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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)


You know, at one time I worked for the World Council of Churches and we were based in London. I came from Africa. There was someone from Taiwan. There was someone from Malaysia, someone from the States, and then someone from Latin America, and he introduced me to Latin American liberation theology. And I came to visit for the first time in the United States and here encountered black theology. So all of that was a very significant part of what helped to open my eyes. Mercifully, there isn’t anything like the so-called self-made person.

I mean, they are people who helped to form me. And then discovering that the Bible could be such dynamite. I subsequently used to say if these white people had intended keeping us under they shouldn’t have given us the Bible. Because, whoa, I mean, it’s almost as if it is written specifically just for your situation. I mean, the many parts of it that were so germane, so utterly to the point for us…

When you discover that apartheid sought to mislead people into believing that what gave value to human beings was a biological irrelevance, really, skin color or ethnicity, and you saw how the scriptures say it is because we are created in the image of God, that each one of us is a God-carrier. No matter what our circumstances may be, no matter how awful, no matter how deprived you could be, it doesn’t take away from you this intrinsic worth. One saw just how significant it was.

- Desmond Tutu, from "Tutu’s God of Surprises"

Tuesday Evening Melody: “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” by Soweto Gospel Choir

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

To open our show with Desmond Tutu, we chose the Soweto Gospel Choir’s version of South Africa’s national anthem. The song pulls together two anthems in five different languages: Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English. It goes:

Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo,
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.

Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso,
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho,
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,
Setjhaba sa South Afrika — South Afrika.

Uit die blou van onse hemel,
Uit die diepte van ons see,
Oor ons ewige gebergtes,
Waar die kranse antwoord gee,

Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom,
In South Africa our land.

The history of how this anthem came into being is fascinating. Well worth a read.


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.


Renaming as an Act of Healing
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

Durban Street RenamingIn Krista’s interviews with Archbishop Tutu and Cedric Good House, each discuss the devastating impacts of colonialism and oppression on native peoples in different geographies. Both men also speak about the potential for renaming as an act of healing.

Tutu tells a story about D.F. Malan Driveway, an arterial road in Johannesburg that was originally christened after the country’s first National Party prime minister Daniel François Malan, one of the key architects of apartheid. Johannesburg’s mayor changed the road’s name to Beyers Naudé Drive in 2001.

Beyers Naudé was an Afrikaaner cleric in the Dutch Reformed Church who rejected any scriptural basis for apartheid and became an anti-apartheid activist. Today, you can find other landmarks in South Africa, including a high school, that are named after him.

Tutu says that this act of renaming is one manifestation of a “God of surprises” whose “sense of humor is quite something.” Hearing Tutu tell this story, I was reminded of Cedric Good House and what he said about the significance of place names in "Reimagining Sitting Bull: Tatanka Iyotake":

"Today, there’s a lot of things that we’re going through. You know, people are talking language, they’re talking a lot of things. … if you come to Standing Rock, even here in Bismarck, you find things that are just predominantly from that time. You see here in town Grant Marsh Bridge. We pass by Fort Lincoln. We pass by Custer’s house. On Standing Rock there’s a town called McLaughlin. It’s just infested with that type of mindset."

In the audio above, Good House also points out that things are starting to change as some towns have renamed themselves to commemorate their Lakota heritage: “There was a lot of things we needed to heal from and continue to and it’s happening.”

I wonder about the possibilities and limits of these acts of renaming. Andrew Boraine, chief executive of the Cape Town Partnership writes on his blog that “a renaming process can be superficial and shallow if it is not part of broader efforts to genuinely build social cohesion and address the physical and materials needs of citizens.” He continues:

"Like patriotism, the practice of renaming can become a refuge of scoundrels, enabling leaders to deflect from delivering on substantive issues. However, I don’t buy the argument that the process of renaming certain streets and places is irrelevant or that there are "more important issues."

Lead image: traffic signs in Durban, South Africa display the former and new names of streets in central eThekwini (photo: Andrew Boraine).


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.


A Triumphant Survival

Kate Moos, managing producer

Arresting. From the Mail & Guardian, this difficult and disturbing set of images accompanied by an interview with Leon Botha, an artist and Progeria survivor. He is 24 years old. A Friday afternoon video *pause* in a day that leaves me reflective.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for their post leading me to this slideshow.)