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Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1931-2021) on Apartheid, War, Palestine, Guantánamo, Climate Crisis & More

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African anti-apartheid icon, has died at the age of 90. In 1984 Desmond Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work fighting to end white minority rule in South Africa. After the fall of apartheid, Archbishop Tutu chaired the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where he pushed for restorative justice. He was a leading voice for human rights and peace around the world. He opposed the Iraq War and condemned the Israeli occupation in Palestine, comparing it to apartheid South Africa. We reair two interviews Archbishop Tutu did on Democracy Now!, as well as two speeches on the Iraq War and the climate crisis.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour remembering Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The South African anti-apartheid icon died Sunday at the age of 90. In 1984, Desmond Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work fighting to end white minority rule in South Africa. That same year, 1984, he traveled to Washington, where he denounced the Reagan administration’s support for South Africa’s apartheid government.

DESMOND TUTU: Apartheid is as evil, as immoral, as un-Christian, in my view, as Nazism. And in my view, the Reagan administration’s support and collaboration with it is equally immoral, evil and totally un-Christian, without remainder.

AMY GOODMAN: In 1988, Archbishop Tutu risked jail by organizing a boycott of regional elections in South Africa.

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: I urge Black people in this diocese not to vote in the October elections. And I hope that white Anglicans will join their Black fellow Anglicans in that action. I am aware of the penalties attaching to this call. I am not defying the government. I am obeying God.

AMY GOODMAN: After the fall of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first Black president, Archbishop Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where he pushed for restorative justice. He would later become a vocal critic of the ANC, the African National Congress, under the leadership of Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. This is Bishop Tutu speaking in 2011.

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: Hey, Mr. Zuma, you and your government don’t represent me. You represent your own interests. And I’m warning you. I really am warning you, out of love. I am warning you like I warned the nationalists. I am warning you: One day we will start praying for the defeat of the ANCgovernment.

AMY GOODMAN: Archbishop Desmond Tutu also slammed the ANC in 2011 for not granting a visa to the Dalai Lama, who was invited to attend his 80th birthday.

Archbishop Tutu was a leading voice for human rights and peace around the world. He opposed the Iraq War. He condemned the Israeli occupation of Palestine, comparing it to apartheid South Africa. In 2014, he backed the Palestinian-led BDS, or boycott, sanctions and divestment movement. He also spoke against torture and the death penalty. In 2011, he recorded a video calling for the release of imprisoned African American journalist and activist Mumia Abu-Jamal.

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: Mumia’s guilty verdict must be considered more than flawed. It is unacceptable. He has been denied the right to a new trial based on racial bias in jury selection, has faced years of prosecutorial and police misconduct and judicial bias.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, today we spend the rest of the hour hearing Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his own words. We begin by going back to February 15, 2003, when Tutu spoke before a massive rally in New York to oppose the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq.

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: People marched and demonstrated, and the Berlin Wall fell, and communism was ended. People marched and demonstrated, and apartheid ended. And democracy and freedom were born. And now people are marching, and people are demonstrating, because people are saying no to war!




ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: The just war theory says you need a legitimate authority to declare and to wage war. Only the United Nations is that legitimate authority. Any other war is immoral. The just war says, “Have you exhausted all possible peaceful means?” And the world says, “No, we haven’t yet!” And any war before you have exhausted all possible peaceful means is immoral. And those who want to wage war against Iraq must know it would be an immoral war.

You know, those who are going to be killed in Iraq are not collateral damage. They are human beings of flesh and blood. They are children. They are mothers. They are brothers. They are grandfathers. You know what? They are our sisters and brothers, for we belong in one family. We are members of one family, God’s family, the human family. And how can we say we want to drop bombs on our sisters and brothers, on our children?

We said no to communism. We said no to apartheid. We said no to injustice. We said no to oppression. And we said yes to freedom, yes to democracy. Now I ask you: What do we say to war?


ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: I can’t hear you. What do you say to war?


ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: What do you say to death and destruction?


ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: What do you say to peace?


ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: I can’t hear you. What do you say to peace?


ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: What do you say to life?


ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: What do you say to freedom?


ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: What do you say to compassion?


ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: Well, we want to say, President Bush, listen to the voice of the people, for many times the voice of the people is the voice of God. Vox populi, vox dei. Listen to the voice of the people saying give peace a chance. Give peace a chance. And let’s say once more so that they can hear in the Pentagon, they can hear in White House: What do we say to war?


ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: What do we say to peace?



AMY GOODMAN: The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressing the massive antiwar rally in New York on February 15, 2003, the day millions rocked the globe for peace. When we come back, we’ll hear the Nobel Peace Prize laureate talk about Guantánamo, torture and more. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “A Song for Bra Des Tutu” by Winston Mankunku Ngozi. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re continuing to remember the life and legacy of former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died Sunday at the age of 90. I interviewed him over the years. In 2004, I spoke to him at The Culture Project after a play about Guantánamo. I began by asking Archbishop Desmond Tutu what his response was to what was happening at Guantánamo.

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: I thought I knew what was taking place there, and I was quite shocked when I sat through the play yesterday, just how devastated I was. I was particularly so because I had such an awful sense of déjà vu. For someone coming from South Africa, you say, “But, I mean, that’s exactly what they were doing for exactly the same reasons that they gave.” I mean, you said, “Why do you detain people without trial? Why do you ban people as you are doing?” And the response from the South African government was, “Security of the state.” And anyone who questioned it would then be regarded, especially if you’re white, as being unpatriotic.

And I just want to say to you: Is this something that you want done in your name? Isn’t it time there was the same sense of outrage that people had about apartheid, which people should have had about the Holocaust? And what would happen if it was Americans held by some other country under these conditions? The point is, God has actually got no one. The god we worship is strange. They say this god is omnipotent, but God is also very weak. There’s not a great deal that God seems to be able to do without you.

AMY GOODMAN: During your years in South Africa before the end of apartheid, you were a deep advocate of nonviolence, yet you saw so many detained, so many killed. What do you feel, and what did you feel then? How did you make it through those days? What did you advocate? How did you stick to your principles of nonviolence?

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: One of the wonderful things actually is — well, I’ve got to speak as a Christian — is belonging to the church and knowing that you belong to this extraordinary body. When things were really rough, it’s wonderful to recall for me now that I sometimes got — when the South African government had taken away my passport, I got passports of love from Sunday school kids here in New York, and I plastered them on the walls of my office. But although I couldn’t travel, hey, here were all of these wonderful people all over the world. And I had a — I met a nun in New York at a particular time, and I asked her, “Can you just tell me a little bit about your life? How do you” — and she said, “Well, I am a solitary. I live in the woods in California. I pray for you. My day starts at 2:00 in the morning.” And I said, “Hey, man! I’ve been prayed for at 2:00 in the morning in the woods in California. What chance does the apartheid government stand?” So, one was being upheld.

And, you know, when frequently you say to people, the victory that we won against apartheid — a spectacular victory — that would not have happened without the support of the international community, without the support of people like yourselves, without the support of those who were students at the time, who might have been crazies, but they were fantastic in their commitment. And in this country, actually, they showed that you could in fact change the moral climate, because, at the time, the Reagan administration was totally opposed to sanctions, and students, but not just students, the many, many people who were prepared to be arrested on our behalf, who demonstrated on our behalf, who boycotted on our behalf, well, they changed the moral climate to such an extent that Congress passed the anti-apartheid legislation, and they even managed a veto override, which was fantastic. And so, I just happened. I always say I was a leader by default because our real leaders were either in jail or in exile. And sometimes when people say, “And he got the Nobel Peace Prize,” I say, “Well, actually, you know, it was that they thought maybe it was time it was given to a Black,” and, ah, he has an easy surname: Tutu. Tutu. Imagine. Imagine if I had had a surname like Wukaokaule.

AMY GOODMAN: Archbishop Tutu, how do you feel — how do you feel about —

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: You can pronounce that!

AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel about the invasion and occupation of Iraq?

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: It was fantastic seeing the many, many people who came out in opposition. It was fantastic. You know, sometimes when you say, “Ah, Americans,” or, “Oh, people nowadays don’t care,” it’s not true. Millions turned out. Millions. Millions said, “No. Give peace a chance.”

And I said, as so many others — I mean, I wasn’t the only one. The pope said so, too. The archbishop of Canterbury said so. The Dalai Lama said so. But this war, if it was to be a justifiable war in terms of the just war theory, would have to be one that was declared by a legitimate authority. And the administration here was aware of that. That’s why they went to the U.N. There’s no point in going to the U.N. if you had already decided — they probably, of course, had decided, but, I mean, there was no point unless they believed or they realized, I mean, that in order for it to be legitimate, and therefore justifiable, the only authority would have to be the U.N. And when they didn’t get what they wanted from the U.N., they did what they did. We said then, and we keep saying so, not just that it was illegal, it was immoral.

And the consequences of it just now — I mean, you have to be — you’ve really got to be blind to say, “Well, yeah, it’s OK. We removed Saddam Hussein.” Why didn’t you say that was the reason for going? Because the world would have said, “No, no, no, no. That isn’t a reason that will be allowable for you to declare war.”

And I’m sad. I’m sad that we seem so inured now. They tell you a hundred people have been killed, and the United States and its allies are doing that, and they say, “No, no. We targeted that house because our intelligence said so.” Intelligence. The same intelligence that said there were weapons of mass destruction? Please. That’s been done in your name, that mothers and children have been killed. And when you say, “What about the civilian casualties?” they say, “Sorry, our intention was to target insurgents.” And most of us, I think, just shrug our shoulders.

But, you see, you experienced a little bit on September the 11th the kind of thing that is meted out on a regular basis. And they are not — they’re not casualties. Collateral damage. Collateral damage, I tell you. How do you feel if someone says the people who died in the World Trade Center and in Washington, D.C., collateral damage? Say that to someone who lost a wife. Say it to someone who lost a child, someone who lost a friend. Collateral damage. It’s an obscenity. It’s an obscenity.

AMY GOODMAN: The South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died Sunday at the age of 90. I interviewed him at The Culture Project after a play about Guantánamo in 2004. Seventeen years later, Guantánamo remains open, and U.S. troops remain in Iraq. When we come back, we’ll hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Palestine, war, the climate crisis and more. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Woza Moya” by South African jazz musician Herbie Tsoaeli. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to remember the life and legacy of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He died Sunday. His funeral will be held on New Year’s Day. We turn now to an interview I did with him in November 2008. We spoke at the South African vice consul’s apartment in New York.

AMY GOODMAN: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it’s a pleasure to have you on Democracy Now!

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the election of the first African American president, a son of an African man from Kenya?

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: Yippee! No, “yippee” actually — it captures something that is almost ineffable. It’s very close to the kind of feelings we had on April the 27th, 1994. And some, maybe a few people in this country, have said it was, as it were, the Mandela — Mandela moment. It’s a moment when especially people of color have a new spring in their step — they can walk a great deal taller than they used to — and that even though this country, the United States, experiences very considerable racism — I mean, people being dragged to their deaths behind trucks — yet it’s a country that, in fact, has had this extraordinary experience. And it’s something that has filled people with hope that the world can be a better place.

AMY GOODMAN: How did it feel for you? There were so many millions of people who voted for the first time in this election for Barack Obama. How did it feel for you? How old were you when you first voted in South Africa?


AMY GOODMAN: Sixty-three years old?


AMY GOODMAN: When was it? What year?


AMY GOODMAN: For the election.

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: 1994, that was first time, and the first time for Nelson Mandela, and he, too, this extraordinary human being, and the many, many, many, many others.

Actually, in a way, you would say white people who had always voted in racially discriminated elections were voting for the first time, voting for the first time in a democratic — truly democratic — election. So, we were all, as it were, on the same page.

But it was — I said then, when I was asked, “What is your — how do you describe how you feel?” I said, “Well, how do you describe falling in love? How do you describe red to someone who is totally blind? How do you speak about the glories of a Beethoven symphony to somebody who is deaf? Well, it’s like that. I mean, I’m over the moon. I’m on cloud nine,” as were most of my, if not all of my, compatriots on that day.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think is Barack Obama’s greatest challenge as president of the most powerful country on Earth, following eight years of George W. Bush?

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: Yes. Very clearly, it has been the fact that for those eight years you’ve had an America that followed a unilateralist line, an America that would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Most of the world had, and America just said, “Go jump in the lake.” Most of the world had ratified the Rome Statute that set up the International Criminal Court, which is where the people who were responsible for September the 11th should have been appearing.

That you are going to have — most people believe that he is going to be welcomed as the leader of the free world who will be more collaborative, who will be more consultative, who will not seem to want to throw the considerable weight of America around and seem to want to be the bully boy.

I have said — I did a piece for The Washington Post, and I said one of the things that would demonstrate a clean break from the previous administration would be closing the abomination Guantánamo Bay. And one would then hope that there would be a much more conciliatory approach to Iran, not, let’s say, the belligerence that has largely characterized the Bush administration. And I would hope, too — and that’s a major challenge — that there will be something to be done to bring a viable peace proposal for the Middle East, to end what I reckon is an unconscionable suffering of the Palestinian people. We should end the firing of Qassam rockets on Israeli citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: You were blocked from going into Gaza in 2006, leading a U.N. delegation there after the killing of a number of Palestinians.


AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to be done now with the Middle East specifically, with Israel and the occupation?

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: There’s been some very interesting moves with the outgoing prime minister suggesting that Israel has to consider very seriously the proposal of going back to the boundaries of 1967. That’s a very important initiative, if that was taken.

I think that we would have to move very quickly to lifting the embargo. The suffering is unacceptable. It’s totally unacceptable. It doesn’t promote the security of Israel or any other part of that very volatile region. And it is quite contrary to the best teachings of the Jewish faith, you know. And I know, I mean, that there are very, very many in Israel who are opposed to what is happening.

And I pray fervently that there will be a boldness, you know, in saying we’ve got to resolve this, because I think if that — well, no, let’s not say “if,” because a lot hinges on what happens in the Middle East. Let’s say, when that is resolved, what we will find, I mean, that the tensions between, say, the West and the Muslim world, and large part of the Muslim world, I believe, myself, what we will find that that evaporates and that this — this is a saw, chafing, and it’s mucking up too many things. And I pray that this new president will have the capacity to see we’ve got to do something here, for the sake of our own humanity, you know, for the sake of our children.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you compare the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank to apartheid South Africa?

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: I have to speak about what I know. I mean, most people — a Jew will usually speak about their experiences and maybe compare whatever it is that is happening with what happened in the days of the Holocaust. For me, coming from South Africa and going — I mean, and looking at the checkpoints and the arrogance of those young soldiers, probably scared, maybe covering up their apprehension, there’s no way in which I couldn’t say — of course, that is a truth. It reminds me — it reminds me of the kind of experiences that we underwent. I mean, I was bishop of Johannesburg and would be driving from town to Soweto, where we lived, and I would be driving with my wife, and we’d have a roadblock, and the fact of our having to have passes allowing us to move freely in the land of our birth. And now you have that extraordinary structure that — the wall.

And I do not, myself, believe that it has improved security, breaking up families, breaking up — I mean, people who used to be able to walk from their homes to school, children, now have to take a detour that lasts several — I mean, it’s — when you humiliate a people to the extent that they are being — and, yes, one remembers the kind of experience we had when we were being humiliated — when you do that, you are not contributing to your own security. And all you are doing is you are saying to those people, in all of their desperation, “We are still human, and there are things we will not be able to accept — I mean, just sit down. We’ll have to — we have to do something.”

And so you get the suicide bomber. And one does not condone them, but one understands perfectly how people can be driven into a corner, and out of that desperation — and so you have that cycle, the response of Israel to the suicide bomber, which you know is going to provoke another cycle. And one says, “No way, that’s not how God intended to us live,” that it is possible — it’s been shown: It happened in South Africa — it is possible for people who have been enemies to begin to think that they can be friends, at least to coexist.

AMY GOODMAN: The International Criminal Court — should Barack Obama as president sign on to the ICC, sign the treaty for the International Criminal Court?

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: Yes. If you believe in the rule of law, then you are going to say yes. This is one particularly important instrument, because it is an instrument that is saying we will no longer tolerate impunity. The many who are guilty, as is happening just now in the DRC or in Darfur, that people who are guilty of egregious violations have to be brought to book, and it’s got to be done in a way that satisfies those standards that we have. I mean, you don’t hold people in detention without trial. That’s what the world used to say against the South African government. And if it was true that that was wrong, it has to be wrong consistently everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: President-elect Obama supports an end to the War in Iraq but a surge of soldiers in Afghanistan. What are your words of wisdom to him?

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: Well, I say that obviously it’s to end the war — yeah? — to end the occupation, to — but I’ve also said it would wonderful if, on behalf of the American people, he were to apologize to the Iraqis and to the rest of the world for an invasion that was based on lies.

AMY GOODMAN: The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. I interviewed him at the South African vice consul’s apartment in New York in November 2008, just after the election of Barack Obama. Desmond Tutu died Sunday at the age of 90. We end today’s show with the archbishop speaking to a group of youth climate activists outside the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009.

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: I want to say a big thank you to all of you, especially you beautiful young ones. We oldies have made something of a mess of the world. And we want to say to the leaders who are meeting, look in the eyes of your grandchildren.

Climate change is already a serious crisis today. But we can do something about it. If we don’t — if we don’t — hoohoo!, hoho! — there’s no world which we will leave to you, this generation. You won’t have a world. You will be drowning. You will be burning in drought. There will be no food. There will be floods.

We have only one world. We have only one world. If we mess it up, there’s no other world. And for those who think that the rich are going to escape — hahaha! — we either swim or sink together. We have one world. And we want to leave a beautiful world for all of this beautiful, wonderful young generation. We, the oldies, want to leave you a beautiful world. And it is a matter of morality. It is a question of justice.

AMY GOODMAN: The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, speaking to youth climate activists outside the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009. He died Sunday at the age of 90. His funeral will be held on Sunday — on New Year’s Day. So, to see all of our interviews, the speeches of Archbishop Tutu, you can go to

Special thanks to Brendan Allen and Mike Burke. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Mary Conlon. Our general manager is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude and Dennis McCormick. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe. Wear a mask.

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