Melinda and I visited South Africa last month. One of the true highlights was getting to spend time with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Before we met him, we went out to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held as a prisoner for eighteen years. Our guide had been a prisoner there himself for seven years for his involvement in the military wing of the African National Congress. He was tortured and kept in isolation. In our time with him, he talked very personally about his experience. It was very moving and helped to build a stark picture for us of what South Africa had to get beyond as it transitioned out of apartheid.
Along with Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu is one of the greatest heroes of the struggle against apartheid and for social justice in Africa and around the world, so we were very eager to meet him. Archbishop Tutu has done so many amazing things and has been such an inspiration world over, both during apartheid and since then as leader of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The latter is something that especially interests Melinda, because wherever countries have suffered severe internal strife, like in Rwanda for example, people look to what Archbishop Tutu did to bring the South African people together.
It was so inspiring to hear about his life. He talked about his own struggles with racism, growing up in an environment that had encouraged it, even among the black population. His candor and realism were inspiring and must have been a great aid as he did the difficult work of reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. He’s a very optimistic guy, full of positive energy and has an amazing laugh. He put us completely at ease.
We talked with him about a lot of things including his active support for efforts against TB and HIV, support that’s been very helpful in those fights. He’s been great in speaking out for contraception and family planning. As part of our visit, we went to the Desmond Tutu Youth Centre that he’s very involved with and saw some of the amazing work that they’re doing. The Centre gives teens a safe place to meet and learn, offering several programs including organized sports, drama, art, job search resources, health questions/answers, chances to get help with school work, and a preventative health clinic.
I’m generally an optimist who believes in the power of human ingenuity and persistence to make the world a better place. When I think of the oppression that Mandela, Tutu and the people of South Africa struggled against, and how they overcame it to build a peaceful, democratic, multi-racial nation, it’s very, very inspiring.