Recently South Africa’s Nobel Peace Laureate  Archbishop Desmond Tutu was in Ubud on a stopover. Ubud Now and Then’s Rio Helmi had breakfast with him. Here are some excerpts from their wide ranging conversation:

RIO HELMI: The world seems to be changing faster than ever before. Do you think it’s just the same thing accelerated or do you see new things coming into the equation?

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: Yes there are things that have changed. It’s an interesting phenomena. On the one hand people are very sensitive in matters of race and so on – but on the other we are seeing a new phase in racist incidents in Europe. There is a mixture – both negative and positive, we are a real mix. You have those people who are really committed to making a difference and making sure that we become increasingly more egalitarian. But one of the distinctive features of modern society is that you have the very rich, very opulent – and they tend generally to be in the western countries, though not exclusively… South Africa now has the worst gap between the rich and poor in the world!

RH: Are these rich black South Africans or rich whites?

ADT: Before 1994 you could say almost without fear of contradiction almost that they would exclusively be white. So the gap was between very rich whites and very poor blacks. Now you have some blacks who have become billionaires.

RH: By questionable means?

ADT: Well there was this thing of making the playing field more level. To come back to your question, yes there is a significant number of blacks now who are very, very rich. And not all of them have come by it legitimately.

RH: What is the role of spirituality in a situation like that, how do you address this lack of sensitivity to others welfare?

ADT: We have to be careful in all of this not to give the impression that material things are in themselves bad, they are not. What we are decrying is that people should be so ostentatiously rich when there are others who are going to bed hungry. It is totally unconscionable that that is happening, but it is happening. It has been twenty years since our (SA) freedom happened but we have been very, very slow in narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor.

RH: Is this simply an issue of political, social, and economic incompetence?

ADT: It is both spiritual and other things. At heart all of our problems are spiritual really. But it is a combination, of incompetence [and discrimination]. I think, why don’t we say:  “look that man is able. He is therefore the better qualified for this job, no matter what his color is.” One of the problems is what they call employment of cadre. I think they have been more influenced by Russian communism than we reckon.

RH: They being the ANC?

ADT: Ya… In 1994 we thought we were marching to Paradise more or less, and things have unraveled to some extent. One of my former colleagues (Alex Boraine) on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee has written a book titled “What Has Gone Wrong?”.  Boraine’s diagnosis is that these are people who have been influenced by Russian communism where it’s the “party, right or wrong”.


RH: In the early days after Soeharto fell there was a national program run by the Indonesian Human Rights Commission that set up temporary think tanks in various regions of Indonesia. There were representatives of all walks of society. The objective was to figure out which was the best way to proceed with reform. We looked at the truth and reconciliation process of South Africa. Until this day there are many things we can’t discuss openly about what happened in 1965 here. It’s a very dark period of our history. One of the issues is the fact that certain people in power have links to that era. Sometimes I worry it will be too late to address this before these people move out of power. I was wondering whether when you did this in South Africa did that really clear the air, open the door?

ADT: We did some. Partly we were mucked up by the fact the government did not take up some key recommendations we made – the incoming president (Thabo) had an attitude towards the commission which was disgraceful actually. People gave evidence about things that had happened in their camps, the atrocities. Those are the things that we found out by our own investigation. Torture is torture is torture. Someone said to him that the commission was criminalizing their struggle – he had this in his head, so any thing that came from us he gave short shrift to. That was one thing, then there was the whole question of reparation. We said that even the amounts that we were to give were in a way piffling – how you do  recompense a mother for the death of her son? You can’t ever. But we said this is not compensation, this is reparation, it is symbolic of a government that says it understands, it recognizes the loss that you suffered.

RH: And did that happened?

ADT: Some people died before it happened. And when it came it was a once off payment of thirty thousand rand. (dryly): ”That’s what you get for coming, exposing yourself in the fashion that you did…”  [However] The country was able to move forward. It’s a long answer to your question: you have to be sure that you are not going to wake up the lion that is ready to spring. But on the other hand the value of coming clean is beyond monetary value.

RH: It is important for us to acknowledge that we did transgress the rights of people – if we do not do this then it becomes part of the culture, people have this subconscious idea that “it’s all going to go away anyway.”. It never gets addressed as “this we should not do”. Did that change in South Africa?

ADT: [If you don’t] there are two things that happen : one, you say: “Nothing will happen to me” – that’s the objective. The subjective, whether you like it or not or you might not recognize it, it is a wound that is going to go bad. One day it will erupt at a point where there will be no healing that can help you. Whereas if it was a process acknowledged as an atrocity that was legitimized by the authorities [then] instead of the wound going bad, it is painful but you reopen the wound and you pour balm in it and the chances are a great deal better for that wound to be healed. The families of the disappeared, they don’t forget. Communities don’t forget. You might think that people are gullible. People who have lost their loved ones, how are they going to forget? They sit there in their weakness and say “There is nothing I can do” but in many ways they could become recruits for subversive activities.

RH: The Indonesian government has finally officially taken a stand against the ISIS recruitment in Indonesia. As an Elder, what do you see as the way to get through to bigots/extremists?

ADT: I think it’s important to listen to the deeper thing that they are saying. They don’t talk a hundred percent nonsense. There must be a modicum of truth for them to be credible. Maybe they exaggerate but there must be some truth in it for some people to say “we’re joining you”.  So I think we need to grow in our self-assurance that is not scared of being challenged, that the truth we uphold can stand up to the closest possible scrutiny.

RH: Open, in other words?

ADT: Ya, absolutely. I think we shouldn’t want to use the same method as the people we are opposing.

photographs ©Rio Helmi

versions of this interview were published in Huffington Post and The Jakarta Post