what his life was worth. He set his sights on becoming a doctor, and he might have become one, too, if his family had had the funds to pay for medical school. Instead, he went to a teacher-training college where he was able to get a scholarship. He ended up teaching back at his high school alma mater and was shaken by the conditions there.

00:12:21 The educational system for blacks was totally separate, of course, and was, to quote the archbishop, “the pits.” He often had four classes of 80 kids each.

00:12:34 DESMOND TUTU: I — yeah, I tried to be as what my teachers had been to me, to these kids, seeking to instill in them a pride; pride that said, “They may define you as so-and-so. You aren't that.”

00:13:02 “Make sure you prove them wrong by becoming what the potential in you says you can become.” And so I taught for four years. And it was fun; it was fun. But then I decided, no, I would not participate any longer as a collaborator, when the government decided that they were going to have something called Bantu education, an education specifically designed for blacks, and they made no bones about the fact that it was designed as education for perpetual serfdom.

00:13:51 Dr. Verwoerd said, "Why do you have to teach blacks mathematics? What are they going to do with mathematics? You must teach them enough English and Afrikaans" — the other white language, as it were — "for them to be able to understand instructions given to them by their white employers." He said that. I mean unabashedly.

00:14:20 That was the purpose, for him, of education. So I said, "No, I'm sorry. I can't collaborate with such a travesty." But I didn't have too many alternatives, too many options to choose from, and then thought, "Maybe, well, it might just be that God is calling me to become a priest."

00:14:44 ALICE WINKLER: He was a gentle soul, interested in the pastoral duties of tending to his flock, and not really all that political, which is to say he didn’t feel a constant sense of outrage — yet. But then the year he was to be ordained, 1960, police opened fire on a protest against the pass laws that governed where blacks could and could not go. Sixty-nine people were killed. It became known as the Sharpeville Massacre, and it was a turning point.

00:15:15 The African National Congress and black South Africans, in general, were out of patience. They had tried a nonviolent approach for years.

00:15:25 DESMOND TUTU: You kept thinking that our white compatriots would hear — you know, would hear the pleas that were being made, moderate, really, in the kind of demands that they were making, but it was — it kept falling on deaf ears, and increasingly people felt that it was going to be more and more difficult to bring about these changes peacefully.

00:16:01 I mean even people like Nelson Mandela — I mean they were striving to work for those changes nonviolently, and it was 1960 that changed them.

00:16:15 ALICE WINKLER: The African National Congress was banned. The Pan Africanist Congress was banned. Nelson Mandela went to prison, and Desmond Tutu, well, he had gone to London to get a master's in theology, and then eventually he served as an assistant director at the World Council of Churches in London. It was while he was abroad, he says, that his views on religion and on activism began to shift and to align.

00:16:42 DESMOND TUTU: There was an evolution. I — one of my colleagues came from Latin America and espoused liberation theology, and so, one, was beginning to realize that The Scriptures were not as innocuous as people might have thought they were, that they are not meant to turn people into cattle and fodder.

00:17:16 They are not meant to be an opiate for the people. They are actually dynamite.

00:17:23 ALICE WINKLER: When it was time to return home in 1975, Tutu was, as he says, sufficiently political. Although the church had appointed him dean of St. Mary's Cathedral in Johannesburg, he and his wife would have had to ask permission to live in town at the dean's residence. They wouldn't do it.

00:17:42 DESMOND TUTU: We said, "Well, we'll live in Soweto,” so that — we begin always by making a political statement, even without articulating it in words. And when I arrived, I realized that I had been given a platform that was not readily available to many blacks, and most of our leaders were either now in jail or in exile, and I said, "Well, I'm going to use this to seek to try to articulate our aspirations and our — and the anguishes of our people."

00:18:25 ALICE WINKLER: Tutu could see and feel around him that his people had had enough. He took a very risky, very public step that got tremendous press coverage.

00:18:36 DESMOND TUTU: I don't know. I mean I don't know what happened, but it just seemed like God was saying to me, "You've got to write a letter to the prime minister," and the letter wrote itself. I mean normally when you're in retreat, you're not expected to — you should not be doing, well, work. You are meant to be concentrating on God, but I think — I mean yes...

00:19:04 I think somehow God said — and so I sat down, and I wrote the letter, and I wrote the letter to the prime minister, and told him that I was scared. I was scared because the mood in the townships was frightening. If they didn't do something to make our people believe that they cared about our concerns, I feared that we were going to have an eruption.

00:19:44 I sent off the letter. He, the prime minister, dismissed my letter contemptuously. I wrote to him in May of 1976. I said I had a nightmarish fear that there was going to be an explosion. Well, they didn't do anything, and a month later Soweto happened.

00:20:10 And in a way you could say, as they sometimes say, “And the rest is history.” But my new understandings of The Scriptures and, as it were, the ways of God made it clear to me that there was no question at all that we were on the winning side.

00:20:33 ALICE WINKLER: When Tutu says “Soweto,” it's shorthand for the famous uprising there by high school students. Their dignity had already been trampled by Bantu education, but then the government instituted a policy requiring that classes be taught in Afrikaans, the language of the white minority, the language of the oppressors. The imposition of Afrikaans, Tutu explained, was meant to turn the young black population into docile creatures.

00:21:01 They rebelled. It was another turning point for black South Africans and another turning point for Desmond Tutu. He remembers asking students if they knew they might be whipped, detained, tortured, or worse. They knew and kept right on. He was taken aback by their courage, and it emboldened him, even at the risk of his own wellbeing.

00:21:25 DESMOND TUTU: We received death threats, yes, but you said — you see, when you are in a struggle, there are going to have to be casualties, and why should you be exempt? But I often said, "Look here, God. If I'm doing your work, then you jolly well are going to have to look after me." And, well, God did God stuff.

00:21:57 ALICE WINKLER: He knew there were people who would see him as a politician masquerading as an archbishop, but in his theology, he explained, all of life belongs to God. You don't have compartments for your economic life and your political life and your religious life. But wasn't he sometimes plagued by doubt?

00:22:16 DESMOND TUTU: No, I never doubted. Scared, yeah. Angry, many times. I really would get mad with God. I would say, I mean, “How in the name of everything that is good can you allow this or that to happen?" But I didn't doubt that ultimately good, right, justice would prevail. That I said — there were times, of course, when you had to almost sort of whistle in the dark, when you wished you could say to God, "God, we know you are running the show, but why don't you make it slightly more obvious that you are doing so?"

00:23:10 ALICE WINKLER: The anti-apartheid movement started picking up speed internationally, and perhaps that was enough of a sign for the archbishop.

00:23:18 DESMOND TUTU: You know, there's a wonderful image in the Book of the Prophet Zachariah, where he speaks about Jerusalem not having conventional walls, and God says to this overpopulated Jerusalem, "I will be like a wall of fire ‘round you." Frequently in the struggle, we experienced a like wall of fire, people all over the world surrounding us with love.

00:23:56 And you know, that image of the Prophet Elijah, he’s surrounded by enemies, and his servant is scared, and Elijah says to God, "Open his eyes so that he should see," and God opens the eyes of the servant, and the servant looks, and he sees hosts and hosts and hosts of angels, and the prophet says to him, "You see? Those who are for us are many times more than those against us."

00:24:38 ALICE WINKLER: We know the end of the story. Ultimately, apartheid crumbled. Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years and spent his first night of freedom at Archbishop Tutu's home. Four years later, Mandela was elected president. He needed someone with complete moral authority, and the respect of the nation, to preside over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a process begun in the hopes of healing a traumatized and wounded people.

00:25:10 Archbishop Tutu was the obvious choice. He says it was more exhilarating than anything he'd ever experienced. It confirmed what he'd suspected as a boy, when those white people would step around his newspaper rather than trampling it, that human beings are fundamentally good. The archbishop talked about the experience in a speech he gave to the Academy of Achievement in 2006.

00:25:40 DESMOND TUTU: After our first democratic elections in 1994, many people expected that blacks would, as soon as a black-led government was installed, go on an orgy of revenge and retribution, which didn't, in fact, happen.

00:26:10 It was an extraordinary phenomenon because instead of what many feared — they kept saying, "Give them three months, and you're going to see what's going to happen. Give them..." — when three months went past — "Give them some more time."

00:26:35 Instead, we had this extraordinary process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when perpetrators of often the most gruesome, quite awful, awful crimes would confess those to obtain, if they fulfilled all the conditions that the law laid down, being granted amnesty; and on the other hand, you had victims tell their stories.

00:27:28 Now, I wanted to say to you, you know, I had expected that I and all of us would be totally devastated, and indeed we were — devastated by the kinds of stories people were telling, devastated by the revelations of the extent to which we human beings can sink low.

00:28:12 As, for instance, someone would come along and say, "We gave him drugged coffee. We shot him in the head, and then we burned his body, and, because it takes eight, nine hours for a human body to burn, whilst that body was burning there, we were having a barbeque and drinking beer on the side, sort of two kinds of flesh burning."

00:28:46 And you say, "What could possibly have happened to the humanity of anyone that they could sink to such levels of depravity?" But, of course, you see each one of us, in fact, has an extraordinary capacity for evil, because those who perpetrated ghastly deeds such as the one that I have described didn’t walk around with horns protruding from their foreheads and trying very hard to hide the tails that they were dragging behind them.

00:29:41 The perpetrators of those atrocities were people like you and me, people who used to go to church, people who were regarded as respectable. So you and I would have to say, "Ah, indeed. There but for the grace of God go I."

00:30:18 So, I thought, at the end of the TRC process I would have — and many of us would have been going away thoroughly devastated, overwhelmed by the extent of the evil that had been revealed to us. No. I was totally bowled over by the fact that that was not, in fact, what one took away from that process.

00:30:56 What one took away was, “Hey, human beings are incredible,” for you were exhilarated by the incredible magnanimity of people. Someone came, a white woman came to tell us the story of how she had had — she'd been with friends at a Christmas party at a golf club when one of the liberation movements attacked the gathering, and they threw grenades into the room.

00:31:43 Many of her friends were killed. She herself was so badly injured she couldn't feed herself. She couldn’t bathe herself. She couldn't clothe herself. She had to be helped by her children, and you know what she said? She said — of the experience that left her in that condition, she said, "It has enriched my life." What?

00:32:14 "It has enriched my life." And whilst we were trying to make sense of this, and then she says, "I'd like to meet the perpetrator. I'd like to meet him in a spirit of forgiveness. I'd like to forgive him," which is incredible. But you could have blown me over with a feather when she went on to say, "And I hope he forgives me."

00:32:47 And then you said, "Yeah!" We have this incredible capacity for evil, but we have, even more wonderfully, this remarkable capacity for good, and this is what I want to leave you with, that you and I are quite rightly appalled at all of the evil that we often hear about or see on our screens.

00:33:23 And that sometimes we say, "Oh, isn't it awful, awful, awful! Aren't human beings just ghastly creatures?" Mm-hmm.

00:33:39 But, ah, that is not the whole truth. That is not even, in fact, the most important truth about human beings. The most important truth about each one of us is that we are, in fact, created for goodness. That evil is an aberration.

00:34:07 That is precisely why you and I cannot make easy accommodation with it, because if evil was the norm, all you and I would have been able to say is, "It's awful, but tough luck, that's how the cookie crumbles."

00:34:31 You know, we are appalled precisely because you and I, somewhere in us, you see, we are programmed in the kind of way that says, "Uh-uh, that's not how we should be."

00:34:53 ALICE WINKLER: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the man often called the Conscience of South Africa, speaking to students at the Academy of Achievement Summit in 2006. He ended his speech with a parable about a chicken and an eagle, and he implored the young people in the room to be eagles.

00:35:14 DESMOND TUTU: God says to you, to me, "Hey, you're no chicken."

00:35:22 "You are an eagle." And God expects you to shake yourself.

00:35:29 To spread out your pinions and to lift off and soar, so that you fly towards, ah-ha, the rising sun. You fly towards transcendence, fly towards goodness, compassion, gentleness, caring. Fly, eagle, fly! Thank you.

00:36:19 ALICE WINKLER: Archbishop Tutu mostly retired from public life several years ago, saying that at nearly 80 years old, it was time to spend a little less time in airports and a little more time serving his beloved wife, Leah, hot chocolate in bed. I'm Alice Winkler, and this is What It Takes. If you want to learn more about Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his personal journey, you can visit the Academy of Achievement's website,

00:36:47 The Academy also features Archbishop Tutu in its multimedia e-textbook Social Justice. It's free on Apple's iTunes University. Special thanks to the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation, as always, for its support of What It Takes.

What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.