Thursday, 16 July 2009

A Talk by Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The MDGs - A Moral Challenge
13 July 
St Paul's Cathedral


What an honour, what a privilege to see and hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu! I cannot even explain how moving an experience it was for me to hear him speak. 

We all hold Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in such high esteem. I have known these figures as part of the struggle against apartheid. Even before I actually knew what apartheid was in any kind of real detail, I always knew it was something terrible, literally it was as vague as that. I mean I only really got to know a little idea of what it might have been like through my boyfriend but before that it was something 'just bloody awful.' And, I knew that Mandela was in prison for almost 30 years by this regime. My father had told us about this Mandela fellow who was put in prison for that long. Now that I think about it, half of our father's teaching was always struggle-based. I remember him making a socialist, Marxist link to Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. He had these very clearly defined greats of history and contemporary politics. If I remember correctly, he was telling us that even before the end of apartheid. The entire forgiving part of it came much later into my consciousness and, when it did, it really blew my mind. I used to ask my boyfriend, but how could you guys just swallow that? How could you forgive? I could never wrap my head around it. Not that my boyfriend is a saintly figure or that he did not have any generational and existential anger in him, but he tried to explain to me what they heck South Africa was trying to do. First, he explained the concept of ubuntu to me - 'I am a human because you are a human' - and that they had preserved their own humanity by forgiveness. And then, what other option was there for mixed race families? Finally, perhaps they had found something within this paradigm of forgiveness and it would inform future conflicts. 

My boyfriend and I also made frequent comments on the TRC process in Liberia. We were not sure whether about the impact the process was making in terms of national reconciliation. His comment was that the TRC did make an impact in uncovering the truth and healing because it did not have the moral leadership of someone like Desmond Tutu; it seemed to be a technical affair in Liberia.  

Well now I can at least say I have some idea of Desmond Tutu's persona and moral persuasion. And perhaps understand how it could be possible a nation could go through truth and reconciliation. You sure would need the leadership. At the same time, we outsiders also have to acknowledge that yes the  leadership did guide South Africa from apartheid to democracy but it would not be possible without the ordinary man and woman's participation, that the nation itself, the black majority, has to be given credit and a place in history. Of course, the TRC process cannot really be complete without alleviating the poverty, suffering and enduring legacy of the apartheid but nevertheless, we have to still acknowledge the the route that South Africa followed in terms of a peaceful end of conflict and post conflict justice. Of course, people argue that the peace came at a high cost to the victims of apartheid as they still suffering from the legacy of apartheid. That is all true but we have to acknowledge that the South Africans managed to peacefully bring about the end of apartheid; moreover, they forgave their white oppressors. Africa is great for having, then, produced, a Nelson Mandela, a Desmond Tutu but also for people that forgave their very oppressors. 

My friend Cecilia had told me about this lecture, otherwise I would not have known about it. I told some of my brother's friend to come along too - something 'un-corporate for the corporate types - and it turns out that one of my brother's good friends, Gautham, had been planning to attend it for a few months as he was a member for Advocates for International Development, the organisation that put this event together. Another mutual friend Karina said she'd be there but she didn't make it. Tariq was working late on a transaction and couldn't be there.  

The event took place at St Paul's Cathedral. I went there a bit earlier to check out the place and take my photographs. I think I might have seen the Cathedral many years ago but I do not remember. It was truly majestic and there was great light that day so I was able to get some great shots. I queued up a half earlier which I am glad for because I managed to get a seat closer to the podium. Entering the cathedral really took my breath away - maybe because I have not been inside for many many years now. The last time I was in a church or cathedral in Europe must have been Rome during the Christmas holidays when Tariq and I came from our first year in university in London back to Greece (where our parents and little sis were) and the family travelled to Italy by boat. We were 19 and 18 years old and had done two years of Humanities in high school which included studying the art of the Renaissance. We could really appreciate the time in Rome unlike our younger days when the Gothic (or whatever it was) churches and cathedrals used to scare us. Well anyway, the cathedral was absolutely beautiful inside. 

The talk

I caught a glimpse of the Archbishop walk in and everyone knew he had entered the space. His figure was short and one could see he was an old man. He had such a humble air about him. He went to sit at his seat which was just a few paces away from mine, at the end of his aisle so I could see his back. 

He was introduced by Patricia Janet Scotland, Baroness Scotland of Asthal, the current Attorney General for England Wales and Northern Ireland. Gee, what long titles. It's so friggin pretentious. How about just lawyer-in-chief? It's fitting and cool. I must say that her introduction was really fake and politician-y - so many greats have been trained as lawyers (Gandhi, Lincoln, Mary Robinson, etc), Desmond Tutu is a personal hero of hers, he was 'spiritual icon' of our times, Advocates for Development are doing such a great job, MDGs are so important, etc. So she finally came to a stop after probably at least 15 minutes and let the guest of honour speak. 

Mr. Tutu went up to the podium, started speaking and just blew everyone away with his talk. He was humorous, he was poignant, he was passionate, he was sincere, he was politically charged, and he was so damn great. And I will say from the outset, I cried during this talk. I do not know why but I cried. I do not know whether it is I am missing my boyfriend a lot. I do not know whether it is just knowing I was in the presence of someone who led a nation into forgiving and reconciling. Someone who is so great. I guess it was just humbling in every respect. 

Mr. Tutu made quite a few jokes about how old he was getting and how - what's his word - decrepit he was now. It was really cute. There was one about how a school was being named after him in the Netherlands that had been founded four hundred years ago or something. A little girl comes up to him and asks him whether he was around on the first day the school was opened! Apparently, they changed the name of the school afterwards. And then, there was a joke about a professor and his driver who switch places so the professor would not have to give the same lecture over and over again. The driver would keep the lecture long enough to not have any chance of questions. But this one time, a question did come up and it was quite convoluted. The driver says, 'is that it? even my driver in the back can answer that one!'

So what was the 'bee in his bonnet?' Being a man of the cloth, he interspersed a lot of his talk with biblical references - the story of Adam and Eve, Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, etc. He spoke of interdependence and the idea that human beings are made together, need each other and cannot be solitary, not even conceptually. This is the essence of ubuntu - something which I first heard of from my boyfriend. That 'I am human because you are human.' It is quite a profound concept, thought, idea, sentiment, philosophy. That our humanity is in others, is because of others. How did Mr. Tutu say it? 'My humanity is caught up in your humanity.' When you de-humanise others, you de-humanise yourself. 

He spoke about the TRC and I was pretty amazed he did. He said that they had to hear people talk about how they chopped up human beings, burned their flesh for hours, while having a barbecue nearby. He said 'we had wondered' at how depraved a soul must be to cook human flesh while cooking animal flesh too. I remembered reading that during this year for the course and something like that really shocks you. That a regime like that existed and police or military officers went around doing that. How did that work? Now that I think about it, hearing about apartheid makes me feel so overwhelmed because I think of how my own boyfriend grew up under it and, could very well have been a kid who may have been picked up and disappeared. Just like that. 

There was a part where the Archbishop was telling a story about Jesus Christ and how his 'all' meant everyone. To explain how God means all when He means all is the black and white and yellow, the gay and lesbian and so-called straight (that got a few laughs), Israel and Palestine and Hamas and Fatah and bin Laden (this got more of a profound silence that one can hear) and then George Bush (now this got the whole place laughing). There aren't any outsiders, everyone is an insider. 

He said that humanity was like a family and the family works like so, 'each according to his abilities, each according to his needs.' I didn't pick this up during the talk but Gautham pointed out later that it was Marx! So much for Cecilia and myself - SOAS students - not picking it up. In Cecilia's defense, she knows Marx in Spanish and I just don't obviously! Man, how embarrassing. I am a fake SOAS student alas. 

I think it was a very political talk! Mr. Tutu said that the world spends 'obscene' amounts of money - in the trillions - on 'budgets of death and destruction'. Moreover, the war on terror is not going to be won. Not as long as people are desperate. He said that trillions is spent on nuclear armaments but only a $1 was needed on a child to vaccinate against measles. He said that developing countries are told to invest in agriculture however the trade barriers that are put up make it a 'joke.' He said that the EU pays $ 2.5 dollars per cow per day to farmers however 3 billion people subsist on less than a $ 1 a day. And then he says, 'as you know I try not to be controversial.' I am amazed that he mentioned all that he had mentioned because these are the explosive issues of the day as far as freaking development is concerned. He also spoke about Iraq and how he had tried to convey to the White House that the inspectors in Iraq should be given more time. George Bush did not speak to him directly but Condolezza Rice did and said, it would not be possible. He said since then it was found that it was all fabrication and lies. That the people of Iraq should be apologised to by George Bush and Tony Blair. I think it was something very powerful he said saying it where he did say it. 

Mr. Tutu mentioned a cartoon where God has lost a copy of the Divine Plan. And it certainly seems like that is the case. That 'evil has the last word.' But no, there is still hope and compassion. He was pleased to see the work of Advocates for Int'l Development, the fact so many lawyers were present for free, to see so many young people. He said that the good work vindicates everything else. 

It was not just what he said was so powerful but also the way he said it and how he balanced it all with humour and emotion and gravity. There were bits of it that made one feel injustice and pain but other parts to make one feel hopeful and human. The MDGs and all the blah blah talk usually makes me roll my eyes - I mean come on, the MDGs?! Some vague targets are going to develop a country? Some vague targets to make us feel even more miserable about how we are so far away from those targets? Some targets which the UN cannot and probably will not reach even with all the billions they have in their budgets? But I could stand to hear about the moral cause behind the MDGs from someone like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. When I have heard about the MDGs from one of our big bosses in the UNDP, it just sounded like bullshit to me, some guy earning probably $ 20,000/month not even including all the freaking benefits talking about it, usually made me want to puke. Why? Because it was all so a-political. It was so neo-liberal. It was so fake. Mr. Tutu was very political though and he was not naive about it either. This is someone who has spent their life in a struggle and seen through it. Led others. They know what they're saying. Somehow I can suspend my cynicism. Amazing but true. 

It was truly an honour to be there. It was an amazing mix of spirituality, God, people, humanity and politics that I could be open to. And that the speakers' voices were booming in that cathedral's space made it even more powerful in a way. 

I had a nice drink with Gautham and Cecilia afterwards. We exchanged our thoughts, about development, our near futures, etc. I wonder when next I will be able to do this but it is a privilege for sure. I would not have seen the inside of the Cathedral otherwise and I wonder when next I would ever get to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu in London. 


A priest had actually been the first speaker who made a brief note of the occasion, that all were welcome to the Cathedral (Christian, other faiths and non believers). It is pretty impressive that in this day and age, everyone is welcomed to that space, even non believers. Imagine how much the world has changed where this all is really all inclusive. This would not have been the case a few centuries ago,  a couple decades ago.

I think the South Africans, Africans and the world is so lucky to have a figure like Desmond Tutu. 

I think I can more fully appreciate the idea that the Church has been part of struggles. It is a bit less abstract for me now I guess. I mean I did have an idea that the Church, moreover the Catholic Church, was instrumental in the struggle against the dictatorships in Latin America. But it's better to have a more concrete idea of it! 

I told my boyfriend I went to this talk. He said that he was the 'typical neighbourhood minister or pastor.' I was like, typical?! He said he'd heard a few of his sermons and met him too a couple of times. The reason he did have the moral leadership during the TRC process for example was because the majority of people are Christian and they would be led. He was part of the struggle as well and he pretty much got the position by 'default.' Though he speaks of God and all that, he does not do it from a judgmental position - he gives it as it is. I think that is really what it was. That he did not do it from a 'holier than though' high horse. And he wasn't divisive either. That's pretty great, eh? 

I'll be honest, I have lost God. And it's pretty bad considering all things. I lost God in my twenties and never ever imagined I would. It was just not conceivable on any level. Not even philosophical level - our parents, especially our father, brought us up believing in God without any contradiction to science or any other discipline of thought, God made even more sense because of science. Moreover being Ahamdis we knew it better than anyone. But I did lose God and have been in sort of a no-man's land. I am not quite sure whether I am a complete aetheist but I am in a not-a-fan-of-organised-religion phase right now. I couldn't care less about it. I do still love having my Muslim cultural identity but that is how far it goes. So any way, I am still fascinated by those who believe in God. I think it is amazing, for instance, how those who live in poverty or have seen a lot of shit still believe in God. In fact, they seem to believe in God even more so. There are some pretty intelligent people out there who believe in God. It is fascinating. So what makes mere mortals like me so friggin arrogant about it? Whatever makes one tick I guess or makes sense at the moment. Who knows? Maybe I will find God again. But I sure can tell you, it was nice listening to the Archbishop. 

PS. This suddenly reminds me of Dakar Academy and the Twilight Zone kind of atmosphere we had there. It was all about damning and judgement along with the singing in the chapel. It was a very happy go lucky bunch, 'we are all going to heaven,' Jesus loves us all, blah blah - but if you ask them, what about those who had not accepted Jesus Christ has their saviour? Nope, they're going to hell. 

PSS. The idea of transformative justice versus punitive justice after the end of conflicts was a main theme this year in VCD. Punitive justice as a standard was set with the Nuremburg Trials of the Nazi regime after the end of WW2. The freaking WW2 seems to have set the standard for a lot of thinking on wars, frankly. Evil versus good, one ideology pitted against another, clear sides of in a war, clear victims and oppressors, clear victors and the defeated, clear beginning and end, clear justice and reconstruction - well at least how it is romanticised and documented. The United Nations was set up - 'never again would we have war.' However, the war did not end there, did it? Sure, the Nazis were defeated but the 'real shit' - the ideological warfare of the Cold War - had just begun. The Soviet Union and American were merely convenient partners against Nazi Germany but they had always been suspicious of each other. The end of WW2 was merely a pause - the real goddam World War was the Cold War where the Soviet Union and America fought on the world stage, every theatre they could find. History did not end with WW2 but with the Cold War (Fukuyama). The Cold War was really equally critical if not more than WW2. So, point oneWar did not begin or end with WW2. The Cold War immediately followed. Point two: I don't know what point two is. Oh yes, WW2 has set the standards for the kind of justice that should follow after the end of conflict. Even a friggin bank was set up for reconstruction after war. Whole-hearted reconstruction happened in Europe and Japan. However, ironically, this reconstruction - the Marshall Plan - assistance has never really been extended to any other state recovering from war. So it is blue print but it is not. They want everyone else to follow punitive justice - where possible - but not give the necessary assistance to stabilise and consolidate peace. 

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