Friday, November 26, 2004

 

Archbishop Tutu urges national dialogue

I am always somehow comforted whenever Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks. Twenty years ago, he never lost his head, never lost the message, regardless of what threats he faced. When I think of the end of Apartheid, I think first of Nelson Mandela, and then almost in the same thought, of Desmond Tutu.

Tutu urges South Africa to publicly debate its problems
Wed Nov 24, 9:40 AM ET

Top Stories - Chicago Tribune
By Laurie Goering Tribune foreign correspondent

A decade after the end of apartheid, South Africa is a remarkable success story of a nation overcoming its past. But to confront the country's lingering threats--AIDS, widespread poverty, crime, racism--South Africa's government must begin encouraging public debate rather than discouraging criticism as unpatriotic.

That was the message Tuesday from South Africa's retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to the anti-apartheid struggle and who is considered, along with former President Nelson Mandela, a leading moral visionary in the country.

"Truth can't suffer from being challenged and examined," the diminutive 73-year-old cleric noted as part of a lecture in Johannesburg sponsored by the Nelson Mandela Foundation. South Africa, he said, should seek strong public discussion on divisive topics from affirmative action to policy on neighboring Zimbabwe rather than encourage "obsequious conformity."

Tutu's remarks come after a widely publicized flap last month between President Thabo Mbeki and political critics who questioned the role that widespread rape may be playing in spreading the country's HIV-AIDS epidemic.

South Africa has one of the world's highest rates of rape, according to police statistics, and the largest number of people infected with the AIDS virus of any nation in the world. But Mbeki responded to questions about the problem with a furious attack on white opposition members in parliament, insisting that only "people whose minds have been corrupted by the disease of racism accuse us, the black people of South Africa, Africa and the world, as being ... diseased, corrupt, violent, amoral, sexually depraved, animalistic, savage--and rapists."

Critics in turn have accused the president of trying to stifle debate by raising charges of racism whenever his government's performance is questioned. Mbeki's government has been broadly criticized, particularly for its handling of the AIDS epidemic and for refusing to criticize the administration of President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Tutu has called Mugabe a typical African dictator, prompting the Zimbabwean leader to furiously dismiss the outspoken cleric as "an angry, evil and embittered little bishop."

Tutu also said Tuesday he was concerned that affirmative action programs in South Africa had left behind most people in "grueling, demeaning, dehumanizing poverty" while benefiting primarily a small group of government-connected elite.

Under pressure from South Africa's government, private companies--including the nation's mining giants--are selling shares to black owners in an effort to spread the economic benefits and alleviate poverty. But so far a small group of rich South Africans, those with connections or the capital to finance deals, have been the main beneficiaries.

Tutu called that a violation of one of the anti-apartheid struggle themes, that "the people shall share."

He particularly criticized black South Africans who speak out against broader welfare programs for South Africa's legions of poor while benefiting from affirmative action programs themselves.

"It is cynical in the extreme to speak [against] handouts when people can become very rich at the stroke of a pen," he said. "If those are not massive handouts, what are?"

Still, he said, South Africa has overcome so many problems since the apartheid days that it should serve as an example to other troubled parts of the world as to how much can change.

"We South Africans tend to sell ourselves short" and downplay successes, Tutu said. But the nation successfully averted a feared race war, put together a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that now is a model for other nations, created one of the most liberal constitutions in the world and nearly overnight dumped its pariah status for international acclaim.

"Of course we have problems--serious, debilitating problems," Tutu said. But despite dire predictions about the end of apartheid, "as far as I can make out the sky is still firmly in place," he said jokingly. Compared with the recent bloody hostage crisis in Russia and upheaval in the Middle East, "what occurs in South Africa looks like a Sunday school picnic," he added.

He said he hoped that South Africa could be a "beacon of hope for the rest of the world" that seemingly intractable problems have solutions, he said. But he warned that other nations should know, following South Africa's example, that "there is no future without forgiveness in the world."

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