Desmond Tutu turns 79 today, Oct. 7, and he says this is it: At long last, he’s retiring from public life.

The South African archbishop-emeritus played a critical role during a period of dramatic change in South Africa in recent decades, and he is rightly revered world wide.

A man with the dynamic energy that Tutu displays surely has rubbed some people the wrong way over the years and picked up some detractors who regard his public persona as too good to be true. Sure, he’s a Nobel Peace Prize winner. He’s also human, after all.

However human he might be, he is also deeply humane. I have a fond memory of an afternoon with him at Emory University in Atlanta a dozen years ago. Tutu has had a long relationship with Emory and with the nearby Carter Center. “The whole civil rights tradition (in Atlanta) has been one that only the insensitive would not be aware of,” he told me. “And so there was an added and a very significant reason for coming here.”

At the time I talked with him, he was wrapping up his work as head of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission, which was trying to help heal the nation after the end of the apartheid era. He was no Pollyanna. Many of the meetings of his commission had been “hellish … the most awful meetings that I can imagine,” he said, because they focused on abductions, bombings, false imprisonment, torture — people who were burned alive or fed to crocodiles. He seemed to give almost equal weight to other kinds of violence: the lack of access to educational opportunity or to health care.

He was far from naive about the persistent anger and suspicion all around him. He also acknowledged his limitations. His job was the “promotion” of reconciliation, not the “achievement” of it. The latter was “a process to which every South African ought to be contributing,” he said. He had “no magic wand.” He confessed to worries about the future of his country.

Not content to tackle the difficult problems of his own nation, he also talked about the United States, as he had come to know it.

He praised America:

What have we learned from you? That you really are quite extraordinary in your beliefs in freedom.

But, characteristically, he also had some advice for Americans:

I said to President Clinton — sorry, but I seem to be name-dropping (he laughed), but you will forgive the indications of mere mortality — I believe you need to have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the United States. I mean that quite seriously.

When I first came to this country, I was amazed at the strength of feeling among African-Americans. I believe it was more intense than ours at home, despite our being clobbered by apartheid. I understood why they could feel so strongly.

You see, in this country you say the sky is the limit. And theoretically the sky is the limit. . . . But, having said that you say theoretically that you are all equal, clearly there are some who are many many times more equal than others and somehow race comes into the equation. . . . And that has caused enormous anguish.

And I would venture to say you people didn’t sit down after your Civil War and say, “What happened? What are the results of slavery? Can we as Americans sit down and talk about the things that really bother us and try to listen to one another?” We have learned (that).

Despite such heavy thoughts, Tutu smiled frequently. He peppered his conversation with hopeful statements about cultivating “a culture that respects human rights.” South Africa’s “apartheid was not the last word,” he said. He still believed people from diverse backgrounds can ultimately weld themselves together and work together as a society. One of the best lessons of his life, he said, is that “there are some extraordinary people in the world.” He remained, in short, hopeful.

Maybe you had to be there to know what I mean. It’s easy to repeat someone’s words, far more difficult to convey his or her spirit. But, by the time our conversation ended, I could not resist being infected by Tutu’s ebullience and what seemed to be to be a genuine inner joy, in spite of all the sadness and turmoil he had experienced.

Since then, I’ve often watched televised interviews with him, when he projected the same buoyancy, the deep-felt love of people and life and especially of lives well lived that he displayed that day. He is a rare man, one of the truly great public figures of our time, and, by any measure, he has earned whatever private pleasure he can find.

Related reading:

Time magazine has just released a new interview with Tutu:,8599,2023562,00.html?xid=rss-topstories&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+time/topstories+(TIME:+Top+Stories)

Keith Graham

Keith Graham

Keith Graham was among the recipients of the prestigious Stella Artois prize at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival. Named for a blind piano player, he is also well known for always giving money to street accordion players. A quotation that he considers meaningful comes from the Irish writer Roddy Doyle: "The family trees of the poor don't grow to any height." In addition to contributing to Like the Dew, Keith frequently posts quotations and links and occasionally longer articles at