Remembering Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Many Contributions to South Africa, the World, and the Field of Psychology
Sarah Mancoll, Policy Director, SPSSI
Archbishop Desmond Tutu died on December 26, 2021 at the age of ninety. As a teenager, I was lucky enough to see Archbishop Tutu speak on a college campus in Upstate New York. He was a gifted orator, and it was thrilling to hear firsthand from the Nobel Laureate who had been a leading voice in Black South Africans’ successful struggle to end apartheid and who had also been a major figure in shaping South Africa’s post-apartheid landscape.
This past August, SPSSI released “Celebrating 85 Years of SPSSI,” a short film that highlights SPSSI members’ anti-apartheid advocacy work and post-apartheid scholarly ties to South Africa. In the film, SPSSI’s Past President Dr. James M. Jones discusses Ubuntu, a cultural concept of forgiveness that underpinned the work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which Archbishop Tutu chaired. As Dr. Jones explains in a 2006 Journal of Social Issues (JSI) paper,1 “Bishop Desmond Tutu (1999) asks, What would motivate a person to forgive rather than seek retribution? His answer is the spirit of Ubuntu-–the spirit of humanity characterized by the expression, ‘My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours, I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.’… Forgiveness is not just altruistic but life affirming and self-interested. The idea that one loses something through forgiveness is rejected by the Ubuntu principle. One in fact gains or retains one’s humanity.”
Through the work of scholars like Dr. Jones and SPSSI’s UN Committee, SPSSI members followed the progress of South Africa’s TRC in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2004, shortly after the release of the last two volumes of the TRC’s final report, SPSSI took a delegation of members to South Africa through the People-to-People Ambassador Program. The trip focused on psychology and social issues with specific emphases on racial reconciliation, violence and trauma, HIV and health, gender issues, and racial identity.
Two years later, JSI published a special issue on Restorative Justice and Civil Society. The issue focused on what were at the time emerging topical fields within the social sciences and the reference to Archbishop Tutu across a number of articles within the issue made clear that his ideas and words informed scholarship on restorative justice. As Drs. Brenda Morrison and Eliza Ahmed (2006) write in their introductory article,2 “With a focus on repairing the harm done, restorative processes have been used to address interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup conflict. At an interpersonal or intragroup level, restorative practices have been used to address harmful behavior across a range of institutions, addressing issues such as family welfare, criminal and juvenile justice, and school discipline. At an intergroup level, the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa is the most notable example. In the aftermath of apartheid, Desmond Tutu believed that South Africa could only move toward a brighter future by first addressing past wrongs.”
After the passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, SPSSI’s President, Dr. Linda Silka, and members of SPSSI’s UN Committee, including Main Representative Dr. David Livert, Dr. Corann Okorodudu, and Dr. Deborah Fish Ragin, issued a letter of condolence to the people of South Africa through Ambassador Mathu Joyini, South Africa’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. In the letter, they write that Archbishop Tutu “embodied the values
of compassion, empathy, and morality” and that, “As SPSSI endeavors to continue our efforts towards social justice at the United Nations, we hold tightly to Archbishop Tutu’s optimism and faith in human beings when he noted that ‘[d]espite all of the ghastliness in the world, human beings are made for goodness. The ones that are held in high regard are not militarily powerful, nor even economically prosperous. They have a commitment to try and make the world a better place.’”
2 See above