Red and orange leaves blew around his feet in the wind as Archbishop Desmond Tutu approached the podium outside the National Cathedral in October 1998.
A procession of Christians, singing hymns and carrying crosses, followed Tutu. In his presence, the crowd remained silent, carefully listening to every word. His voice rose above the howling wind as he proclaimed his faith.
“This is God’s world, and with God before us who can be against us?” Tutu asked.
Next week, Tutu will return to D.C. But this time, he will address GW’s class of 1999 at Commencement on the Ellipse.
Though Tutu is abroad and unavailable for comment, in an intimate press conference he held at the cathedral back in October, he said he shares a special bond with college students.
Tutu said youth proved to be quite powerful when college students joined the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, a struggle for which Tutu served as an adamant spokesperson.
“(The students) supported our call for sanctions,” he said. “They called for disinvestment. We have scored a spectacular victory. You young people have helped us. Keep it up.”
Since October, Tutu may have found his niche at Emory University, where he is learning about the American college experience and teaching students theology. He spent the fall semester working on a book and now is a visiting professor in the university’s Candler School of Theology.
But the highlight of Tutu’s year was his time as chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, a group that launched a two-year investigation into the crimes committed during the apartheid era.
Tutu visited the National Cathedral days before he presented South African President Nelson Mandela with the committee’s final report. He described the committee as extraordinary, “trying to heal a broken, traumatized nation.”
The committee presented the final report Oct. 28. Committee members heard confessions from the perpetrators of violent crimes against South African blacks and exposed the atrocities to the world. Tutu said revealing the truth cleanses the soul.
“Right will prevail over wrong,” he said. “Truth will prevail over lies.”
When Tutu addressed the University of North Florida in March, he focused on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s findings, according to a story by Richard R. Felkey on the Jax-International Web site.
“For Tutu, who now resides in Atlanta, and teaches at Emory University, only the landscape has changed,” Felkey wrote. “The healing of people continues.”
No one is quite sure what wisdom Tutu will offer GW graduates and their guests. GW University Marshal Jill Kasle said she has not seen a copy of his speech yet.
If Tutu draws on his past for inspiration, he should have much to offer.
In 1984, Tutu was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize for espousing the benefits of non-violent methods throughout his campaign to end apartheid. With the prize money, Tutu created the Southern African Refugee Scholarship Fund.
Tutu, who is 67 years old, served as general secretary of the South African Council of Churches for 17 years. In 1985, he became bishop of Johannesburg, and in 1986 he became the Archbishop of Cape Town and head of the Anglican Church in South Africa.
Tutu married Leah Nomaliso Shenxane in 1955, and they have four children.
South African President Nelson Mandela, Tutu’s partner during the protest against apartheid, once said Tutu’s “voice will always be the voice of the voiceless.”
Despite the mystery engulfing his speech, Tutu will offer GW graduates the gift of hearing the trademark voice that served as the mouthpiece against discrimination.