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Interviews >

Interview: Mpho Tutu author, priest

by Terence Handley MacMath

Posted: 04 Apr 2014 @ 12:09

'We are traumatised people. Yet violence is not the whole story'

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For a very long time I avoided the call of ordination. I had a very, very full life, and did many, many things. And yet the one consistent thing through all of it has been a very strong sense of my life and work as ministry.

I am the executive director of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, and that is a very broad ministry. It offers me a platform to speak out on issues of concern to humanity in many forms. I also serve as priest in a small township named Joe Slovo.

For many years, people thought my father had written a book on forgiveness - except that he had not written a book on forgiveness. Forgiveness is something of very deep interest to me. I am studying for a Ph.D. on the subject. My father and I decided that, out of our joint interest, we could write together.

He writes from his strong experience - his lived experience of forgiveness, and what it does to the human psyche - and I write from my perspective, of both some academic knowledge and insight but also as one having to walk my own forgiveness journey.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) always saw itself as part of a process rather than an event. The same is true with forgiveness: it is not an event but a process. The TRC really opened the door to a process that we, as South Africans, have a responsibility to carry forward. So, in terms of beginning the process, it was very successful. In terms of seeing it to a conclusion, it was not necessarily as successful.

Before the first TRC hearings, my father took the commissioners on retreat. They learnt that you can either be like a vacuum cleaner or a washing machine. A vacuum cleaner sucks up all of the dirt and holds it, until either it explodes or you manage to empty it. A washing machine takes in the dirty laundry and, even as it washes, it rinses and lets the water go immediately. So it was necessary for the commissioners to not only have spiritual counselling, but also psychiatric counselling along the way.

My father has leaned heavily onhis faith, but also his spiritual life- and on his relationship with my mother as well, to carry him through the real tortures.

We love each other, and the first and most important thing in my relationship with my father is thatI know my father loves me - sometimes even admires me, and I can say the same of him. My parents and my children have been the greatest influences on my life.

The new South Africa has been founded on forgiveness, yes. It is in our experience that we, as South Africans, are still able to look at each other, and we are still people with a very profound hope. I think that if the new South Africa was founded on war or avenging wrongs, we would have lost all hope for peace.

As South Africans, we have a colloquialism: "We will make a plan - whatever the issue is we have to confront, we will make a plan." That, in part, is a legacy with a different approach.

The TRC was successful in drawing the line under the apartheid regime. That allowed us, as South Africans, to share a common story. Under apartheid, each racial group in South Africa had its own story of what South Africa was. Now we have a common story, and we share a history. It is a painful history, but it is a shared history, and a history that we are recognising that all of us need to heal.

South Africa does remain a violent place. We are traumatised people. Yet violence is not the whole story of what South Africa is. Tourists come in their millions every year, and most of them go back home and tell the story of the wonderful experience they had.

I think that walking the path of forgiveness has been what has allowed me to stand, especially through the murder of Angela [an employee] in our house.

Growing up under the apartheid regime was tense and scary.

For much of the TRC period, I was not at home. But the one thing I remember from the times I was home during that period was that my mother always insisted on waiting up for my father. If he had gone to a hearing that was at a distance, she would wait for him to come home; and, if he had gone toa meeting that was in reach, she would go with him to support him.

My hope is that we are able to truly deliver on our freedom promise, that South Africa can be a place of possibility and flourishing for all of her people. My fear is that we will continue to divide between the rich and the poor.

I love to travel. I love the sound of the cooing of pigeons.

And I love the Bible, because it is a library of books, and it also leadsme into reading other books. So, in terms of being influential, it is the Bible.

Books that please me? Barbara Kingsolver's. I think her writing is just delicious. And Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus, an incredible piece of writing. I have a very eclectic taste in books.

I pray for my children and my family, and for meaningful work.

I would choose God as my companion if I was to find myself locked in a church for a few hours.

The Revd Mpho Tutu is appearing at the Bloxham Festival on 31 May (info and tickets: She was talkingto Terence Handley MacMath.

The Book of Forgiving by Desmond and Mpho Tutu is out now (William Collins, £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.50)).

Desmond and Mpho Tutu are holding a free 30-day event to teach the world to forgive. To sign up, visit

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