Vanity Fair – July, 2007


South africa’s archbishop Desmond Tutu has earned every major humanitarian award, including the Nobel peace Prize: just the kind of man a younger activist (and sometime movie star) such as Brad Pitt should consult about ubuntu, among other ideas.

Brad Pitt: It’s a real pleasure for me to get to speak with you.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: You don’t know – I mean, my stock has gone up. When people knew that I was going to be talking to you..

BP: Let me say, I’ve seen all your movies, and I’m a big fan.

DT: Thank you. God Bless.

BP: What is this concept of ubuntu I keep reading about?

DT: Ubuntu is the essence of being human. And in our language a person is ubuntu, and ubuntu is a noun to speak about what it means to be human. In essence, it is something that you find especially in the Old Testament, where you’re not quite sure sometimes – when you are reading, say, the Psalms – whether the Psalm is speaking, where it says ‘L,’ only of an individual, or is it speaking in a corporate sense? We say a person is a person through other persons. You can’t be human in isolation. You are human only in relationships.

BP: So that speaks to our interconnectedness.

DT: We are interconnected. I’m sure you know the movie The Defiant Ones. It’s a movie in which there were two convicts. One was white, one was black. They escaped, but there are still manacled in one another. They fall down a ditch, and the one tries to slither up out of the ditch and almost makes it. But when he gets to the top, he realizes he actually can’t get out, because he’s still manacled to his mate down there, and he slithers back down to the bottom and realizes that the only way they can make it is together. Up, up, up and out together. So we say that ‘I need you to be all of who you are in order for me to be all that I am.’ Because no human being is totally self-sufficient. In fact, a self-sufficient human being is subhuman.

BP: I don’t think we have single word in English that describes just that.

DT: No, I don’t think so.

BP: What is it about the great religions? Why can’t the great religions play well with each other? What are they defending? I’ll tell you my interpretation: it signifies a lack of faith to always be threatened and always to have to prove your way is the best. It seems again to be antithetical to the teachings of the individual religion.

DT: Yes, I think you are quite right, that what you are actually saying is it’s not the religions that have a problem. Because the religion actually does produce wonderful people.. Let’s take Buddhism. It has produced the Dalai Lama. Hinduism – it has produced Mahatma Gandhi. Christianity, say, a Mother Teresa, a Martin Luther King Jr. So you see. But how can a thing produce good in the one case, and then it produces bad? Because look at the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan claimed to be Christian. And look at the ghastly things that they do in the name of religion. You look at what they are doing, say, in Northern Ireland. Then you have to say, no, it isn’t in any way a faith, a religion. Because no religion has ever sanctioned murder. No religion has sanctioned the oppression of another.

BP: Does it get misrepresented as religion when the real argument is again about human dignity and equality? What would you tell —

DT: Kofi Annan, when he was receiving a report from something called the Alliance of Civilizations, a high-level group, said, ‘It is not faith that is the problem. It is the faithful.’

BP: So certainly discrimination has no place in Christianity. There’s a big argument going on in America right now, on gay rights and equality.

DT: For me, I couldn’t ever keep quiet. I come from a situation where for a very long time people were discriminated against, made to suffer for something about which they could do nothing – their ethnicity. We were made to suffer because we were not white. Then, for a very long time in our church, we didn’t ordain women, and we were penalizing a huge section of humanity for something about which they could do nothing – their gender. And I’m glad that now the church has changed all that. I’m glad that apartheid had ended. I could not for any part of me be able to keep quiet, because people were being penalized, ostracized, treated as if they were less than human, because of something could do nothing to change – their sexual orientation. For me, I can’t imagine the Lord that I worship, this Jesus Christ, actually concurring with the persecution of a minority that is already being persecuted. The Jesus who I worship is a Jesus who was forever on the side of those who were being clobbered, and he got into trouble precisely because of that. Our church, the Anglican Church, is experiencing a very, very serious crisis. It is all to do with human sexuality. I think God is weeping. He is weeping that we should be spending so much energy, time, resources on this subject at a time when the world is aching.

BP: I couldn’t agree with you more. Thank you for saying that. You have talked about nelson Mandela and how he had every right, as well as South Africa itself, to come out of the apartheid machine embittered and wanting revenge and retribution. You guys came up with this radical idea – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Quickly, you had two known routes. You could go for justice, as in Nuremberg. Or you could get blanket amnesty. But you came up with this idea for healing the country and a new definition of justice called ‘restorative justice.’

DT: In a way, because it’s an example again of ubuntu. The greatest good in the concept of ubuntu is communal harmony. Anger, revenge are subversive of this great good.

But let me just say, don’t go away with the idea that this is something peculiarly African.

I was telling students recently about a young American woman, Amy Biehl, who went to South Africa as a Fulbright scholar. One day she gave some black friends a lift in her car to take them home in one of the townships. When got to the township, she was met by a horde of youngsters who belonged to one of the political groupings that had a slogan ‘One settler, one bullet.’ Meaning that they wanted to get rid of white people, more or less. They saw Amy Biehl. They got her out of her car. She ran, fell, and they started stabbing, and they killed her quite gruesomely. These young people, the ringleaders, were arrested and ultimately sentenced to long terms in prison.

Then they came to our Truth and Reconciliation Commission to apply for amnesty. Amy Biehl’s parents, white Americans, Peter and Linda Biehl, came all the way from California. They went all the way to Cape Town, where the amnesty application was being heard. They had the right to oppose the granting of amnesty. Do you know what they did? They got there and they said, ‘We support these young people’s application for amnesty.’ Now, that is mind-boggling. But that was not the end. After these young people were granted amnesty, then Amy Biehl’s parents founded the Amy Biehl Foundation, in Cape Town. Part of its purpose was to rescue black kids who would be victims of the violence of the townships. And they employed the two guys who were the chief murderers of their daughter.

BP: So restorative justice can end the cycle?

DT: Yes, it is in fact a universal characteristic, this human longing not for revenge but to seek reconciliation.

BP: Then is it worth asking what is the outcome for societies who have rushed toward retributive justice, like the Shia in Iraq? It goes directly to that judgment. What is their future? Because you speak of retributive justice as something that comes back to haunt you.

DT: I don’t want to sound, as it were, deeply morbid. But just look at what is happening in the Middle East, where you see something happen and then there is a reprisal. You pay back for what has happened. And sure, then we know, I mean, that there is going to be a counter-reprisal. But there is a spiral that is going to go on and on and on. Countries, too, have no hope of survival if they say ‘an eye for an eye.’ As Gandhi said, when that law is applied, in the end all the people end up being blind.. I wish I was a pacifist. I am not a pacifist. I’m a peace-lover.

BP: History certainly shows us that wherever there is injustice or inequity, disruption ensues. But I believe you defined it as ‘peace becomes a casualty.’ Given today’s global insecurity, there has been much focus on these immense and obscene defense budgets. The repercussions is that aid usually gets sacrificed. You talk about aid not as altruism. In fact, that is a misconception. But aid, investment in Africa, investment in areas where there’s great disruption and inequality, is actually in our self-interest. Can you elaborate on this?

DT: Just simply that if a community is a poor community, it’s going to be a seedbed for instability. If that community is helped up and becomes profitable, then it becomes a very good market. I mean, then you are going to have more customers for your goods. We are doing a nice act of PR: it’s wonderful. But in fact we are doing ourselves a huge favor because we are now saying there is a potential prosperous market which we can exploit.

I for myself can’t understand how we can spend the obscene amount that we do on defense. But we’re spending a heck of a lot of money! I am hoping that people like yourselves, especially, but then ordinary people like ourselves too, would become increasingly vocal and say, ‘Let’s stop this nonsense. It doesn’t make sense. It makes the world more insecure.’ The United States has one of the most sophisticated defense systems, the most expensive. But it is made obsolete by a wire cutter. There’s no way in which you can have a foolproof system. It’s really far better to create friends, rather than to imagine that everybody is an enemy until they are proven otherwise.. I keep trying to say, You want to fight a war against terrorism? Let me tell you one thing for sure. You are not going to win it, period. You won’t win that war until you work so that conditions that make people desperate are eradicated. Then you will realize you won’t have to worry about guys being upset with you.

BP: We’ve got the G8 summit coming up, and we’ve made some very big promises to Africa. Let’s be frank – how are we doing? How are we doing in meeting those promises?

DT: The positive is that they are beginning to be more aware that we inhabit one planet. Aid, yes, is OK. Cancellation of debt is OK. But it makes no sense when you have the skewed trade rules. You look at the things that they do with the subsidies. They give subsidies to European farmers so that they can sell their goods at lower prices in our markets. Then they say to us, ‘Grow your own food, and sell, but don’t have any tariff. Don’t put up tariffs to prevent our goods coming your way. We will put up tariffs so that your goods don’t easily come into our market.’ It doesn’t make sense. If we are going to have to begin to talk about a more equitable economic order.

BP: Right, certainly an order based on fairness instead of th guys that got to the table first, cutting up the debt. You said this about apartheid, that it was operated on the principles of exclusion. I can’t help but think that the same thing is going on with our trade rules.

DT: You have got an A, man, in my class. You are doing very, very well in this. We’re having a lovely seminar.

BP: I stumble gracefully.

DT: We have the capacity to feed everybody on our planet. We have the capacity to ensure that everybody has clean water. We have the capacity to ensure that everybody has affordable health care. We have the capacity the ensure that every child gets the inoculations that they ought to have as children. We can prevent many of the diseases to which our children in the poorer parts of the world succumb. For goodness’ sake. Why don’t we wake up to the fact that you can’t have an apartheid security. You can’t have an apartheid prosperity. If you are going to have prosperity, it is going to be prosperity for all. If you want to be free, you can’t have a quarantine freedom. It’s going to be a freedom for all. And if you want to be human, we are not going to be able to be human in isolation. It will be that we are human together.