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Truth and reconciliation: Reflections on the unfailing moral compass of ‘The Arch’ Desmond Tutu

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Paul van Zyl is Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer at The Conduit. He served as the Executive Secretary of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 1995 to 1998.

A world short of decent leadership needs Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s unfailing moral compass more than ever. One of the many remarkable things about ‘The Arch’ (as he was affectionately known) was his unfailing ability to provide ethical clarity when the right answer wasn’t always obvious.

I served as the Executive Secretary of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and observed first-hand how The Arch made difficult decisions that were not always easy, but almost always right. 

When PW Botha, South Africa’s notoriously unrepentant apartheid president, was due to appear before the TRC to answer questions I was preparing, The Arch called me the night before to privately warn me “not to humiliate the old man”. When I gently reminded him that we had evidence implicating Botha in the authorisation and condonation of torture and assassination, and that this warranted a robust pursuit of the truth, The Arch agreed, but insisted that we conduct the questioning in a manner that upheld his dignity.

At the time, this seemed like an extremely generous way to treat a leader who had imposed enormous suffering on the country. As it turned out, Botha defied the TRC and refused to subject himself to even a minimal level of accountability.

When prosecuted for contempt several months later, Botha justified his refusal with a simple defence: the TRC was a witch-hunt intended not to gather evidence but solely focused on one goal – the humiliation of the former president.

The Arch could not have known when he made that call that Botha would not show up, nor could he have known that his justification would rest on a claim that he’d be treated in a way that he has specifically prohibited. As it turned out, Botha appeared petty and insecure, and it reinforced Tutu’s reputation as a magnanimous statesman.

It would be tempting to argue that The Arch’s call was informed by a divine premonition. I prefer a more secular explanation. Treating your adversaries with dignity not only increases the chances that conflict will be halted, and reconciliation commenced, but it is also in your own self-interest. The Arch consistently demonstrated that generosity and forgiveness are more powerful forces, when properly deployed, than the defaults of divisiveness and dehumanisation used by weaker leaders.

The Arch also taught us about the dangers of situational ethics – the idea that people (particularly your friends) who have fought for righteous causes should be governed by a different moral code.

During the TRC, he insisted that the leadership of the ANC properly acknowledge and account for their shortcomings. He was at pains to reject any form of moral relativism, correctly insisting that apartheid was the original sin and that the crimes committed defending the regime should not be evaluated in same way as the conduct of the liberation movement.

But The Arch staked the credibility of the TRC on an unequivocal condemnation of torture and crimes against civilians even when committed by the resistance. I remember during one specific hearing how he stopped a senior ANC leader mid-testimony as he started to justify the torture of suspected spies. “You will ruin everything if you go down this path,” he scolded, “freedom fighters bear a special responsibility to uphold our most fundamental freedoms.”

These words, like so many others, proved prescient. At great personal cost, The Arch became a reluctant but forthright critic of the failures and corruption of successive post-apartheid governments. It is a tribute to the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa that he has embraced The Arch both personally and politically.  

But perhaps most of all, The Arch personally embodied the extraordinary African philosophy of ubuntu. Ubuntu can be distilled into the idea that “I am, because we are”, and that we are stronger, better and more productive when we recognise and deepen the communal bonds between us.

The Arch hated apartheid not just because it was evil but because its divisiveness destroyed human potential. With his mischievous humour and trademark giggle, he constantly offered a kinder, more hopeful and more joyful approach to life.

Any of the great challenges we face today, including the climate crisis, pandemics, armed conflict, inequality or discrimination, will only be solved with collaboration and a recognition that acting in the collective interest will lead to better aggregate outcomes than going it alone.

Ubuntu also teaches us that a commitment to human rights, combined with an investment in human capital, makes everyone richer in the deepest sense of the word. Ubuntu requires a form of leadership that eschews the pettiness of short-term political interest.

The good news is that ubuntu can be built and practised from the bottom up, on streets, communities, cities and then countries. The Arch will smile at us from above if we start working on it today.

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