South Africa’s Sins Weigh Down Its Father Confessor

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For two years, Archbishop Desmond Tutu listened to account upon account of burning bodies and shallow graves. He forgets many of the names he heard at hearings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but he carries the stories like creases in a cassock.

His gait is heavy as he walks the campus of Atlanta’s Emory University, where he will teach theology. Just four years ago at Emory, he bounded into rooms and often ended his anecdotes with boisterous laughter. Today the 67-year-old archbishop enters a room cautiously and sits stiffly, as if bracing for questions about prisons and pits.

“I’m vulnerable. I know I’m fragile,” Tutu said, drawing out each word. “I laugh easily and I make other people laugh, but I also cry easily.”


He had already spent three decades ministering to a nation under apartheid, and saying eulogies for its victims, when President Nelson Mandela asked him to head the truth commission. The panel, formed to investigate apartheid-era abuses and to grant amnesty to perpetrators who confessed fully to politically motivated crimes, releases its final report Thursday.

His experience might have cushioned him. But it didn’t. The 2,000 testimonies of torture, rape and murder were a running narrative of the injustices he had fought his entire life.

Still, he believes a country has to confront the brutality of its history before forgiveness is possible, even if that means asking survivors to relive their trauma and listeners to make sense of the terror. And that includes an archbishop who thought he’d seen everything.

“At home, we thought we knew just how awful the system had been,” Tutu said, staring into the distance. “But when you heard accounts of what had happened to people and found them saying--’They stripped me . . . and opened a drawer and shoved my breasts into the drawer and slammed it on my nipples,’--you realize then what had happened.

“When you heard the perpetrators in an amnesty hearing saying, ‘We abducted him. We gave him drugged coffee, shot him in the head and burned his body, and then we had a barbecue on the side,’ you realize the depths to which we can sink.”

He had read the statistics about violence. “Now the statistics were coming alive,” he said. “And we were devastated by the extent of the evil.”


Coping With Tales of Horror

Tutu became the most public of father confessors. During the early televised truth commission hearings, South Africans watched his every expression. When a former African National Congress guerrilla told from a wheelchair of being beaten and tortured by the police, they saw Tutu hold his head in his hands and cry.

Anglican priest Michael Battle, a former adjutant to the archbishop in Johannesburg, was not surprised. “The truth commission was the final revelation, and [Tutu] had to relive the pain,” he said. Nor was his old friend Norman Montjane, an Anglican priest, who said Tutu has always “entered into the agony and tragedy. He himself is part of the sadness.”

Tutu considered resigning from the commission. “But people said, ‘No, it’s good you can cry. Maybe all has gone wrong in the world because men have been told they shouldn’t show their emotions.’ ”

Still, he and the 16 other commissioners took seriously the advice of counselors on how to cope with the emotional impact of listening to hour after hour of testimony.

“We were warned right in the beginning that we ought to . . . have quality time with our families, exercise and recreation. And we should get someone to whom we could unburden ourselves.”

The archbishop relied on his Anglican confessor. He urged South Africans to be open to forgiving perpetrators who gave a full accounting of their crimes. Tutu, who received the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, believed the country could be consumed by bitterness over injustice or be purified through suffering that leads to reconciliation.


Charges and Countercharges

If the hearings were often cathartic, they were frustrating as well.

Facing his old friend Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Tutu begged her to apologize for her alleged role in kidnapping and murder committed by a gang of youths with whom she was associated. She offered only vague regrets.

“I was devastated,” said Tutu.

When apartheid-era presidents Frederik W. de Klerk and P.W. Botha refused to testify, claiming that they were not responsible for crimes committed in the name of white rule, Tutu could not contain his outrage.

“It’s an incredible thing that [blacks] who still live in shacks, squalor and poverty come to work in your beautiful homes, and they don’t say, ‘We’re going to murder all of you in your beds,’ ” Tutu said in an interview with the South African Broadcasting Commission.

Whites accused Tutu and the commission of having a pro-ANC bias; blacks accused him of being soft on whites. And even his friend Farid Esack, a Muslim theologian, called for “the de-Desmond Tutu-fication of the truth commission” so that a Christian perspective wouldn’t dominate. Tutu countered that there were Muslim, Hindu and Jewish commissioners.

Besides, he added, reconciliation is not unique to Christians. “When an atheist husband quarrels with an atheist wife, doesn’t one say, ‘I’m sorry’?”

More troubling to him were those who suggested the commission was forcing forgiveness from traumatized survivors. “You can’t frog-march people into forgiveness,” he said. “You can never blame anybody who feels they are unable to forgive. . . . You can only say to someone that ultimately you hope for forgiveness.”


And he urged people not to offer simplistic explanations of suffering. “Nothing makes religion so unattractive,” he said, “as the kind of people who come around and say, ‘It’s God’s will.’ ”

Still, he knew how difficult forgiveness could be, particularly for family members like those of black activist Steve Biko, killed in 1977 at age 30.

“Oh, God, how long can we go on?” Tutu had implored at the young man’s funeral. Now his family was in court trying to prevent his killers from being pardoned if they confessed to the truth commission.

Others too expressed concern that granting amnesty to murderers would fail to deter future killers. Tutu countered that jail alone was a weak deterrent. Unrepentant criminals, he noted, could serve their time and strike again.

“Forgiveness,” he said, “is releasing the perpetrator into the possibility of a new beginning.”

When public opinion polls revealed that the majority of South Africans, particularly whites, felt the commission has increased tensions in race relations, Tutu said that the panel’s job was to promote the ongoing process of reconciliation, not to ensure it would happen immediately.


The Freedom to Do Evil

So far, amnesty has been granted to only 125 people who persuaded the panel that their crimes were political and that they were telling the entire truth. Amnesty hearings will continue after the release of the commission’s final report.

The report could urge prosecution of those who have refused to testify. Leaders from both sides of the apartheid struggle have received notices that they may be portrayed negatively in the panel’s summation of the violence.

As the effort moves forward, friends worry that Tutu has absorbed too much of that violence. That concern intensified when he underwent surgery last year for prostate cancer.

“Some people wondered whether the cancer that I had was not in part the result of the working out of this,” he said. “I don’t know I would not have cancer in any case, but maybe the body reacts to all of the stresses.”

After a return trip to South Africa for the report’s release, Tutu will settle in at Emory to write a book and teach a spring course on his ministry.

“I want to try to make sense of all one has come to know about us as human beings and . . . the history of our country,” he said, looking professorial in a sweater and khakis instead of his Anglican cassock.


“I think in an ultimate sense you cannot fathom the mystery of human suffering,” he said. “And yet it is also a measure of the kind of God we worship that God said, ‘I wanted you to be a person with freedom. You can be blamed or praised because you can choose. A consequence of that is when you make the wrong choice, I can’t intervene to stop you, otherwise I would nullify the freedom. . . . I would make you less than I want you to be.’

“It’s a heavy price,” he said.

Central to his theology is a God who suffers with the sufferer. “There’s a story in the Book of Daniel,” he said. “Three friends are thrown into the fiery furnace by the king. The king approaches the furnace and sees four [figures]. The God I believe in is a dying God who dies with us. As a Christian, I would say dies and rises.”

And then there was Job.

“One of the wonderful things about the Book of Job is that it doesn’t answer questions. These guys who were supposed to be orthodox were saying to Job, ‘You suffer because you’re evil.’ And Job says, ‘I know I’m not evil.’. . . . In the end God does not give an answer that says, ‘You are right. . . . You are wrong.’ It’s ‘Who are you to ask?’ ”

At Emory, Tutu said, he’ll spend time with old friends on the faculty. “Being in this supportive environment, unthreatening and, in many ways, loving, you are being healed,” he said.

Part of that healing will involve focusing on the themes that have shaped his sermons: the Easters after the Good Fridays, the freedom that can lead to forgiveness, the lessons of people like Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa.

“They could so easily have taken the wrong choice, and they didn’t. On the other side [of evil] is the quite exhilarating realization that people who have gone through suffering can emerge . . . so human, so humane, so magnanimous, so caring, so ready to forgive.”


Feeling that exhilaration, Tutu’s friend Battle recalls, used to make the archbishop break into a dance “so infectious others would join in.” Today, he is more like a chaplain back from the war. He’s slowing his pace, reading, writing and contemplating his country’s confessions.

A father confessor in need of a rest.