Archbishop Tutu turns 90 amid week-long celebration

Celebratory messages of love and appreciation for Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu poured in from across the world on the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s 90th birthday on 7 October 2021.

A week’s worth of events marking Archbishop Tutu’s milestone culminated, on his birthday, with the 11th Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture, delivered this year by four global leaders. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s highest spiritual leader; women’s and children’s rights activist Graça Machel; chair of The Elders and former president of Ireland Mary Robinson; and South Africa’s former public protector, Thuli Madonsela have each previously delivered the lecture. This year they explored the topic Speaking Truth to Power: No future without justice from each of their personal vantage points.

Opening the online event, Piyushi Kotecha, CEO of the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, said the theme was chosen because it resonates with the global zeitgeist.

“It is clear. There can be no just future if those who believe in peace and justice do not continue to speak truth to power. The world is too often a broken place. Its very brokenness must propel us into action. We find ourselves at the juncture between two worlds: an old world led by unscrupulous political figures and self-serving economic interests, and one led by young activists who have social, environmental and women’s rights in their sight. The courage to heal is vital,” she said.

Kotecha’s call to action was picked up by each speaker in succession. All called for a change in course, socially, economically and politically, if humanity is to thrive, or even just to survive.

“I believe the best way to pay our debt of gratitude to him and his contemporaries, such as Nelson Mandela and Helen Suzman, is to use the occasion of his 90th birthday to choose to change course and pursue pathways that will expeditiously yield sustainable development for all in a world where democracy works for all. It is our turn to stand up for truth and justice, particularly social justice, as an investment in peace,”

said Madonsela. She first delivered the lecture in 2015.

Madonsela said Archbishop Tutu, as an educated black man at a time when most black people lacked education, and as a person with a public profile, “answered the call to discharge the burden of privilege by speaking out for justice and freedom for all”. He did this during apartheid, despite the perils, and after apartheid fell, even to the discomfort of his struggle-era contemporaries – his focus was always on just causes, no matter who this unsettled.

Remembering how the Archbishop was taken to task for his unrelenting optimism, even in the face of daunting global challenges and levels of injustice, Robinson said that his answer that he was not an optimist, but a “prisoner of hope” had made a deep impression on her.

“Today, I am proud to call myself a fellow convict,” she said.

The climate activist said people who believe in the dignity and rights of all human beings, and in the imperative of global justice, “have a duty to face the future with determined goodwill”.

The world was at a tipping point, Robinson said. Events across the world show that climate change is real, and is affecting all corners of the globe.

Robinson noted she could well understand “if an African audience rolls its eyes at the expressions of grave concerns from politicians in Europe and North America who suddenly talk about ‘climate change becoming real’”, when Africans have had to endure its ravages for years “to apparent blithe indifference”.

Despite this, she called for concerted, collective action.

“We know that humanity can only thrive when all states work together with common purpose. In 2021, it is essential that this spirit drives climate ambition at the international level, especially at the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow in November and the COP on the Convention on Biological Diversity in China,” she said.

“Our leaders are in the dock, and if they do not rise to the challenge and deliver a climate emergency pact in Glasgow, the verdict from civil society and future generations will be rightly damning.”

Making a separate but equally urgent plea, Machel said society’s mindset, behaviours and value system had to change if violence against women and children was to be eradicated.

“We are a society at war with itself. We adults are wounded. We are unhealed individuals who come together to form families and communities, which are then fractured and broken as well. And … violence is the breastmilk we are feeding our young,” she said.

Machel called for a “therapy of the soul” that would “transform and untangle ourselves from the wicked webs of our trauma and toxic patriarchy”.

Wishing birthday blessings on his “spiritual elder brother”, the Dalai Lama said the serenity that Archbishop Tutu modelled was important to emulate because it was the bedrock of compassion, and it was compassion that would bring peace to the world.

The four addresses were followed by a special screening of the film Mission Joy: Finding Happiness in Troubled Times, celebrating the decades-long friendship between Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama.

The film, produced by four Academy Award winners, documents a week-long discussion between the two spiritual leaders on how to find joy amid personal and collective suffering. It also delves into the science behind happiness, and how joy boosts human immune systems, helping us live longer.

The lecture addresses were interspersed by performances by Grammy Award-winning American cellist Yo-Yo Ma and award-winning South African cellist Abel Selaocoe, who performed a rendition of the well-known hymn Ibuyile I’Africa, and by the Grammy Award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir.

Multi-award-winning Hollywood star Samuel L Jackson paid tribute to one of the world’s most iconic prelates. “You know, it’s one thing to stand up again and again against injustice, no matter the personal danger, and to speak the difficult, painful truth not only to your oppressors, but also to your friends. But to do all that while maintaining a sense of humour and with genuine love in your heart – who can do that? Desmond Tutu,” he said. Jackson’s words tied in with the lecture topic, and highlighted the Archbishop’s legacy of fearless focus on ethical principles.

Jackson was joined in paying tribute to Archbishop Tutu by Hollywood star and political activist Alfre Woodard and Hollywood colleague Pauletta Washington. Woodard said Archbishop Tutu “teaches us to speak out in the face of oppression, to stand together with people from every walk of life, in the quest for justice, to speak up on behalf of the voiceless, to maintain a sense of humour amidst hardship, to see the radiance of God in every human being, friend and opponent alike”.

The actors made calls for donations to the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation’s 90@90 campaign, which aims to raise R90-million for the Tutu Legacy Fund by the end of his 90th year, 7 October 2022.

Foundation chairman Niclas Kjellström-Matseke, opening the lecture event, said the world in October 2021 is plagued by racism, environmental disaster and climate change, poverty, an epidemic of mental health issues, and hopelessness.

“But Archbishop Tutu has always shown us by his actions and through his words that hope is never lost. This may be a dark moment in history. One filled with social and economic upheaval. But it is also one filled with a light of hope.”

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