Tutu on being a good captain

2011-08-29 10:08

Desmond Tutu, as an iconic civil rights leader, is often compared to Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

But the South African archbishop emeritus, 79, demurs, joking that he won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize because the committee was looking for an anti-apartheid figure with an easy-to-pronounce last name.

“What I am is a good captain,” Tutu said at the Skoll World Forum at Oxford this spring.

“I utilise the talents of the people on the team, and when the team plays well, 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, there was a ceiling – they wouldn’t let a black person really prosper.

Probably the only kind of business a black person could run was a store, and there was no way to become a serious rival to the main white shops.

You were on a totally unequal footing, and I don’t think I’d have wanted to frustrate myself to that extent.

Overcoming apartheid took decades. How did you find the patience?

Looking back, I think 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 playing. We had fun. We weren’t as political as later generations were.

But people can survive only through so much repression – look at Libya, which lived that way for 40 years. Why didn’t they look around and see other parts of Africa gaining freedom?

There’s a lovely phrase in one of Paul’s epistles: “In the fullness of time.”

Things are happening, but it’s an evolution.

There must have been people in Egypt who stood up for human rights in the past, and it looked like they’d failed.

But the apparent failure is not, in fact, a failure – not over time.

Would apartheid have fallen faster in the age of Twitter and Facebook?

It might have. But actually people were able to communicate well without social media – even under the Special Branch, which seemed to know everything about everything.

Despite the imprisonments and the leaders who were exiled, people were not deterred.

It just made them more determined.

How did you bring together disparate groups?

I was just building on what other people were doing.

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, working for their own self-advancement.

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 humour in leadership?

I have a family that likes pulling people’s legs.

They can be very funny.

To survive in that environment, you have to be pretty sharp yourself.

Despite their mistreatment, South Africans also had this wonderful capacity to laugh.If we hadn’t, we would have gone crazy.

And I was constantly being prayed for.

There were times when I’d say something unrehearsed, and I’d think: “Did I really say that? That was pretty smart.”

But it couldn’t have just come spontaneously.

There were always some dear old ladies kneeling down at Eucharist somewhere, praying to help the people in South Africa.

That prayer happened just when I needed it.

I very firmly believe that.

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