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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.
I think that slogan has been meant to serve and I think is serving a very important aspect of our attempt to get at humanity. You are challenging the very deep roots of the Black man’s belief about himself. When you say ‘black is beautiful’ what in fact you are saying to him is: man, you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being. … So in a sense the term ‘black is beautiful’ challenges exactly that belief which makes someone negate himself.

Steve Biko, from his book I Write What I Like

Vigil in memoriamSteve Biko founded the Black Consciousness Movement as a student leader. He was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960s and 70s, and became a martyr for the movement after dying in police custody in 1977.

Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu spoke in memory of Biko in 2006:

"That is what Steve diagnosed in us as our illness and black consciousness was meant to exorcise this demon, to make us realise that as he said, we were human and not inferior as the white person was human and not superior. I internalised what others had decided was to be my identity, not my God-given utterly precious and unique me."

Former president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki said of Biko in 2007:

"Steve Biko understood that to attain our freedom we had to rebel against the notion that we are a problem, that we should no longer merely cry out -Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?, that we should stop looking at ourselves through the eyes of others, and measuring our souls by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity."

Musician Peter Gabriel wrote a tribute in a song titled “Biko”:

You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher
Oh Biko, Biko,
because Biko Yihla Moja,
Yihla Moja - The man is dead

South African supporters hold a vigil in honor of the anniversary of Biko’s death. (photo: Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images)


Desmond Tutu, the Embodiment of the Qualities of the God He Preaches: Compassion, Justice, Patience, Surprise, and Humor

by Krista Tippett, host

Archbishop Desmond Tutu Closes His Eyes After His Interview with Krista TippettPhoto by Trent Gilliss

Desmond Tutu had long been at the top of my list of people I wanted to interview. I met him in the woods of southern Michigan in 2010, where he was beginning a few days of retreat. He was visibly tired, yet utterly delightful and larger than life. And passion overtook his tiredness as soon as we began to speak about the history he has helped to shape and how he has found meaning within it.

Desmond Tutu’s intellectual intensity and spiritual gravity are tempered by a mischievous wit and a raucous laugh. All of these qualities are abundant in conversation with him, and they infused one of the first stories he told me about his path to political resistance — his realization at some point that “if these white people had intended keeping us under, they shouldn’t have given us the Bible.”

He tells me of preaching and speaking with mature women who were generically called “Annie” by their white employers and grown men forever called “boy” — and handing them the “dynamite” of the Bible as they headed out of church and back into the world. When someone asks you who you are, he recalls telling them, you can say, “I am a God-carrier.” This kind of inner liberation, one life at a time, yielded eventually to an outer upheaval of one of the most entrenched governments of social brutality in modern memory.

As I finally approached this opportunity to speak with Desmond Tutu, I was also deeply aware that South Africa’s transformation, like its previous status quo — like life itself — has been dynamic, not static. The extraordinary accomplishment of a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy has not led to the easy eradication of social and racial inequity.

Violent crime has assumed epic proportions. And, as Desmond Tutu puts it, he has been reminded that original sin doesn’t discriminate on a racial basis — South Africa’s new generations of black leadership are not immune from corruption both personal and political. As he has watched the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he has realized ever more deeply that this was not a closed effort in time, but the origination of a national project that will be the work of generations.

One of his most sobering learnings in that light has been, he says, how “damaged” non-white South Africans were as they entered a new era — and damaged not merely by 50 years of apartheid, but by 300 years of colonialism, which distorted their very sense of themselves. He shares a stunning, saddening story of getting on a plane to Nigeria and seeing, to his great pride, that it was being flown by two black pilots — a first in his lifetime. When awful turbulence hit, he found himself reflexively wishing there were white men in that cockpit to lead them to safety. From such self-knowledge and personal suffering, Desmond Tutu has created a life of deep wisdom and healing, which he extends to all he meets.

At one and the same time, this is a human being overflowing with delight and a kind of infectious spiritual glee. I have never heard anything quite so joyful, or so moving, as the description Desmond Tutu gives me of voting for the first time at the age of 63, comparing it to falling in love — of being transformed from a cipher to a person. And just as vulnerably and powerfully, he reflects on the limits of politics, which turn out to be even more exacting than the decades of struggle that political freedom entailed.

He describes this in theological terms as a movement from being “free from” to being “free for.” He continues to long for a South African society defined not merely by equality under law but by true human flourishing. And the last few centuries of Europe’s history of world war, tyranny, and the Jewish Holocaust, he says — breaking into his raucous laughter even as he makes a deadly serious point — give him great hope for Africa’s eventual progress.

This same long, indeed biblical view of time animates Desmond Tutu’s lifelong insistence that “God is in charge.” He believes as passionately now as he did decades ago that evil, injustice, and suffering will not have the last word. Though he does, he jokes, often ask God if he would please make it a little more obvious that He is in charge.

In the end, Desmond Tutu is the embodiment of the qualities of God he preaches: compassion, a fierce love of justice, divine patience, a capacity to surprise, and a wicked sense of humor. His 21st-century stature as one of the leading clerics of the Anglican church born in England — which was implicated in every one of the 300 years of South Africa’s collective trauma — is another divine irony.

"At the center of this existence is a heart beating with love," says Desmond Tutu. "You and I, and all of us, are incredible… We are, as a matter of fact, made for goodness." Such statements fly in the face of reality as defined by newspaper headlines. But we can only wonder at them, ponder them, and honor them from the mouth of this man, who knows evil and injustice as intimately as he seems to know the mind and heart of God.


The Damage of Apartheid on Desmond Tutu’s Psyche

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

During our interview a few months before he retired in 2010, the Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu shared this heart-wrenching story of flying on a plane out of Lagos, Nigeria. As he boarded the plane, he was beaming with pride, he says, when he saw two black pilots shepherding the plane. While in the air, the plane experienced some bitter turbulence, and at that moment he admits:

"The first thought that came to my mind was ‘Hey, there’s no white men in that cockpit. Are those blacks going to be able to make it?’

Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu is a pivotal figure in helping galvanize South Africa’s improbable and peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy in the 1990s. And he’s been an active participant ever since in the country’s developing story ever since. Despite all the discussions and Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, he helps us realize that the amount of damage done to black South Africans’ psyches is deep-seated. A sober reminder that history is present in incalculable ways.


Backing the Springboks
Colleen Scheck, senior producer

This week, ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary series continued with "The 16th Man." This doc chronicles the role of rugby in helping unify blacks and whites in post-apartheid South Africa. It’s centered around Nelson Mandela’s risky “magnanimous gesture” to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup and back the majority white South African Springboks, culminating with their improbable victory and its unifying symbolism for a nation starting a healing process.

It features interviews with players, including Afrikaner captain François Pienaar, alongside an interview with political activist Justice Bekebeke, who doubted Mandela’s actions, and a few brief comments from Desmond Tutu that echo his belief in a “God of surprises.”

The film’s director quotes Mandela’s post-victory words: “Sport has the ability to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people that little else has … It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers.” Often sports documentaries seem to exaggerate this sentiment; in this case, the documenting feels very authentic, even without knowing how long the impact lasted for the people of South Africa.


A Song that Fueled a Revolution
Chris Heagle, producer

AmandlaWhile doing research for our upcoming show with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I stumbled on the remarkable 2002 documentary, Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony. It chronicles the struggle against apartheid through music and is an amazing resource.

As the film shows, music, especially singing, was integral to the anti-apartheid movement. This song, “Senzeni Na?” stood out (in fact, I can’t get it out of my head!). Its title translates to “What have we done?” and its haunting melody served as both a lament and a rallying cry. There’s a powerful clip from Amandla! that talks about the influence of this song, but due to copyright, I was unable to isolate and embed it here for you. However, you can watch this section by forwarding to the 40:30 mark of the film.

Jimmy Matyu, a columnist for The Herald in South Africa, writes:

“‘Senzeni Na?’ was one of the most powerful and moving songs during the struggle against apartheid and had the power to unite all African people who were the most viciously oppressed section of the South African population. This song, sung at rallies, meetings, protests, funerals, wanted an answer either from God or the government about what blacks had done to deserve such inhumane treatment or naked suffering. This line was repeated so many times and broken only by that soul-touching line, Isono sethu bubumnyama (Our only sin is our darkness).”

Senzeni Na? (Zulu/Xhosa)          What Have We Done? (English)

Senzenina                                   What have we done?
Sono sethu ubumnyama              Our sin is our blackness
Sono sethu yinyaniso                   Our sin is the truth
Sibulawayo                                  They are killing us
Mayibuye i Africa.                        Let Africa return.

As usual, we’ll be posting a playlist of all of the amazing music from this show, as well as some gems that didn’t make into the final production, on our website when the show comes out next week.


History Written in Charcoal & Sand
Andy Dayton, associate web producer

The video above made its way into my inbox last week, apparently after making the rounds through the rest of the internet. It’s a performance by 24-year-old Ukrainian artist Ksenya Simonove, first prize winner of the TV competition “Ukraine’s Got Talent” in 2009. She creates and transforms her images by manipulating sand on a light box, in this case telling a story from life in the Soviet Union during WWII. From the wet eyes in the audience, Simonove seems to have tapped into a part Ukrainian history that is still emotionally raw for those connected to it.

Simonove’s continually transforming images reminded me of another artist — South African filmmaker William Kentridge. Rather than drawing with sand, Kentridge is known for using charcoal and pastel on paper. But his animations have the same sense of “history.” Rather than using a fresh image for each frame, he continually erases and adds to his drawings to make them come alive on film.

Many of Kentridge’s films also carry with them a painful story from a difficult national history — in this case, apartheid in South Africa. From the Tate Modern’s description of his animation, History of the Main Complaint (video below):

”[History of the Main Complaint] was made shortly after the establishment in South Africa of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It was set up to conduct a series of public hearings into abuses of human rights perpetrated during the apartheid era. The hearings, in which individuals told their stories of personal suffering, were held in order to make reparation for abuse and in the hope of creating reconciliation between peoples.

The underlying theme of this film is a (self) recognition of white responsibility. This is played out through a ‘medical’ investigation into the body of Soho Eckstein, the white property-developing magnate and greedy-capitalist protagonist of most of the preceding films, which provides the starting point for a revelation of conscience.”