Among human rights activists, he’s often compared to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., but Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu demurs at those comparisons. The South African cleric jokes that he won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize mostly because the Nobel Committee was looking for an anti-apartheid figure whose last name was easy to pronounce. “What I am is a good captain,” he says. “I utilize the talents and brilliance of the people on the team, and when the team plays well and wins, I get the kudos.”
You aspired to become a physician, but instead became a teacher and then a clergyman. Did you ever consider a career in business?
No—I wouldn’t have been good at that. When I have a little money, I spend it. And in the South Africa in which I grew up, you knew there was always going to be a ceiling; they wouldn’t let a black person really prosper, and you’d be doing business under very serious constraints. Probably the only kind of businessperson a black person could be was a storekeeper, and the restrictions were so severe: You couldn’t have your store in the white part of town; you were restricted in what you could do; you were restricted in terms of the customers you could serve. There was no way in which you could really become a serious rival to the main white shops. You were on totally unequal footing, and I don’t think I’d have wanted to frustrate myself to that extent.
Overcoming apartheid took a remarkably long time. How did you find the patience?
For one thing, we didn’t walk around feeling sorry for ourselves. We lived in a deprived setup, but we were not chafing at the bit. We were not sitting in the corner and weeping all the time—we were playing. We had fun. Life, to the extent that it could be, was fun. We also weren’t as political as later generations were. But people can survive only so much repression—look at Libya, which lived that way for 40 years. Didn’t they look around and see other parts of Africa gaining freedom? How come they allowed it? But it’s an evolution. There’s a lovely phrase in one of Paul’s epistles: “In the fullness of time.” Things are happening. There must have been people in Egypt who stood up for human rights, and it looked like they’d failed. But nothing is ever lost. The apparent failure is not in fact a failure. It’s not something that dissipated into the ether.
Would apartheid have fallen faster in the age of Twitter and Facebook?
It might have. But actually people were able to communicate in spite of the Special Branch—a vicious security force that seemed to know everything about everything. Our community was riddled with informants. Someone who was suspected of being an informant would get a “burning necklace”—a tire around the neck that they’d light on fire. That’s how they executed you. We always tried to step in, but there’s no way to prove you’re not an informant. But despite the imprisonments and the leaders who were exiled, people were not deterred. It just made them more determined. Dictators always think they are going to be there forever. Look at the number of African leaders who claimed they’d be president for life. [Big laugh.]
How did you build a coalition from such disparate groups?
I was just building on what other people were doing. During the struggle we were noble. People were altruistic—they weren’t struggling against apartheid for what they could gain personally. Now, after apartheid, we’re shocked to discover that people can be corrupt, that they can be working for their own self-advancement. But that wasn’t the case during the struggle: It was really this incredible coalition. And it wasn’t just in South Africa. You could go to almost any country in the world and you would find an anti-apartheid group. It was an extraordinary phenomenon.
How did you learn to use humor in leadership?
I have a family that likes pulling people’s legs. They can be very funny. When you have to survive in that environment, you have to be pretty sharp yourself. In South Africa we became experts at conducting funerals, and people were angry and hurt over the mistreatment. But we also had this wonderful capacity to laugh. If we hadn’t, we would have gone crazy. You know the saying—if we didn’t laugh, we’d have to cry. I’m also aware that I was constantly being prayed for. There were times when I’d say something unrehearsed that surprised me, and I’d wonder, “Did I really say that? That was pretty smart.” But it couldn’t have just come spontaneously. Looking back, I have no doubt that some dear old ladies were kneeling down at Eucharist somewhere, praying to help the people struggling in South Africa. That prayer happened just at a time when I needed it. I believe that very firmly.
Interview by Daniel McGinn