Speech/statement | Date: 09/01/2022 | Office of the Prime Minister
By Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre (Oslo Cathedral)
In February 1986, I attended a service at a church in Soweto, a predominantly black township outside Johannesburg in segregated South Africa. The service was led by Desmond Tutu. It was a rather different experience from my own sporadic encounters as a churchgoer in Oslo.
There was reading of scripture, a sermon, and singing of psalms. But there was more. There was warmth, involvement, celebration, and an easy exuberance. I remember how we left at the end. We virtually danced down the aisle and out the door. Everyone was singing, even me, even though I didn’t really know the words.
Outside the church, Rev. Tutu came over to me and asked me where I was from. When I answered Norway, he immediately embraced me and launched into an enthusiastic account of his many visits to Oslo, and most notably the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in 1984.
The experience, the encounter with the people in the church, and not least the meeting with Desmond Tutu, the newly appointed Archbishop of Cape Town, made a powerful impression on me. It was more than just the ways it differed from my own church visits at home in Norway. It was the way in which the mood in and around this church stood in contrast to the general situation in South Africa at that the time.
It was February 1986, unrest was on the rise and the country was heading towards yet another state of emergency. No one knew then that the apartheid regime approaching its end. Those who believed that apartheid could be eliminated assumed we were on the threshold of a bloodbath – a civil war between a majority with no voting rights or power, and a minority armed with weapons and fully willing to use them.
I recall a meeting with one of the white activists who supported the demand for majority rule and democracy. He told me that, in essence, the people in power then did not want to share their power because they understood what they had done. They realised that if they themselves had been subject to an injustice like the one they had committed towards the majority over so many years, they would exact a harsh revenge. In other words, when those in power held a mirror up to their actions, what they saw was the vengeance of the majority, and it frightened them.
But the reflection they saw was not the full picture. Because within that majority there was another voice, another direction, even what we could almost call another religion. A different view that stood in contrast with the notion of revenge, giving greater weight to the potent, liberating idea of forgiveness and reconciliation of the New Testament than to the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth principle of the Old.
It was present in Nelson Mandela’s ability to realise majority power through dialogue.
It was present in Desmond Tutu’s ability to harness the power of non-violence and to see a path forward through reconciliation based on truth.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the 1990s, chaired by Desmond Tutu, was a building block in the peaceful creation of democratic South Africa. The Commission’s method, approach, view of humanity, and implementation have been a guiding force for peace and reconciliation efforts ever since. Archbishop Tutu and the Commission he led provided a roadmap for a way out of deadlocked and dangerous conflicts. A method for giving people and communities a new start. A path forward that bypasses the bleak logic of revenge.
The story of South Africa is one of the most compelling of our times. Desmond Tutu was a man full of emotions and commitment. He had an infectious sense of humour and he sometimes lacked patience. But he was not meek and mild. He could lose his temper and no one could misunderstand his fury. No one could remain indifferent. People loved him, many disapproved of him. Towards the end of his life we saw another contrast come to light: his disappointment over the path being taken by the new South Africa. And his undying commitment to pointing out unfairness and injustice across the world.
In the wake of Desmond Tutu’s death, I have contemplated the many contrasts in his life. I have witnessed the impact of his work on modern peace and reconciliation efforts. But I have thought even more about something that can be important at the personal level. Because we can each look inside ourselves and ask ‘What does Tutu’s message about forgiveness and reconciliation mean for me – in my life? What does Mandela’s choice to seek dialogue instead of inciting violence mean for me – in my work, in my daily life?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission did not offer unconditional forgiveness. It demanded something from both parties. Reconciliation was achieved from knowing the truth. The efforts of two parties were essential to succeed. The process had to be a mutual one.
I can bring that with me into my own life. I have to start with myself. I must take time to reflect on the idea that to achieve something, I may need to give something up. That seeking compromise can be much more effective than going it alone. Dialogue is not just about two parties talking together. They must both be genuinely able to listen. Not necessarily agree, but to understand each other. That can be difficult. It can be painful. What Desmond Tutu achieved in South Africa was both difficult and painful. But together with Nelson Mandela, he showed that people are able to rise above barbarism and collapse. No less.
This is a view that stands in contrast to so much of the injustice and oppression we are seeing today. At home and abroad. This is a view we can work together to keep alive and continue to build on.
Desmond Tutu will live on in our memory. May he rest in peace.