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Africa-Latin America Relations: The Legacy of Desmond Tutu

The death of South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, on December 26, 2021, reminds us of the scarce Latin American interest in African issues. The event had little space in the region’s newspapers and television news. The death of a “symbol of the struggle against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize” was vaguely reported. The next day, life goes on. It did not seem that we had lost one of the greatest fighters, thinkers, and religious leaders of our time. 

We are far from understanding and caring about Africa. This is true even in Brazil, a country with a majority black population and the largest population with black-African roots outside the continent. Relations between Brazil and Africa have declined in recent years, while other Latin American countries’ contacts with Africa have never deepened, with the notable exception of Cuba. 

Celebrating Tutu’s legacy would be a simple way to report and go beyond issues such as apartheid, civil war, famine, new variants of the coronavirus, and military coups, basically what is reported about the continent in the Latin American press. In particular, it would be a way of highlighting the importance of African thought and its global impact.

Founder of African Black Theology

Tutu was much more than Mandela’s partner in the struggle against apartheid. He is one of the founders of African Black Theology, inspired by North American Black Theology, whose main exponent was Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He was also one of the founders of Latin American Liberation Theology, initiated in 1968 at the Episcopal Conference of Medellín and developed by Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff, among others. The South African archbishop was one more who demonstrated that it is possible to build a church shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed. 

On these affiliations, Tutu said that the church in Africa must commit itself to the cause of liberation. For him, God was the great Liberator, the God of the Exodus who led a multitude of slaves out of captivity and set them free. His advocacy derived from this perspective, the total liberation of the “children of God” on the political, social, and economic levels. Emphasizing his inspiration from Latin American sources, he pointed out that black theology is the theology of the oppressed, a theology of liberation. And it was on the basis of his theology that the archbishop took a stand against apartheid. According to him, “the Bible turned out to be the most subversive book imaginable in a situation of injustice and oppression”.

Inspirer of modern South African identity

For better or worse, Tutu was one of the founders of the post-apartheid South African identity, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he chaired and his idea of a “rainbow nation.”

What he called “restorative justice” was the basis of the South African Truth Commission, which was seen as a central element in the pacification, reconstruction, and unification of the country. In operation from 1995 to 1998, it was one of the world’s foremost experiments in truth commissions, making amnesty conditional on a public statement by the applicant, where the main requirement was to “tell the truth” about the crimes for which amnesty was sought. 

The most praised element of this process was its conditionality, avoiding the indiscriminate offer of amnesty (and forgetting) characteristic of cases such as the Brazilian one. The most discussed point was the scant reparation for the crimes (unlike what happened in cases such as the Argentine), to the extent that emphasis was placed on the public exposure of human rights violators and on the recording and construction of collective memory. 

In this context, Tutu insisted on the need to “forgive, but not forget”. To justify this, he used two arguments. First, he relied on his aforementioned leftist reading of Christianity: the need for liberation of both the oppressor and the oppressed. Another argument was to present restorative justice as a “traditional African jurisprudence”. Its concern would not be retribution or punishment, but the healing of violations, the redressing of imbalances, and the restoration of broken relationships. It would be a matter of rehabilitating both the victim and the aggressor, who should have the opportunity to reintegrate into the community he has harmed by his crime.

To this need for reconciliation, Tutu linked his idea of South Africa as a “Rainbow Nation,” a proposal associated with multiculturalism so in vogue at the time. This idea of a nation that encompassed all colors without the need to dilute them assumed an important role in the new national identity, permeating the self-image of South Africa in the early post-apartheid years. The social and ethnic pluralism inherited by the country would not be an obstacle to its development, but its greatest asset. Tutu argued that this state could be viable as a nation.

Formulator of Ubuntu

Another proposal defended by Tutu was Ubuntu, of which he became the main international spokesperson, connecting it with other values that he has defended in the last decades together with personalities such as the Dalai Lama, such as ecumenism and the culture of peace. Ubuntu would be a way to guarantee the cohesion of a deeply divided and unequal society, marked by violence and oppression, constituting the possibility of coexistence of the former oppressors and the oppressed. 

As has been said, if one of Tutu’s pillars was liberation Christianity, the other was the African heritage in which Ubuntu is embedded. For the archbishop, Ubuntu is a central element of the African worldview. In this conception, the lives of all people are interconnected, as humanity is integrated with nature and each generation is integrated with those before and those to come. 

Tutu defined the concept through the proverb “a person is a person through other people”. For him, “a person with Ubuntu is affirmed through others, does not feel threatened if others are capable and good; he or she has a security that comes from knowing that he or she belongs to a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured, oppressed, or treated as if they are less than they are.” What dehumanizes you dehumanizes me inexorably.”

Tutu took Ubuntu to the world, contributing to its transformation into a fashionable concept. Ubuntu has inspired computer systems, Self-Help literature, coaching practices, and business lessons. In fact, it is close to another original concept from the Global South, the Latin American “Buen Vivir”. But beyond strange reappropriations, the global success of Ubuntu is yet another sign of the importance of Tutu’s thought to the contemporary world.

Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva


Professor of political science at the Federal Univ. of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO). Vice-Director of Wirapuru, Revista Latinoamericana de Estudio de las Ideas. Post-doctorate at the Inst. of Advanced Studies of the Univ. of Santiago de Chile.


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