As a child growing up in apartheid South Africa, Naomi Tutu says she often didn’t appreciate the power of the proverbs her parents and other adults used.
“A person is a person through other people” was regularly professed around her family’s dinner table, but the phrase didn’t have much meaning as Tutu witnessed the oppression of her people – the oppression her father fervently fought – during government-mandated racial segregation under apartheid rule in South Africa.
“It didn’t seem to jive with what I was seeing in the country of my birth,” she said Wednesday night, sharing her story at Winthrop University’s Model United Nations conference.
Her father, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, fought the apartheid government and became a global figure in the struggle to end racial oppression in South Africa.
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Believing that “a person is a person through other people” was nearly impossible, Naomi Tutu said, when “it seemed as though white South Africans had a wonderful life based on our oppression.”
But the proverb rang true when Tutu realized the South African government’s and the white population’s oppression also was oppressive to themselves. “They lived in constant fear of losing the privilege that they had,” she said.
After a series of large anti-apartheid rallies and pressure on other countries to disinvest in South Africa until apartheid ended, South Africa saw political transformation in 1994, and gradually after, it saw social change. Tutu’s father became equally as well-known for his work in rebuilding South Africa through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as he had been for his work in helping dismantle the oppressive government.
Through the hard work of reconciling and healing, Naomi Tutu said, her country found “there was one common feature” among its people: “that we are all human beings.”
Speaking to a packed Tillman Auditorium at Winthrop, Tutu said the United States and South Africa are still far from racial equality. But “what was true for South Africa (during reconciliation) is true for the world.”
As high school and college students prepared to start the first round of Model UN debate at Winthrop, Tutu challenged her audience to be bridge builders – referencing a popular South Africa proverb that reads, “In the time of floods, the wise build bridges, the fools build walls.”
Too often, she said, when crises arise and politicians want to solve a problem, people look for “scapegoats” and build walls, instead of building bridges and looking for allies. Her message at Winthrop centered around the idea that people who fear those they call “others” are blocking their nation’s ability to progress.
“We so often close out opportunity for ourselves, for our community, by simply labeling and determining that ‘that group’ has nothing to add,” Tutu said.
After Tutu’s speech on Wednesday, many students said they felt re-energized for Winthrop’s 38th annual Model UN conference.
Winthrop sophomore Zach Grieger said Tutu’s story shed new light on South Africa’s apartheid history that he hadn’t studied before. In his second year with Model UN at Winthrop, he said Tutu’s involvement was a big deal for the university and the conference.
This year, Winthrop’s three-day Model UN is being held during the university’s weeklong celebration of the inauguration of its 10th president, Jamie Comstock.
Tutu’s visit and the Model UN conference support Winthrop’s commitment to a “global awareness (that) filters through all our majors,” Comstock said to the assembly before Tutu’s speech.
For Tutu – an author and human rights consultant known for her work in global economic development – that awareness is crucial, she said, for students to determine “what is the world that you want to inherit.”
To achieve global development and prosperity, she said, takes “recognizing the humanity of each person on this planet ... if for no other reason but because of the truth of that proverb: a person is a person through other people.”