Dream Your Dreams

Interview with Desmond Tutu
[Scott Barbour/Getty Images]

Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his activism against South Africa's apartheid system of racial segregation. After the country's first democratic election in 1994, he was asked by President Nelson Mandela to chair South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a process of national healing during which the country squarely confronted the human rights abuses that had been perpetrated under apartheid.

Archbishop Tutu is also well known for popularizing beyond South Africa's borders the concept of ubuntu, a word which might be said to describe the underlying fabric of a culture of human rights, and which he has explained as follows: "Ubuntu says a person is a person through other persons. I cannot be a human being in isolation. I need other human beings in order for me to become a human being. And it says you and I need one another. For we are created for interdependence. We are created for togetherness. We are created, ultimately, for being family. And this is going to be the only way, ultimately, that we will survive in this world."

SGI Quarterly: Why do we need a culture of human rights?

Desmond Tutu: A culture of human rights is as essential as the rule of law in society. Without respect for the rule of law, chaos ensues; but where the rule of law obtains everyone knows that there are parameters, boundaries, standards that apply equally for everyone--for instance, that an accused person is assumed to be innocent until proven guilty. It sets standards and holds up ideals to be aimed at. So also a human rights culture sets standards and ideals to be aspired after. It is because, for instance, we believe that all people are equal that sexism is now so heavily discredited or why racism is totally unacceptable

SGIQ: How are the concept and practice of ubuntu and that of a culture of human rights similar or different?

DT: Ubuntu is culturally determined, whereas human rights apply universally. Both set high store by persons though ubuntu stresses our communal aspect.

SGIQ: Given the pervasive culture of violence in the world today, the idea of a culture of human rights might seem to be simply an unrealistic ideal.

DT: No. That is precisely when it is most needed for people to aim at the stars and perhaps they could end up on top of the mountain. There must have been many who thought the defeat of apartheid to be just a pious pipedream, quite beyond our reach in South Africa. But people persisted and, well, as they say, the rest is history! No, it is not an unrealistic dream. It is so crucial, for instance, to speak about the right to life of everyone until the opposite is universally unacceptable.

SGIQ: How would you define a champion of human rights?

DT: A human rights champion is someone with an unquenchable zeal to see right and justice prevail, who accords opponents the right to their point of view and hopes to persuade them by reasoning and debate to change their view. My father used to say, "Improve your argument; don't raise your voice!" The methods such a champion uses must be consistent with what she is promoting.

photo Following xenophobic attacks on foreign migrants in South Africa in May 2008, thousands of Cape Town residents staged a protest calling for an end to the attacks [Eric Miller/Panos Pictures]

SGIQ: What can ordinary people do in order to help make a culture of human rights a reality?

DT: There are no ordinary people--every one of us is a very special person because we are each created in the image of God and so of infinite worth. Each one of us should stand up for human rights. It is ultimately only when human rights prevail that the vulnerable will be safe. Rights have, on their obverse side, responsibilities and obligations. My right to my own opinion involves my being tolerant of the different views of others. Someone said, "My right to stretch my arm ends where your nose begins."

SGIQ: You have emphasized the importance of restorative justice. What about people who can't let go of the need for retribution? You can't force people to forgive.

DT: Yes, you cannot force anyone to forgive because forgiveness is not cheap. It is not just facile. It is costly, but restorative justice ultimately is better than retributive justice because it seeks to heal a breach whereas retributive justice concentrates on being punitive and can set off a horrendous cycle of revenge.

SGIQ: How important or realistic is dialogue to the process of establishing a culture of human rights, especially in situations of seemingly intractable conflict?

DT: Human rights are best promoted through persuasion and discussion where enemy meets adversary and they begin to realize they share a common humanity.

SGIQ: In the struggle against apartheid, how did you maintain hope in the face of such daunting circumstances? How can people regain and maintain a sense of hope in the face of complex global problems today?

DT: I believed then as I still do that this is God's world and that God is in charge; that this is a moral universe and that ultimately goodness, right and justice will prevail over their ghastly counterparts. And I knew too that many were upholding us with their fervent prayers, and we owe a great deal to all those who were part of the international antiapartheid movement.

Yes, it is not easy, but they should hang on to the belief that right will eventually triumph.

SGIQ: As an individual who has long been on the forefront of the struggle for human rights, what is your message to the youth of a new generation confronting their own struggles to build a world in which the dignity of all is recognized and respected?

DT: I admire young people. They are amazing in their idealism believing that we can have a world without war, without poverty and disease. I say to them, "Dream your dreams of a better world, dream the dream of God!"


Archbishop Tutu is currently chairman of The Elders, a group of public figures from around the world promoting solutions to global problems. Become involved in their Every Human Has Rights campaign, a call on the world's citizens to uphold the goals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their daily lives and to hold governments accountable for the same: