Tutu and the Nobel Peace Prize

Bishop Desmond Tutu and Dr Beyers Naudé, whose long banning order was lifted a month earlier, celebrate Tutu’s Nobel Peace Prize award on October 19, 1984.
Bishop Desmond Tutu and Dr Beyers Naudé, whose long banning order was lifted a month earlier, celebrate Tutu’s Nobel Peace Prize award on October 19, 1984.
Picture © Sunday Times

On October 16, 1984, the Nobel committee announced that Desmond Mpilo Tutu would become the second South African to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, unleashing a mixed tide of adulation and criticism.

In 1961, Albert Luthuli, president of the African National Congress from 1952 to 1967, had been presented with the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his commitment to non-violent protest against the apartheid system.

Tutu had been nominated in 1981, 1982 and 1983. Research has shown that in 1983, a number of the committee members considered a South African winner as an alternative if the situation in Poland, from whence that year's ultimate winner came, worsened.

Given the potential South African win in 1983, South Africa was in the forefront of the committee's minds in 1984.(1) This, combined with Tutu's unifying and peaceful approach to the fight against apartheid injustice(2) and strong advocacy by two Norwegians - Einar Lunde, who had visited South Africa earlier that year, and Gunnar Lislerud, who had been a missionary in South Africa and who felt that if Tutu won, the apartheid government would find it more difficult to ban Tutu and the South African Council of Churches - bought the SACC and Tutu into the spotlight.

Tutu was chosen from a list of six South African nominees: Nelson Mandela, Helen Suzman, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Oliver Tambo, the South African Council of Churches and Tutu, of course.(1)

On December 10, 1984, Tutu received the award at Oslo University. Chairman Egil Aarvik's presentation speech was marked both tragically, by a hoax bomb threat from a Norwegian neo-Nazi; and jubilantly, by Tutu's call for the singing of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika by the South Africans in the audience as a replacement for the orchestra which had disappeared in the aftermath of the bomb threat.(1)

The following day, Tutu delivered his Nobel lecture.(2) From the time of the award's announcement, the celebrations began. Congratulations poured in from home and abroad.

On October 18, 1984, Tutu was given a hero's welcome at what was then Jan Smuts International Airport.(1) The UDF held what would be their largest rally in Soweto to date(3) in Tutu's honour on February 10, 1985 at Jabulani Stadium.(4)

However, not all responses to the news of Tutu's win were favourable. PW Botha, the prime minister of South Africa, and Pik Botha, the foreign minister, refused to comment. Media aligned with the National Party government, including print media, radio and the South African Broadcasting Corporation, either questioned both Tutu's credentials as a man of peace and the Nobel committee's understanding of Alfred Nobel's will, or simply gave the event highly limited and biased coverage.(1)

Alan Paton launched an unexpected and bitter attack on Tutu, criticising his advocacy in favour of disinvestment and implying that no white South African could qualify for such an award simply by virtue of the colour of their skin.(5)

The South African Communist Party took offence at Tutu's likening of communism to apartheid. (Tutu had drawn a comparison between the fight against apartheid in South Africa to the fight against communism in Poland with reference to the Nobel committee's awarding of the previous year's peace prize to Pole Lech Walesa in an interview with MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour in New York).(1)

But whether the critics liked it or not, the award played a profound role in raising Tutu's public profile and his international influence in steering either directly or indirectly the foreign policy of governments abroad in relation to South Africa.(1)

Tutu's Nobel Prize Lecture

In his acceptance speech Tutu made an indignant call on behalf of black South Africans in condemnation of their systematic oppression at the bloodied hands of the apartheid government. He pointed to the countless attempts at peaceful protest by black South Africans, all of which were met with violence. On this basis, and by virtue of the gross injustice of the apartheid system, he warned of a bloody South African future marked by violent protests.

The text of Tutu's acceptance speech follows.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Before I left South Africa, a land I love passionately, we had an emergency meeting of the executive committee of the South African Council of Churches with the leaders of our member churches. We called the meeting because of the deepening crisis in our land, which has claimed nearly 200 lives this year alone. We visited some of the trouble-spots on the Witwatersrand. I went with others to the East Rand. We visited the home of an old lady. She told us that she looked after her grandson and the children of neighbours while their parents were at work. One day the police chased some pupils who had been boycotting classes, but they disappeared between the township houses. The police drove down the old lady's street. She was sitting at the back of the house in her kitchen, while her charges were playing in front of the house in the yard. Her daughter rushed into the house, calling out to her to come quickly. The old lady dashed out of the kitchen into the living room. Her grandson had fallen just inside the door, dead. He had been shot in the back by the police. He was six years old. A few weeks later, a white mother, trying to register her black servant for work, drove through a black township. Black rioters stoned her car and killed her baby of a few months old, the first white casualty of the current unrest in South Africa. Such deaths are two too many. These are part of the high cost of apartheid.

Every day in a squatter camp near Cape Town called KTC the authorities have been demolishing flimsy plastic shelters which black mothers have erected because they were taking their marriage vows seriously. They have been reduced to sitting on soaking mattresses, with their household effects strewn round their feet, and whimpering babies on their laps, in the cold Cape winter rain. Every day the authorities have carried out these callous demolitions. What heinous crime have these women committed, to be hounded like criminals in this manner? All they have wanted is to be with their husbands, the fathers of their children. Everywhere else in the world they would be highly commended, but in South Africa, a land which claims to be Christian, and which boasts a public holiday called Family Day, these gallant women are treated so inhumanely, and yet all they want is to have a decent and stable family life. Unfortunately, in the land of their birth, it is a criminal offence for them to live happily with their husbands and the fathers of their children. Black family life is thus being undermined, not accidentally, but by deliberate government policy. It is part of the price human beings, God's children, are called to pay for apartheid. An unacceptable price.

Black family life is ... being undermined, not accidentally, but by deliberate government policy.

I come from a beautiful land, richly endowed by God with wonderful natural resources, wide expanses, rolling mountains, singing birds, bright shining stars out of blue skies, with radiant sunshine, golden sunshine. There is enough of the good things that come from God's bounty, there is enough for everyone, but apartheid has confirmed some in their selfishness, causing them to grasp greedily a disproportionate share, the lion's share, because of their power. They have taken 87 percent of the land, though being only about 20 percent of our population. The rest have had to make do with the remaining 13 percent. Apartheid has decreed the politics of exclusion. 73 percent of the population is excluded from any meaningful participation in the political decision-making processes of the land of their birth. The new constitution, making provision for three chambers, for whites, coloureds and Indians, mentions blacks only once, and thereafter ignores them completely. Thus this new constitution, lauded in parts of the West as a step in the right direction, entrenches racism and ethnicity. The constitutional committees are composed in the ratio of four whites to two coloureds and one Indian. Nought black. Two plus one can never equal, let alone be more than, four. Hence this constitution perpetuates by law and entrenches white minority rule. Blacks are expected to exercise their political ambitions in unviable, poverty-stricken, arid, bantustan homelands, ghettoes of misery, inexhaustible reservoirs of cheap black labour, bantustans into which South Africa is being balkanised. Blacks are systematically being stripped of their South African citizenship and being turned into aliens in the land of their birth. This is apartheid's final solution, just as Nazism had its final solution for the Jews in Hitler's Aryan madness. The South African government is smart. Aliens can claim but very few rights, least of all political rights.

In pursuance of apartheid's ideological racist dream, over 3 000 000 of God's children have been uprooted from their homes, which have been demolished, whilst they have then been dumped in the bantustan homeland resettlement camps. I say dumped advisedly: only things or rubbish is dumped, not human beings. Apartheid has, however, ensured that God's children, just because they are black, should be treated as if they were things, and not as of infinite value as being created in the image of God. These dumping grounds are far from where work and food can be procured easily. Children starve, suffer from the often irreversible consequences of malnutrition - this happens to them not accidentally, but by deliberate government policy. They starve in a land that could be the bread basket of Africa, a land that normally is a net exporter of food.

The father leaves his family in the bantustan homeland, there eking out a miserable existence, whilst he, if he is lucky, goes to the so-called white man's town as a migrant, to live an unnatural life in a single-sex hostel for 11 months of the year, being prey there to prostitution, drunkenness, and worse. This migratory labour policy is declared government policy, and has been condemned, even by the white Dutch Reformed Church, not noted for being quick to criticise the government, as a cancer in our society. This cancer, eating away at the vitals of black family life, is deliberate Government policy. It is part of the cost of apartheid, exorbitant in terms of human suffering.

Apartheid has spawned discriminatory education, such as Bantu Education, education for serfdom, ensuring that the government spends only about one-tenth on one black child per annum for education what it spends on a white child. It is education that is decidedly separate and unequal. It is to be wantonly wasteful of human resources, because so many of God's children are prevented, by deliberate government policy, from attaining to their fullest potential. South Africa is paying a heavy price already for this iniquitous policy because there is a desperate shortage of skilled manpower, a direct result of the short-sighted schemes of the racist regime. It is a moral universe that we inhabit, and good and right equity matter in the universe of the God we worship. And so, in this matter, the South African government and its supporters are being properly hoisted with their own petard.

It is a moral universe that we inhabit, and good and right equity matter in the universe of the God we worship.

Apartheid is upheld by a phalanx of iniquitous laws, such as the Population Registration Act, which decrees that all South Africans must be classified ethnically, and duly registered according to these race categories. Many times, in the same family one child has been classified white whilst another, with a slightly darker hue, has been classified coloured, with all the horrible consequences for the latter of being shut out from membership of a greatly privileged caste. There have, as a result, been several child suicides. This is too high a price to pay for racial purity, for it is doubtful whether any end, however desirable, can justify such a means. There are laws, such as the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, which regard marriages between a white and a person of another race as illegal. Race becomes an impediment to a valid marriage. Two persons who have fallen in love are prevented by race from consummating their love in the marriage bond. Something beautiful is made to be sordid and ugly. The Immorality Act decrees that fornication and adultery are illegal if they happen between a white and one of another race. The police are reduced to the level of peeping Toms to catch couples red-handed. Many whites have committed suicide rather than face the disastrous consequences that follow in the train of even just being charged under this law. The cost is too great and intolerable.

Such an evil system, totally indefensible by normally acceptable methods, relies on a whole phalanx of draconian laws such as the security legislation which is almost peculiar to South Africa. There are the laws which permit the indefinite detention of persons whom the Minister of Law and Order has decided are a threat to the security of the state. They are detained at his pleasure, in solitary confinement, without access to their family, their own doctor, or a lawyer. That is severe punishment when the evidence apparently available to the Minister has not been tested in an open court - perhaps it could stand up to such rigorous scrutiny, perhaps not; we are never to know. It is a far too convenient device for a repressive regime, and the minister would have to be extra special not to succumb to the temptation to circumvent the awkward process of testing his evidence in an open court, and thus he lets his power under the law to be open to the abuse where he is both judge and prosecutor. Many, too many, have died mysteriously in detention. All this is too costly in terms of human lives. The minister is able, too, to place people under banning orders without being subjected to the annoyance of the checks and balances of due process. A banned person for three or five years becomes a non-person, who cannot be quoted during the period of her banning order. She cannot attend a gathering, which means more than one other person. Two persons together talking to a banned person are a gathering! She cannot attend the wedding or funeral of even her own child without special permission. She must be at home from 6pm of one day to 6am of the next and on all public holidays, and from 6pm on Fridays until 6am on Mondays for three years. She cannot go on holiday outside the magisterial area to which she has been confined. She cannot go to the cinema, nor to a picnic. That is severe punishment, inflicted without the evidence allegedly justifying it being made available to the banned person, nor having it scrutinised in a court of law. It is a serious erosion and violation of basic human rights, of which blacks have precious few in the land of their birth. They do not enjoy the rights of freedom of movement and association. They do not enjoy freedom of security of tenure, the right to participate in the making of decisions that affect their lives. In short, this land, richly endowed in so many ways, is sadly lacking in justice.

Once a Zambian and a South African, it is said, were talking. The Zambian then boasted about their Minister of Naval Affairs. The South African asked, "But you have no navy, no access to the sea. How then can you have a Minister of Naval Affairs?" The Zambian retorted, "Well, in South Africa you have a Minister of Justice, don't you?"

It is against this system that our people have sought to protest peacefully since 1912 at least, with the founding of the African National Congress. They have used the conventional methods of peaceful protest - petitions, demonstrations, deputations, and even a passive resistance campaign. A tribute to our people's commitment to peaceful change is the fact that the only South Africans to win the Nobel Peace Prize are both black. Our people are peace-loving to a fault. The response of the authorities has been an escalating intransigence and violence, the violence of police dogs, tear gas, detention without trial, exile, and even death. Our people protested peacefully against the Pass Laws in 1960, and 69 of them were killed on March 21 1960, at Sharpeville, many shot in the back running away. Our children protested against inferior education, singing songs and displaying placards and marching peacefully. Many in 1976, on June 16 and subsequent times, were killed or imprisoned. Over 500 people died in that uprising. Many children went into exile. The whereabouts of many are unknown to their parents. At present, to protest that self-same discriminatory education, and the exclusion of blacks from the new constitutional dispensation, the sham local black government, rising unemployment, increased rents and general sales tax, our people have boycotted and demonstrated. They have staged a successful two-day stayaway. Over 150 people have been killed. It is far too high a price to pay. There has been little revulsion or outrage at this wanton destruction of human life in the West. In parenthesis, can somebody please explain to me something that has puzzled me. When a priest goes missing and is subsequently found dead, the media in the West carry his story in very extensive coverage.(6) I am glad that the death of one person can cause so much concern. But in the self-same week when this priest is found dead, the South African Police kill 24 blacks who had been participating in the protest, and 6 000 blacks are sacked for being similarly involved, and you are lucky to get that much coverage. Are we being told something I do not want to believe, that we blacks are expendable and that blood is thicker than water, that when it comes to the crunch, you cannot trust whites, that they will club together against us? I don't want to believe that is the message being conveyed to us.

Our people are peace-loving to a fault. The response of the authorities has been an escalating intransigence and violence, the violence of police dogs, tear gas, detention without trial, exile, and even death.

Be that as it may, we see before us a land bereft of much justice, and therefore without peace and security. Unrest is endemic, and will remain an unchanging feature of the South African scene until apartheid, the root cause of it all, is finally dismantled. At this time, the Army is being quartered on the civilian population. There is a civil war being waged. South Africans are on either side. When the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress were banned in 1960, they declared that they had no option but to carry out the armed struggle. We in the South African Council of Churches have said we are opposed to all forms of violence - that of a repressive and unjust system, and that of those who seek to overthrow that system. However, we have added that we understand those who say they have had to adopt what is a last resort for them. Violence is not being introduced into the South African situation de novo from outside by those who are called terrorists or freedom fighters, depending on whether you are oppressed or an oppressor. The South African situation is violent already, and the primary violence is that of apartheid, the violence of forced population removals, of inferior education, of detention without trial, of the migratory labour system, etc.

There is war on the border of our country. South African faces fellow South African. South African soldiers are fighting against Namibians who oppose the illegal occupation of their country by South Africa, which has sought to extend its repressive system of apartheid, unjust and exploitative.

There is no peace in Southern Africa. There is no peace because there is no justice. There can be no real peace and security until there be first justice enjoyed by all the inhabitants of that beautiful land. The Bible knows nothing about peace without justice, for that would be crying "peace, peace, where there is no peace". God's Shalom, peace, involves inevitably righteousness, justice, wholeness, fullness of life, participation in decision-making, goodness, laughter, joy, compassion, sharing and reconciliation.

There is no peace in Southern Africa. There is no peace because there is no justice.

I have spoken extensively about South Africa, first because it is the land I know best, but because it is also a microcosm of the world and an example of what is to be found in other lands in differing degree - when there is injustice, invariably peace becomes a casualty. In El Salvador, in Nicaragua, and elsewhere in Latin America, there have been repressive regimes which have aroused opposition in those countries. Fellow citizens are pitted against one another, sometimes attracting the unhelpful attention and interest of outside powers, who want to extend their spheres of influence. We see this in the Middle East, in Korea, in the Philippines, in Kampuchea, in Vietnam, in Ulster, in Afghanistan, in Mozambique, in Angola, in Zimbabwe, behind the Iron Curtain.

Because there is global insecurity, nations are engaged in a mad arms race, spending billions of dollars wastefully on instruments of destruction, when millions are starving. And yet, just a fraction of what is expended so obscenely on defense budgets would make the difference in enabling God's children to fill their stomachs, be educated, and given the chance to lead fulfilled and happy lives. We have the capacity to feed ourselves several times over, but we are daily haunted by the spectacle of the gaunt dregs of humanity shuffling along in endless queues, with bowls to collect what the charity of the world has provided, too little too late. When will we learn, when will the people of the world get up and say, Enough is enough. God created us for fellowship. God created us so that we should form the human family, existing together because we were made for one another. We are not made for an exclusive self-sufficiency but for interdependence, and we break the law of our being at our peril. When will we learn that an escalated arms race merely escalates global insecurity? We are now much closer to a nuclear holocaust than when our technology and our spending were less.

Unless we work assiduously so that all of God's children, our brothers and sisters, members of our one human family, all will enjoy basic human rights, the right to a fulfilled life, the right of movement, of work, the freedom to be fully human, with a humanity measured by nothing less than the humanity of Jesus Christ Himself, then we are on the road inexorably to self-destruction, we are not far from global suicide; and yet it could be so different.

When will we learn that human beings are of infinite value because they have been created in the image of God, and that it is a blasphemy to treat them as if they were less than this and to do so ultimately recoils on those who do this? In dehumanising others, they are themselves dehumanised. Perhaps oppression dehumanises the oppressor as much as, if not more than, the oppressed. They need each other to become truly free, to become human. We can be human only in fellowship, in community, in koinonia, in peace.

Let us work to be peacemakers, those given a wonderful share in Our Lord's ministry of reconciliation. If we want peace, so we have been told, let us work for justice. Let us beat our swords into ploughshares.

God calls us to be fellow workers with Him, so that we can extend His Kingdom of Shalom, of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, of sharing, of laughter, joy and reconciliation, so that the kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever. Amen. Then there will be a fulfillment of the wonderful vision in the Revelation of St. John the Divine (Rev. 6:9ff):

9. After this I beheld, and lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations and kindreds and people and tongues, stood before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands,

10. And cried with a loud voice saying, "Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb".

11. And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God

12. saying, "Amen; Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might, be unto our God forever and ever. Amen".

- Desmond Tutu Nobel lecture, December 11 1984. From http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1984/tutu-lecture.html

Congratulations from the underground and beyond

A letter from attorney Priscilla Jana on behalf of Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and others to Desmond Tutu reveals the solidarity across organisational lines in the anti-apartheid movement. The communication frustrations of the apartheid days are also made glaringly clear. Sisulu, Kathrada and others could not communicate their congratulations directly to Tutu - they were forced to express their congratulations through their lawyers.

A telegraph from Oliver R Tambo is key in its revelation of the warm relationship and high esteem between Tutu and Tambo, who frames Tutu's win in relation to Luthuli's 1961 win and places Tutu's political efforts in context against the backdrop of the liberation movement as a whole. Tambo was the leader of the ANC in exile and operated from offices in Lusaka, Zambia. He points to the potential role this award might play in bringing the liberation movement one step closer to casting off apartheid rule.

Despite the fact that Mangosuthu G Buthelezi (who had also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984) and Tutu were at times at political and personal odds, in this letter Buthelezi emphasises Tutu's role of reconciliation, which was prophetic in light of Tutu's forthcoming leadership role on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission more than a decade after this letter was written. Buthelezi refers to the election of Tutu as the sixth Bishop of Johannesburg, an appointment which followed hot on the heels of the Nobel Prize honour - the election was finalised in mid-November 1984 and he was enthroned on February 3, 1985.

A letter from former French president Jacques Chirac gives a sense of Tutu's international profile, which no doubt played a part in the Nobel committee's decision to award him the prize in the first place. The prize itself also served to raise this international profile.



1. Allen, J. Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorised Biography of Desmond Tutu. London: Rider Books (an imprint of Ebury Publishing, Random House), 2006. p. 209-211
2. http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1984/presentation-speech.html
3. Seekins, J. The UDF: A History of the United Democratic Front in South Africa 1983-1991. Cape Town: David Philip Publishers, 2000. p. 136
4. Sparks, A. Tomorrow is Another Country. Johannesburg: Struik Book Distributors, 1994. p. 50
5. Paton, A. "Paton on Tutu" in the Sunday Times, October 21 1984, p.35
6. Tutu refers to an event in Poland, when Father Jerzy Popieluszko was murdered by the Secret Police in October 1984.


back to the Archbishop Desmond Tutu memorial page

"It has been an incredible privilege to preside over the process of healing a traumatised and wounded people."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 1993
Picture: © The Sunday Times


In this lesson plan, learners will be offered the opportunity to think about the impact of personal testimony about apartheid-related events. They will also be asked to interpret a cartoon, and to think about the long-term effects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Lesson plan
You′ll need the Adobe Acrobat PDF reader to view these lesson plans. Download it here.
The truths that hurt
Contains extract from the SABC’s coverage of the TRC showing the testimony of Singqokwana Ernest Malgas and Archbishop Tutu’s emotional reaction to it.