In an intense, emotional plea, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu implored the California Legislature Monday to use diplomatic, political and economic pressures to prevent “Armageddon” in his homeland.
“Please,” he begged, over and over. “Please, for goodness’ sake, help us.”
His voice ranging from a resounding thunder to the softest of whispers, the black Anglican prelate warned that a “racial war” in his country will have “the most horrendous consequences” for race relations in the United States and other Western countries with significant nonwhite populations.
“Help us,” the diminutive bishop beseeched, “for we don’t want to spill blood in our land. Help us, please, avoid Armageddon. Of course, if racial war breaks out in South Africa, you won’t be able to stay on the sidelines.”
Tutu’s address, delivered to a joint session of the Legislature, represented the strongest of his repeated appeals in a five-day visit calling for American action to press the Pretoria government to end apartheid.
The 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner told the lawmakers that black South Africans--who represent 72% of the country’s population--have few options left for seeking change. Blacks are denied access to the national political process and their attempts at peaceful demonstrations have turned to violence after police intervened, Tutu said. More than 150 people have died this year in demonstrations and rioting.
On travel documents his government issued him after lifting his passport, he said, his nationality is described as “undeterminable at present.” Several of the legislators laughed at the absurdity. Tutu agreed that it was “ridiculous,” but he quietly added that laughter “is not ultimately the appropriate response.”
He asked them to exert pressure--"political pressure, diplomatic pressure, but above all, economic pressure"--to dismantle South Africa’s system of institutionalized racial segregation.
“Whether you like it or not, what the United States does is of monumental significance in the world . . . ,” he told the hushed room. “What you do has an impact that is incalculable.” He said there is no doubt that apartheid will be abolished and blacks will be “free.”
“The moral imperative is for you to take action so that tomorrow, when we are free, we will know that you were our friends,” he said. “And we will remember those who helped us in the process of becoming free and we would like to be your friend because you will have taken the type of action that will have avoided Armageddon in our land.”
Later, at an outdoor noon rally at the University of California at Davis, Tutu shed his jacket under the hot sun and thanked the 12,000 cheering, placard-waving students who turned out to see him.
He told them that he spoke for millions in South Africa who have been heartened by the campus protests and he entertained them with light-hearted stories about his past and parables about the need of people to work together.
As he concluded his speech, several in the crowd broke into the song, “We Shall Overcome.” And as he left the stage and people dispersed, a chant began: “What do we want? Divestment. When do we want it? Now.”
Tutu, who came to the United States with his wife primarily to attend their daughter’s graduation at the University of Kentucky, was scheduled to return to South Africa today.
Asked at a news conference of the possible consequences at home of his activities here, Tutu said: “I don’t tend to look over my shoulder. If I did that, I would have to shut up . . . . I just try to speak the truth. And well, it’s God’s business to look after me if he thinks I’m doing his job and if he thinks I will be kicked out, well, I’m not indispensable.”
The Legislature is now considering a bill that would halt investment of state employee pension funds in companies that do business with South Africa. The legislation, introduced by Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), was approved last month by an Assembly committee.
After Tutu’s address, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) declared that the bishop had been “awesome.”
“I’m sure glad he’s not running for Speaker,” Brown said.
Waters said the speech and other appearances by Tutu helped make it clear to Americans what it means to live in a system where you are denied basic human rights and freedoms.”
Meanwhile, United Farm Workers President Cesar Chavez and political activist Daniel Ellsberg were among 18 people arrested Monday in the 34th day of continuing anti-apartheid demonstrations on the UC Berkeley campus. The new arrests bring to 549 the number of people arrested demanding that the university sell its investments in companies that do business in South Africa.
“The university is an institution of enlightenment, but now it is acting as a institution of darkness,” Chavez said.
Joining Chavez and Ellsberg were 11 Berkeley high school students, who were also arrested and released to the custody of their parents.
Several hours later, Tutu, continuing his tour of the state, spoke to an enthusiastic audience of about 8,000 at UC Berkeley’s Greek Theater.
A smiling Tutu told the crowd, “As God looks down on you today, he is saying, ‘Hey, hey, have you seen my children in Berkeley? Don’t you think they’re something else?’ ”
Tutu thanked the audience for its support, saying, “You feel deeply. You are great.”
In another development Monday, the San Diego City Council’s Rules Committee asked the city employees’ retirement board to divest its $39 million invested in firms doing business with South Africa.
The 4-0 vote, seeking divestment by June 30, 1986, came at Mayor Roger Hedgecock’s urging after a half-dozen speakers compared investing in apartheid South Africa to investing in Nazi Germany.
Impact Not Clear
The full council must still approve the committee’s action. But even if it does, the impact of such a vote is far from clear.
Under San Diego’s City Charter, the council may establish investment guidelines for city employees’ $378-million retirement portfolio, but it cannot order the 13-member retirement board to make specific investment decisions. Retirement board members have strongly opposed divestment, saying that such an action would result in higher-risk investments and losses to the fund.
Times staff writer Lanie Jones in San Diego contributed to this story.