Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering – remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.
– Desmond Tutu, South African social rights activist, apartheid opponent, and retired Anglican bishop
In May 1985, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, who had won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, came to California to raise funds for human rights activists and meet with students, clergy, and members of the Democratic Party activists. His engagements were to address the California Democratic Council’s 33rd annual convention in Los Angeles and the California Legislature in Sacramento. He was also scheduled to appear in Oakland and San Francisco and UC Berkeley and UC Davis. So in my last month as a student at UC Davis, I had the immense honor to hear him speak on the quad about human rights in South Africa and the vision of dismantling of the Apartheid system.
Those were heady times for college students. I was a quiet social activist before coming to Davis. There wasn’t really a venue for such activity in the Central Valley community where I grew up. In fact, the town of Porterville where I went to high school recently made news in the New York Times for a controversy over the mayor’s proclamation of June as the month to honor gay pride. She was ousted by her fellow conservative city council members, who were supported by many of the equally conservative townspeople. Imagine nearly three decades earlier what the social justice scene looked like – or didn’t look like. And imagine what an eye-opening experience it was to come to a college campus and hear social justice discourse and participate in change wherever you turned, every day you stepped on campus. And imagine standing amidst an overflowing crowd, with speakers lining the grassy quad, listening to one of the most important historical figures in the fight to end Apartheid talk about justice for his people, and really, justice for us all.
Do I remember specifically what he said? No. Apartheid was alive and well at that time, but changes – albeit violent changes – were taking place. Surely he appealed for support in America, which he certainly got from his welcome at Davis. A little less than five years later, in February 1990, then President FW de Klerk announced the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the dismantling of the Apartheid system slowly began. On April 27, 1994, the first democratic elections were held, with all people given the right to vote. Twenty-two million South Africans voted in the election, which resulted in a Government of National Unity being formed, with Mandela as president and de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki as deputy presidents.
How UC Davis was lucky enough to snag Tutu to speak, I’ll never know. But I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to see him in person and to hear him speak. One of the greatest gifts of a college education – outside of the wondrous learning and knowledge, the life-long friendships formed, and the mentoring by sage professors – is the vast experience the university exposes young people to. I remembered leaving Davis thinking how much bigger the university experience had made my world and realizing as I stepped into the next phase of my life how much bigger it would become still – and yet my time at Davis had prepared me for the coming expansion.
While Tutu, who survived a bout of prostate cancer in 1997, had begun entering retirement when he turned 79, eschewing all speaking engagements, he came out of retirement and gave the commencement speech in May 2012 to graduates at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Can you imagine telling people that Desmond Tutu gave your commencement address? He still, of course, supports a number of social issues, including gay rights, women’s rights, climate justice, and other humanitarian initiatives, such as the Soldiers of Peace project, which advocates for global peace. Tutu once famously said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Desmond Tutu turns 82 years old today. I wish him a happy birthday and peace on this day forward. I thank him for his service to his country and to the world, and for allowing me to hear hope in his voice 28 years ago to give me hope in the goodness of humanity and allowing me to feel the power in his voice that whatever evil and hatred exists in this world, we shall indeed overcome.