“…They Bite the Dust”

Desmond Tutu receives an Honorary Doctorate in Vienna with bad news for perpetrators of human rights abuses

South African cleric and activist Desmond Tutu during the interview | Photo: Mirian Shalikashvili

Each year the University of Vienna bestows an Honorary Doctorate on an individual of distinction: This year it was awarded to the former South African Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, for his work in theology. Tutu is a life-long champion of human rights and an activist against injustice, poverty, and suffering. These positions, coupled with his African spirituality, have enabled him to breathe new life into theology as well as position him to help launch a nascent global human rights culture.

The ceremony took place in the main University building on Vienna’s Ringstraße, in a Renaissance- and Baroque-styled Große Festsaal, a magnificent hall with original murals by Gustav Klimt and Franz Matsch. The laudatio in praise of the honoree was delivered by the Dean of the Evangelical Theological Faculty, Dr.Dr.Dr. (no joke) James Alfred Loader commending Tutu for uplifting people through infusing traditional Christian Theology with South African Ubuntu philosophy. Tutu initiated a “new orientation of theology,” Loader said, which has spread all over the world.

As is traditional, the ceremony was performed entirely in Latin. In high spirits, Tutu commenced his laureate speech with irony:

“I don’t know that I understood most of what’s been going on,” he quipped, referring to the Latin, “but I presume that we are right: I am now a Doctor of this University.”

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born in Klerksdorp, rural South Africa, in 1931. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his work as a unifying leader in opposing and defeating South African apartheid, a system of racial segregation and discrimination. Tutu was elected and ordained the first black South African Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986 and chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) during its operation 1995-1999.

The TRC was set up to investigate gross human rights violations during apartheid, and to grant amnesty to wrongdoers for admitting the truth as long as their actions were not motivated by personal greed or racial hatred. It also granted compensation, mainly symbolic sums of money, to victims of these abuses. The revelations of the TRC contributed greatly to white South Africans’ realization that their elected governments were in fact criminal organizations.

Tutu was elected to the Board of Directors of the International Criminal Court’s Trust Fund for Victims in 2003. This UN-affiliated court charges and tries individuals with crimes against humanity regardless of their nationality or diplomatic status.

He also chairs The Elders, a group of world leaders, including Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, Mary Robinson, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Gro Harlem Brundtland, addressing most difficult problems faced by humanity, and an avid activist in the fight against HIV/AIDS. As a result of his unique services to humanity, Tutu is one of the most decorated people in the world, including the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism and the Gandhi Peace Prize. Loader joked that Tutu may hold more honorary doctorates than all those awarded by the University of Vienna put together.

A capacity-crowd audience listened attentively as he thanked those who had helped South Africa be free, who had boycotted South African products, held vigils and demonstrations against apartheid. He then went on to describe his country’s largely peaceful liberation process, of which he has been an integral part. The South African miracle of 1994 could serve as a role model for other seemingly insurmountable conflicts, he said, raising prospects for victims of the world’s lingering conflicts, in Burma, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

He singled out the suffering of “God’s children” in Darfur for special mention, and of the Palestinian people. In the face of all this misery, he asked, “And you? You say, ‘Oh no, no. This is an awful world’… But in the end the Hitlers, the Mussolinis, the Francos, the Amins, the perpetrators of the injustice of apartheid: in the end they bite the dust – in the end!”

Tutu ended his speech on an optimistic note: “And so one day…we are going to see the Jews and the Palestinians live together side by side amicably,” he said, “because this is God’s world, and goodness and laughter and joy and caring and sharing – those are what will have the last word.”

In the press conference after the ceremony, Tutu requested the press corps be kind with their questions. But what would he like to see happen to ease the suffering of the Palestinian people? “An end to the blockade, a stop to settlements,” he told The Vienna Review, “The Wall must be brought down.” He called for “an end to checkpoints or as few as possible, a mutual recognition of humanity and, in turn, Hamas must stop firing Qassam rockets.”

While concerned, he has not given up hope.

“There are glimmers of hope,” he added, “like the Israeli peace camp and the refuseniks [Israelis who object to doing military service].” While he had been critical of the Reagan Administration, he had never been anti-American. Recently, however, he said he had been targeted in the US as ‘anti-Semitic’ for his criticism of Israeli laws and policies. “But I have never been anti-anything,” he said, “except anti-injustice and anti-oppression.”

In African affairs, Bishop Tutu admitted some of the failures of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“That was a mean question…but a legitimate one,” he admitted. “The TRC was always going to be flawed, you know? We didn’t have the infrastructure, staff, or offices necessary. [We were] seen as ‘perpetrator-friendly,’ not as ‘victim-friendly.’ We were only able to catch the foot soldiers, none of the big fish.”

Against impossible odds, Desmond Tutu speaks and acts with hope, wit, and humility, always generous in his gestures, arguments and, most of all, his plea for justice throughout the world. He stands out as a global voice for humanity, caring, compassion and human solidarity – for Ubuntu.

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