Modern History Sourcebook:
The Question of South Africa, 1984
Bishop Desmond Tutu (1931-) was the first Black Archbishop
of Capetown, the head of the Anglican Church in South Africa.
Tutu used this position to speak out against Apartheid. In 1984
he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Shortly afterwards he gave
following speech, attacking South Africa's racial policies, to
the United Nations Security Council. Tutu is here pessimistic
about the future. As events turned out, change came peacefully..
I speak out of a full heart, for I am about to speak about a land
that I love deeply and passionately; a beautiful land of rolling
hills and gurgling streams, of clear starlit skies, of singing
birds, and gamboling lambs; a land God has richly endowed with
the good things of the earth, a land rich in mineral deposits
of nearly every kind; a land of vast open spaces, enough to accommodate
all its inhabitants comfortably; a land capable of feeding itself
and other lands on the beleaguered continent of Africa, a veritable
breadbasket; a land that could contribute wonderfully to the material
and spiritual development and prosperity of all Africa and indeed
of the whole world. It is endowed with enough to satisfy the material
and spiritual needs of all its peoples.
And so we would expect that such a land, veritably flowing with
milk and honey, should be a land where peace and harmony and contentment
reigned supreme. Alas, the opposite is the case. For my beloved
country is wracked by division, by alienation, by animosity, by
separation, by injustice, by avoidable pain and suffering. It
is a deeply fragmented society, ridden by fear and anxiety, covered
by a pall of despondency and a sense of desperation, split up
into hostile, warring factions.
It is a highly volatile land, and its inhabitants sit on a powderkeg
with a very short fuse indeed, ready to blow us all up into kingdom
come. There is endemic unrest, like a festering sore that will
not heal until not just the symptoms are treated but the root
causes are removed.
South African society is deeply polarized. Nothing illustrates
this more sharply than the events of the past week. While the
black community was in the seventh heaven of delight because of
the decision of that committee in Oslo, and while the world was
congratulating the recipient of the Nobel Peace prize, the white
government and most white South Africans, very sadly, were seeking
to devalue that prize. An event that should have been the occasion
of uninhibited joy and thanksgiving revealed a sadly divided society.
Before I came to this country in early September to go on sabbatical,
I visited one of the troublespots near Johannesburg. I went
with members of` the Executive Committee of the South African
Council of Churches, which had met in emergency session after
I had urged Mr. P. W. Botha to meet with church leaders to deal
with a rapidly deteriorating situation. As a result of our peace
initiative, we did get to meet with two cabinet ministers, demonstrating
thereby our concern to carry out our call to be ministers of reconciliation
and ambassadors of Christ.
In this black township, we met an old lady who told us that she
was looking after her grandchildren and the children of neighbors
while they were at work. On the day about which she was speaking,
the police had been chasing black schoolchildren in that street,
but the children had eluded the police, who then drove down the
street past the old lady's house. Her wards were playing in front
of the house, in the yard. She was sitting in the kitchen at the
back, when her daughter burst in, calling agitatedly for her.
She rushed out into the living room. A grandson had fallen just
inside the door, dead. The police had shot him in the back. He
was six years old. Recently a baby, a few weeks old, became the
first white casualty of the current uprisings. Every death is
one too many. Those whom the black community has identified as
collaborators with a system that oppresses them and denies them
the most elementary human rights have met cruel death, which we
deplore as much as any others. They have rejected these people
operating within the system, whom they have seen as lackies and
stooges, despite their titles of town councilors, and so on, under
an apparently new dispensation extending the right of local government
to the blacks.
Over 100,000 black students are out of school, boycotting-as they
did in 197~what they and the black community perceive as an inferior
education designed deliberately for inferiority. An already highly
volatile situation has been ignited several times and, as a result,
over 80 persons have died. There has been industrial unrest, with
the first official strike by black miners taking place, not without
its toll of fatalities among the blacks.
Some may be inclined to ask: But why should all this unrest be
taking place just when the South African government appears to
have embarked on the road of reform, exemplified externally by
the signing of the Nkomati accord and internally by the implementation
of a new constitution which appears to depart radically from the
one it replaces, for it makes room for three chambers: one for
whites, one for Coloureds, and one for Indians; a constitution
described by many as a significant step forward?
I wish to state here, as I have stated on other occasions, that
Mr. P. W. Botha must be commended for his courage in declaring
that the future of South Africa could no longer be determined
by whites only. That was a very brave thing to do. The tragedy
of South Africa is that something with such a Considerable potential
for resolving the burgeoning crisis of our land should have been
vitiated by the exclusion of 73 percent of the population, the
Overwhelming majority in the land.
By no stretch of the imagination could that kind of constitution
be considered to be democratic. The composition of the committees,
in the ratio of four whites to two Coloureds to one Indian, demonstrates
eloquently what most people had suspected all along-that it was
intended to perpetuate the rule of a minority. The fact that the
first qualification for membership in the chambers is racial says
that this constitution was designed to entrench racism and ethnicity.
The most obnoxious features of apartheid would remain untouched
and unchanged. The Group Areas Act, the Population Registration
Act, separate educational systems for the different race groups;
all this and more would remain quite unchanged.
This constitution was seen by the mainline Englishspeaking
churches and the official white opposition as disastrously inadequate,
and they called for its rejection in the whitesonly referendum
last November. The call was not heeded. The blacks overwhelmingly
rejected what they regarded as a sham, an instrument in the politics
of exclusion. Various groups campaigned for a boycott of the Coloured
and Indian elections-campaigned, I might add, against very great
odds, by and large peacefully. As we know, the authorities responded
with their usual ironfist tactics, detaining most of the
leaders of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and other organizations
that had organized the boycott-and we have some of them now holed
up in the British Consulate in Durban, causing a diplomatic contretemps. The current unrest was in very large measure triggered off by
the reaction of the authorities to antielection demonstrations
in August. The farcical overall turnout of only about 20 percent
says more eloquently than anything else that the Indians and Coloureds
have refused to be coopted as the junior partners of apartheid-the
phrase used by Allan Boesak, the founding father of the UDF and
president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. But there is little freedom in this land of plenty. There is little
freedom to disagree with the determinations of the authorities.
There is largescale unemployment because of the drought
and the recession that has hit most of the world's economy. And
it is at such a time that the authorities have increased the prices
of various foodstuffs and also of rents in black townships-measures
designed to hit hardest those least able to afford the additional
costs. It is not surprising that all this has exacerbated an already
tense and volatile situation.
So the unrest is continuing, in a kind of war of attrition, with
the casualties not being large enough at any one time to shock
the world sufficiently for it to want to take action against the
system that is the root cause of all this agony. We have warned
consistently that unrest will be endemic in South Africa until
its root cause is removed. And the root cause is apartheid-a vicious,
immoral and totally evil, and unchristian system.
People will refer to the Nkomati accord, and we will say that
we are glad for the cessation of hostilities anywhere in the world.
But we will ask: Why is détente by the South African government
only for export? Why is state aggression reserved for the black
civilian population? The news today is that the army has cordoned
off Sebokeng, a black township, near Sharpeville, and 400 or so
persons have been arrested, including the immediate exmoderator
of the Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa and Father Geoff
Moselane, àn Anglican priest.
As blacks we often run the gauntlet of roadblocks on roads leading
into our townships, and these have been manned by the army in
what are actually described as routine police operations When
you use the army in this fashion, who is the enemy?
The authorities have not stopped stripping blacks of their South
African citizenship Here I am, 53 years old, a bishop in the church,
some would say reasonably responsible; I travel on a document
that says of my nationality that it is "undeterminable at
present." The South African government is turning us into
aliens in the land of our birth. It continues unabated with its
vicious policy of forced population removals. It is threatening
to remove the people of Kwa Ngema. It treats carelessly the women
in the KTC squatter camp near Cape Town whose flimsy plastic coverings
are destroyed every day by the authorities; and the heinous crime
of those women is that they want to be with their husbands, with
the fathers of their children.
White South Africans are not demons; they are ordinary human beings,
scared human beings, many of them; who would not be, if they were
outnumbered five to one? Through this lofty body I wish to appeal
to my white fellow South Africans to share in building a new society,
for blacks are not intent on driving whites into the sea but on
claiming only their rightful place in the sun in the land of their
We deplore all forms of violence, the violence of an oppressive
and unjust society and the violence of those seeking to overthrow
that society, for we believe that violence is not the answer to
the crisis of our land.
We dream of a new society that will be truly nonracial,
truly democratic, in which people count because they are created
in the image of God. We are committed to work for justice, for peace, and for reconciliation.
We ask you, please help us; urge the South African authorities
to go to the conference table with the . . . representatives of
all sections of our community. I appeal to this body to act. I
appeal in the name of the ordinary, the little people of South
Africa. I appeal in the name of the squatters in crossroads and
in the KTC camp. I appeal on behalf of the father who has to live
in a singlesex hostel as a migrant worker, separated from
his family for 11 months of the year. I appeal on behalf of the
students who have rejected this travesty of education made available
only for blacks. I appeal on behalf of those who are banned arbitrarily,
who are banished, who are detained without trial, those imprisoned
because they have had a vision of this new South Africa. I appeal
on behalf of those who have been exiled from their homes.
I say we will be free, and we ask you: Help us, that this freedom
comes for all of us in South Africa, black and white, but that
it comes with the least possible violence, that it comes peacefully,
that it comes soon.
From Bishop Desmond Tutu, "The Question of South Africa," Africa Report, 30 (JanuaryFebru ry 1985), pp. 5052.
Originally a statement to the United Nations Security Council,
October 23, 1984.
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997