When I learned that Archbishop Desmond Tutu had passed away on Dec. 26, I was taken back to June 2015 and the impact of South Africa on my life.
I had the honor of visiting Archbishop Tutu in his office in Cape Town. I was traveling with two young colleagues from the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence as well as our founder, Arun Gandhi, who was born and grew up in South Africa, and had known Archbishop Tutu for many years. We were at the end of a 15-day learning journey in South Africa, a trip Arun led annually called the Gandhi Legacy Tour. My colleagues and I were able to participate mainly through Arun’s generosity.
During this trip, we visited sites relevant to Gandhi during his years living there (1893-1914), as well as places significant to Nelson Mandela and the struggle to end apartheid. I learned to my shame and chagrin how South African Afrikaans leaders studied U.S. legal history, especially legal justification for partial citizenship for human beings and confiscation of land from indigenous populations.
We shared meals with members of the Gandhi family in Durban, 35 kilometers from where Gandhi established his first ashram (Phoenix Settlement) in 1899 amidst sugar cane fields. We visited Ohlange High School, the ashram’s closest neighbor during the period Gandhi lived there. It was established by John Dube, who in 1923 also founded what became the African National Congress as a nonviolent movement. (It remained nonviolent until the Sharpesville Massacre in 1960, a site we also visited.) Mandela chose to cast his first vote at Ohlange in 1994.
The weaving of inspiration and influence, both negative and positive, between South African and U.S. leaders became a theme. Dube was influenced by Booker T. Washington’s efforts to establish schools to uplift Black people. Later, in the same valley, lived 1961 Nobel Peace Prize winner and another president of the ANC, Chief Alfred Luthuli, who inspired the Kennedys. Sen. Robert Kennedy insisted on visiting him in 1966 while Luthuli was banned, a form of house arrest imposed during apartheid.
I was equally inspired by the many memorials and museums dedicated to facing South Africa’s past and dismayed by how the racial dynamics were too similar to the United States. I saw primarily Black poverty in the townships and rural areas and through the use of public transport. I saw white people in wealthier neighborhoods in several cities primarily using private vehicles.
Reflecting on that, an especially significant moment was dinner and conversation in Johannesburg with Stephen Biko‘s son Nkosinathi. I think of Biko as South Africa’s counterpart to Martin Luther King Jr., so it was an honor to meet his son. I asked Nkosinathi why he believed significant economic reforms were not enacted in the mid-1990s when modern South Africa was born, as so much was known by then of the impact of colonialism. “We thought gaining political power would be enough to create change, but it was not,” he told us. My interest in economic reform and the need to consider systemic change through economic reparations was born in that moment, which led to a study on reparations in graduate school two years later.
Meeting Archbishop Tutu, whose work on reconciliation has been replicated globally and whose words on forgiveness helped me to overcome bitterness in my own life, was wonderfully overwhelming. Tutu was struggling with illness even then, so our visit was expected to be brief. We chatted with the team about their work, and my engaging colleagues Malik and Hoody got the whole group laughing and even dancing. Before we left, we had tea. While seated at a long table with Tutu, his daughter Mpho and several staff, our gaze turned expectantly towards the archbishop. He smiled and waved us away, with his trademark humor and humility.
“Look to the other end of the table,” he said. “That’s where the future is, not with me.”
These reflections feel relevant as government leaders make choices about our collective future, whether to continue with bloated defense bills during the ongoing pandemic and accelerating climate change, whether to deeply invest in communities of color when historic debts related to theft of land and labor remain unpaid.
Rest in peace and with our gratitude, Archbishop Tutu.
Kit Miller is director emeritus of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence.