By SALLY MATHIS
Human rights activist Nontombi Naomi Tutu spoke to an audience in Dodd Auditorium on Jan. 19 about growing up during the apartheid and the oppression she faced during her formative years in South Africa.
Speaking on behalf of the UMW Multicultural Center, junior Charles Reed explained that Tutu was chosen as the speaker for Martin Luther King, Jr. week because her speech related to King’s idea of a beloved community. King envisioned a worldwide community of peace in which poverty and hunger were abolished by caring for others.
Tutu cited the South African proverb, “A person is a person through other people” as the foundation of many of her beliefs.
“Dehumanizing, belittling, and oppressing others is dehumanizing, belittling and oppressing yourself,” she said.
According to Tutu, understanding that lesson is the first step toward building King’s beloved community.
At a time when white South Africans were living prosperously and the suffering of black South Africans only seemed to affect them positively, this idea was difficult for Tutu to believe.
She said the proverb’s meaning did not hit her until her family moved to England when she was a teenager. She recounted being in after-school detention one afternoon, when she made the discovery that detention was a weak form of punishment, because the teachers also had to stay in the room with them instead of doing something more enjoyable.
“It made me start thinking more about what oppression actually looks like,” she said. “It’s easy to see the oppression of black South Africans under apartheid–It wasn’t so easy to see the oppression of the white South Africans.”
In the speech she said the oppression by the white South Africans sprung out of their fear.
“They built higher and higher walls around their homes,” Tutu said. “They brought out new laws almost every year […] they killed, they tortured […] they forced their young men to serve in a military to oppress and kill our young people.”
She explained that by using that privilege to their advantage, they had little time to enjoy it. According to Tutu, white South Africans were so fearful they would not allow their own kind to question the apartheid; any white South African who did so was ostracized.
“When I recognized that about South Africa, it helped me recognize more that when we [talk about justice] there has to be a place of recognizing modern humanity,” she said.
Tutu argued that one must understand his or her oppressors in order to move forward.
“It takes courage to be willing to admit that even in the best of us, there is the possibility of evil,” Tutu said. “It takes courage to be able to accept and believe that even in the worst of us exists the possibility for good.”
Tutu alluded to Robben Island, a place in South Africa where former prisoners live in a community with their former guards, to support her beliefs. She questioned why this community could exist when others are so unwilling to get to know each other because they have opposing viewpoints.
“If we give ourselves the chance to tell our story and to hear the story of the other, in that space lays our opportunity for justice and for common ground,” Tutu said, in the concluding moments of her speech. “In that path is the way to the beloved community. In that way, we come to a person is a person only through other people.”
Throughout the evening, Tutu urged the audience to take time to truly get to know people, regardless of initial judgments or differing beliefs.
She encouraged sharing stories and listening to others. In order to create a common ground and take the first steps towards building Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community.