Q & A: Desmond Tutu


The South African Archbishop talks about aging, Darfur and Nelson Mandela’s sense of style

Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2006

Desmond Tutu may be retired, but he isn’t retiring. Wise and witty as ever, the Nobel-prizewinning South African Archbishop remains an outspoken and compelling figure 12 years after his nonviolent activism helped abolish apartheid. Earlier this month, he marked his 75th birthday with the release of his authorized biography, Rabble-Rouser for Peace. Tutu talked with Time’s Sonja Steptoe about aging, the divisions in the Anglican Church and Nelson Mandela’s questionable sense of style.

TIME: What’s the best thing about life at 75?
Tutu: Looking back and now saying, “Hey, we are free!” And realizing it is possible for good to overcome evil and to know that we can do it together.

TIME: You learned you had prostate cancer in 1997. Are you now cancer free?
Tutu: It was in remission for a bit, and it has come back. But so far, it’s not aggressive. As a baby I nearly died. And when I was about 15, I had tuberculosis and the doctors told my family I was going to die. So all these years that I’ve enjoyed have been bonuses.

TIME: Your biography is titled Rabble-Rouser for Peace, which sounds like a contradictory concept.
Tutu: I heard someone say you must wear your dirtiest pants if you want to be involved in working for peace. When you care about any injustice and fight for it, it’s rough in the arena.

TIME: Twenty years ago, you became the first black to lead the Anglican Church in South Africa. What positive changes have you seen in the church since?
Tutu: In our own church we ordained women to the priesthood, which is a fantastic thing. When the church in the U.S. elected its first woman presiding bishop [Katherine Jefferts Schori], I said, “Yippee!”

TIME: In 1998, you told the Archbishop of Canterbury that you were ashamed to be Anglican when the church failed to liberalize its attitudes toward gay clergy. Do you still feel that way?
Tutu: Yes. For me, there doesn’t seem to be a difference at all with how I felt when people were being clobbered for something about which they could do nothing-their race. I can’t believe that the Jesus Christ I worship would be on the side of those who persecute an already persecuted minority. That we should be tearing ourselves apart on this issue of human sexuality when the world faces such devastating problems as poverty, aids and conflict seems as if we are fiddling whilst our Rome is burning. TIME: Why do you think your efforts to equate the struggle for gay rights with the fight against apartheid has fallen on deaf ears among many African Anglican leaders?
Tutu: I wish I knew. We seem almost to be programmed to have our identity defined by our againstness. Especially in a time of great change, people want something to hold onto. Diversity confuses you, so you are opposed to it.

TIME: Does a possible split in the Anglican Communion make you want to intervene on this issue?
Tutu: No. You have your point of view but if you say you are retired, for goodness’ sake, look at the sign that says exit and follow it. I hope &riftacute; won’t happen. But if it happens, it doesn’t mean that God has been defeated.

TIME: You’ve criticized the global response to Darfur. How do you explain the inaction?
Tutu: In the past there was a kind of indifference. The response has tended not to be as quick when things happen in Africa as, say, Bosnia. When your complexion is swarthy, you tend to be at the bottom of the queue. But let’s congratulate them this time. Kofi Annan and the Security Council acted far more quickly than they did with Rwanda.

TIME: How close is South Africa to realizing your dream of uniting as a “rainbow people of God”?
Tutu: Reconciliation is a long process. We don’t have the kind of race clashes that we thought would happen. What we have is xenophobia, and it’s very distressing. But maybe you ought to be lenient with us. We’ve been free for just 12 years.

TIME: You and Nelson Mandela have quibbled over fashion in the past. For the record, who’s the better dresser?
Tutu: Modesty prevents me from saying what I really think. But … his sartorial taste is the pits! [Laughs] He’s such a lovely guy, but he was nasty to me when I publicly commented on it. He said the critique was pretty amusing coming from a man who wears a dress!

Copyright © 2006 Time Inc. All rights reserved.