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South Africa’s Blacks: Aliens in Their Own Land

by Bishop Desmond Tutu

Desmund Tutu, archbishop of Cape Town is internationally known and respected for his continuing rule in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis November 26, 1984.. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis, used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


I first discovered that there are black people in the United States when I was a small boy of about eight years of age and I picked up a battered copy of Ebony magazine. I didn’t know that there could be literature of that kind, with such subversive qualities, because up to that point I had come to begin to believe what white people said about us. And, picking up Ebony magazine, I grew inches. I read about one Jackie Robinson breaking into major league baseball and that did wonders for me as a person.

Now, only those who have been victims of oppression and injustice and discrimination know what I am talking about when I say that the ultimate evil is not the suffering, excruciating as that may be, which is meted out to those who are God’s children. The ultimate evil of oppression, and certainly of that policy of South Africa called apartheid, is when it succeeds in making a child of God begin to doubt that he or she is a child of God. That is the ultimate blasphemy.

I recall, too, seeing our first all-black film, Stormy Weather. I don’t know whether it was a very good film. I don’t know what the critics would say. But I don’t care. Because for us it was making a political statement, it was making a theological statement. They were just putting together a piece of entertainment, a movie -- Fats WaIler, Cab Calloway, Lena Home. Yet it was making a theological statement. It was saying that these whom you see depicted there have the imago dei. That these too are created in the image of God and if they are created in the image of God they too are God’s representatives, and if they are God’s representatives then we too, in spite of all that was happening and still happens to us, we too are children of God. We too are those whom God has honored by asking us to be his partners. Partners in upsetting the powers and principalities. Partners in helping God to establish his kingdom. And God was saying: "Hey, don’t go around trying to apologize for your existence, man. I didn’t make a mistake creating you as who you are. You are not a faint copy, carbon copy of somebody else; you are an original." That was seeping through into our consciousness in ways that we were not always aware of, and the subversion had begun.

You see, as you very well know, one of the ways of helping to destroy a people is to tell them that they don’t have a history, that they have no roots. They did it in many ways. One of them was writing history from the perspective of white people. Now we weren’t over-bright, but this history of South .Africa began to strike us as odd. We read about white colonists coming to our country in the seventeenth century. Whenever the Dutch or English colonists went over into black territory and got the black’s cattle, the word used was that the colonists "captured" the cattle. But almost always when they wrote about a similar expedition on the part of the Xhosas, the Xhosas always "stole" the cattle. And we were very young, but I mean we began to scratch our heads.

 But you see, if you tell something sufficiently often you come to believe it and those who listen to you perhaps also believe it. And you begin to gnaw away at their self-image and they begin to see themselves as you depict them, when you call them, as we used to be called "non-whites," "non-Europeans."

Words into Things

Those people who say that language is not important don’t know what they are talking about. Those people who think that language is merely descriptive of reality don’t know what they are talking about. We who have been victims of a process of denigration know that language is also creative: It brings about what it describes. If you say to people for long enough that they are non-this, non-the-other, it doesn’t take very long before they begin to believe and speak of themselves also in negative terms. So that it becomes almost a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is actually quite wonderful, the kind of things that used to happen at home. Back in the old days they used to call us Natives, with a capital N. Now, that applied only to people with our color of skin. If you went to a white South African, born in the country, and you said innocently, "Excuse me, Ma’am, are you a native of these parts?" you would know very soon that you had committed the most awful faux pas, and you would wish that the earth would open up and swallow you. Because she certainly was not a "Native" of those parts.

They used to have extraordinary road signs which read, "Drive carefully, Natives cross here." Somebody changed the sign to read, rather hair-raisingly, "Drive carefully, Natives very cross here.".

Now, my dear brothers and sisters, I come from a land where they ban all kinds of literature as being subversive. You are not allowed to read this and that and the other because it would put ideas in your heads. Our children are prevented from reading histories that will tell them about the French Revolution. It would put ideas into their heads -- liberty, fraternity, equality -- how can you speak about those things? The histories that our children have to study have been expurgated so that you don’t see any references to the American War of Independence. But, we said to the government, you know, you are late. The book that you should have banned a long time ago is the Bible.

Land in Flames

I came to this country three weeks ago. We should have come much earlier to the United States. We had to postpone our departure because of the upheaval in our land. We called an emergency meeting of our executive committee [of the South African Council of Churches] because we thought that our land was going up in flames.

So on this occasion, our committee said, let us visit the areas of unrest. We went to a black township called Wattville and we went into the home of an old lady and we said, "Can you tell us what happened?"

She said, "Yes, Bishop. My grandchildren were playing in the front of the house, in the yard.. The police went past here chasing school children. They didn’t find them. There was no riot happening at the time, and the police came down the street and swept past my house and they stopped. Bishop, I was sitting in the kitchen which is at the back of my house when one of my children rushed into the kitchen and said. ‘Mommy, please come.’ I rushed out. My grandson of six was lying just inside the front door. Shot in the back. Dead. Only six years old." Now, even if there was a riot, what in the name of everything that is good could you say a six-year-old would do to police armed to the teeth? How do you manage to shoot a six-year-old in the back?

South Africa says, "Our economy is going to be based on cheap black labor and we can insure that that labor is cheap by separating off the men from their families and having them live in single-sex hostels for eleven months of the year. Therefore we can pay them as if they were single and the cost of production is decreased accordingly." So those who invest in South Africa, invest in a system which we have described as being as evil, as un-Christian, as immoral as Communism ever was, as Nazism ever was. They invest in a system that depends on black misery and suffering. When some people suggest to them -- I don’t because I can’t; if I stood up here and said that I support disinvestment it would be five years in jail so I am not talking about it -- if someone else says to those who invest in South Africa, "Hey, why don’t you pull out?" they will be the first to say, "You know, the people who will suffer the most if we pull out are blacks."

Baloney! For all these many years they have depended on black misery and suffering. What makes them suddenly become these wonderful altruists who care about black suffering? I am not a cynic. I am merely asking a question.

Perhaps you have read about the KTC squatter camps in Cape Town, or you may have heard of Crossroads. Let me tell you why there are these squatter camps. They exist because of the South African desire for cheap labor. What happens is that the women folk say, "You know, when we went to church we were told by the minister, when we took our vows, ‘What God has joined together let no man put asunder.’ And so, we want to fulfill our marriage vows. We want to be with our men."

In South Africa, it is a crime. In a Christian country that has a public holiday dedicated to the family, it is a crime. Isn’t it marvelous: "Family Day" in a country which deliberately, systematically, by design of government policy, destroys black family life.

But those women said, "We have had enough. We are going to be with our men folk, come hell or high water." Well, they have been getting hell. These women, because there is no housing available, build squatter camps, with homes constructed of flimsy plastic coverings. I am glad, you know, that I am not Western; I’m glad that I am not white. I am glad that maybe I am also not civilized -- because those who uphold these wonderful standards every day go out and they destroy those plastic shelters that the women have put up. You don’t read about it anymore because it doesn’t make the news.

I carry a strange document for traveling around. It is not even a passport. Now, I am a South African of the golden sunshine, the gold, and the Krugerrand. My father was born in South Africa. My mother was born in South Africa, my mother’s mother -- you go right back. We belong here. Well then, there are some people who don’t understand that. I carry this document for travel purposes. Inside here, where there is a place for nationality, you would think it would say "South Africa." This thing here says of my nationality, "Undeterminable at present." You might think I am making it up. "Undeterminable at present." They don’t know where to slot me because they say South Africa is made up of several nations. The Xhosas are one nation; the Tswanas and so forth and so forth.

Among the whites there are French, English, German, you name it. Now we say, "Please just tell us how is it possible for whites of these disparate groups to come together and coalesce and be one nation? And we who are Africans are split up into all these different nations?"

The purpose, obviously, is to turn us into aliens in the land of our birth. Because, you see, when you are an alien, one thing you cannot claim is political rights.

So, when we stand up and say that this is evil, this is un-Christian, they say, "Hey, you are mixing politics with religion." They tell us, "You are a Communist." Now maybe that sounds familiar. And then we ask, "Hey, which Bible do you read? Would you kindly tell us which Bible you read which would enable you to have this dichotomy?"

We don’t read the same Bible. When did the people of Israel experience God for the first time as God? Did they experience God in worship? That is not what the Bible says. The Bible says the people of Israel experienced God when God performed a political act, helping rebel slaves escape out of bondage. And from that time on people said, "Ah, this is the kind of God we have. A liberating God. A God who takes the side of the oppressed, of the hungry, of the exploited, of the weak."

Which Bible do you read? Have you read Matthew, chapter 25? Jesus tells a strange parable there. He says, "How is it going to he determined how you go to heaven or to the warmer place? Did you feed the hungry? Did you clothe the naked? Did you visit the sick? Did you visit those who are in prison?" Jesus says, "Inasmuch as you have done it to these you would have done it to me." So if you want to know where I am in South Africa, you go to the KTC squatter camp. That is where I am.

A Strange Country

And so, let me finish, my friends, and say your country is a strange country. Let me be careful. I am a visitor here. Your country: When the Polish leader General Jaruzelski did something to Solidarity, your country, before you could say Jackie Robinson, applied sanctions against Poland.

And then the same kind of thing is done to black trade unionists in South Africa and you say Hey, what are you doing about that situation? They say, no, no, no. Sanctions don’t work. Sanctions don’t work. We must have a policy of constructive engagement. We must talk to these people and try to persuade them.

And so I end by saying, How come you allow the kinds of things that happen in South Africa to happen with the aid of your government?

We depend on you. We depend on you because our liberation is your liberation. As long as we are unfree -- to that extent you are going to be unfree in this country. And let me say to you, there is no doubt we are going to be free. Whether you help us or not. For the God whom we worship is the Exodus God, the God who leads his people always out of bondage into freedom.


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