Today, The Elders launch Mary Robinson’s latest State of Hope Talk, in which she pays tribute to 'Arch' and reflects on the importance of bold and transformative hope in our fractured world. Watch her latest Talk below.
This is the next stage of The Elders’ State of Hope initiative, launched in 2021 to explore the world's greatest challenges. The series of Talks and virtual Gatherings considers issues such as injustice, conflict and the climate crisis, and the role of hope in tackling them.
The launch of Mary Robinson’s State of Hope Talk marks Nelson Mandela Day and the group’s fifteenth anniversary. It is a chance to recall the mandate he gave The Elders on his birthday in 2007 to “support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair.”
Friends, Brothers and Sisters,
Grief can wax and wane like the moon. It’s a messy emotion, familiar to all of humanity, yet it is one that feels so personal when we lose someone we love.
As we gather to celebrate the life of our brother, our leader, our mentor, and our dear friend Archbishop Tutu, we recognise that although we are together in our grief that this grief feels different for each of us.
We lost Arch at the end of 2021, during a period of intense darkness in our world. He was a towering figure in the struggle for human dignity, rights and freedom. Every time our world has lost one of these great people – these great leaders of South Africa’s liberation struggle: Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and global figures like our dearly-missed brother Kofi Annan – it can feel as though one of the bright lights in the gloom has been extinguished.
On a personal level, there is also that deep sadness of losing someone who was not just an icon to many, but who was also my friend, and yours. This feeling of loss is one that millions around the world will identify with in this era we have all lived through as a result of COVID-19. It is a feeling too many identify with every year because of the anguish caused by conflict. It’s an emotion that resonates with every person who has had to flee home because home is no longer a safe place to live. It’s a constant weight of sorrow for whole communities losing their livelihoods to climate change.
Arch always recognised that being human is a messy and complicated business, and while we all share the same inalienable rights, our individual circumstances and experiences are always unique and deserve to be acknowledged. As we witness people fleeing from the sudden onset of war or occupation we don’t just see the statistics, we see lives interrupted. We see: the young couple just married; the pregnant woman scared out of her wits forevil i for her unborn; the teenage girl who was hoping to go to college; we see the artists, the educators, the bakers, the bricklayers, the lawyers, the lovers, the creators, the writers…
Behind every news story we see the humanity if we look carefully enough. Being human in the face of grief, loss, conflict, inequality, and struggle is a constant act of resistance and refusal: individuals refusing to shrink or hide, individuals daring to still hope against all the odds.
Arch profoundly understood this intimately and instinctively. He was a bold truth-teller, my god he was so bold sometimes it would kill me! He was a bold truth-teller, undaunted by what he called the ‘evil of the world’. And, like all those great men and women on whose shoulders we stand, he has not only led a legacy of ‘doing’ but a legacy of ‘being’. Arch taught us above all else how we should ‘be’ in the world in spite of its complexities and still inspire change, fight for justice, and act with goodness. It is that legacy of being that in a way I want to draw out a bit this evening.
Arch always chose to focus on the goodness in people. My goodness, at The Elders, how often did we hear that word! We had to believe in the goodness, goodness, goodness, goodness. It was resonating in our brains! He believed in the goodness of people and in the goodness in the world, and then, bolstered by that vision of goodness, he was prepared to love, laugh, even to dance, and in the midst of the mess! That was the point - Goodness.
But we diminish Arch’s memory if we just remember him for his humour and his light-heartedness, and his great giggle, and his wonderful humour, or if we trivialise the power of the way he used both to create connection. I learned hugely from Arch about humour, but I won’t go into that! Arch was of course also a powerful truth-teller, a rebel and a liberator, a peacekeeper and champion of justice. He was very stubborn, a very stubborn advocate for the marginalised and the people who always stood in solidarity with the poor with forthright vigour. It is these qualities which made him Arch - the natural choice to be our first chair of The Elders. It was these qualities that are sadly lacking in so many of the leaders we see in our world today.
Many of the darkest moments facing us in our modern world have come as a result of the failure of leaders to acknowledge their responsibility to protect our planet and our shared humanity. Leadership has too often become associated with dominion, with control, and avarice, and little regard for the essential goodness that flourishes in kinship and the generous accommodation and kindness Madiba spoke of when he first founded The Elders in 2007. Gentle words, very gentle words.
There is no better example of how badly things have come undone than the existential threat of climate change. Our misuse of the world’s resources has led us to where we are now. And it is not everybody that has over-abused, it is the richer parts of the world that have over-abused. We are on the brink of the collapse of everything that gives us our security: food production, access to fresh water, habitable temperatures. It’s the poorest, those with the least security, who are already suffering the most. The impact is greatest where fragility and conflict have weakened resilience and where women — who bear the greatest burden of the climate emergency — don’t enjoy equal rights and yet are the fighters for the future. But this crisis affects everyone. And where climate change is drying up our rivers, reducing harvests, destroying infrastructure, and displacing communities it exacerbates the risks of conflict.
And conflict persists, man’s inhumanity to man endures: violent conflict has spiked dramatically since 2010. There were more than 84 million people forcibly displaced people at the end of 2021, and with the 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia these numbers have now already exceeded 100 million. When President Putin raised the alert level of Russia’s nuclear forces earlier this year it was a grave reminder of the terrible threat of nuclear weapons and of how vulnerable our world still is to the potential of nuclear warfare.
The past couple of years have also seen a rise in interpersonal violence in addition to political violence. The pandemic has worsened the conditions that incubate domestic and gender-based violence and we have seen a push back on the rights of women and girls, including in the country that was trying to give leadership some time ago in the world! In so many ways, living in this world is messier, more frightening, and more of an ordeal than ever. The injustice and disorder of all things presses on us and all of us, we crave something better than this. We crave something better.
We rarely ask ourselves what we mean by this better future though. Where should we look for the kind of leadership the world needs? Arch knew where to look. Madiba knew where to look. They asked us all to look within, to accept ourselves as complex and varied individuals, but as people who belong to each other. For them – and for us as Elders – this is what defines the best of humanity. It’s the potential in each and every person to find resilience, to persist and to even thrive in spite of the messiness, because ultimately we belong to each other.
We can only do better by being better ourselves – by pushing for goodness. And we can only be human by being human together, in this spirit of Ubuntu that creates kinship and belonging even when we disagree. And we all need to acknowledge it is only in our knowing and in our belonging we can pass on the kind of better future we all want for our children and our grandchildren. And I am so happy that some of Arch’s grandchildren are here tonight because they have a wonderful legacy.
It is easy to be a critic and to stand on the side lines pointing out the flaws and the failures, but this doesn’t bring about change. Imagine the world we could create together if we fixed our gaze instead on the goodness – on the light in the midst of the great darkness.
And what provides that light?
It is we who are that light: each one of us.
When we think of the legacy of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it is a legacy of light. But respecting that legacy means it is not for us to look behind us to the past, admiring that light from afar. No. Instead, we must respect that legacy by keeping our own light aflame. And the light we need in our world right now is not the kind that can be cast by a candle. The challenges we collectively face need the kind of light that shines so brightly, so brilliantly, that it forces change. That it forces change!
The outstanding leadership of the past was founded in hope. But it was not the sanitised, safe, greetings-card version of hope that we consume in books or in fancy quotes.
The kind of hope Desmond Tutu preached through his words, through his life, through his actions, was bold and it was transformative: the kind of hope that would bring walls of injustice tumbling down. So our light – and our hope – must be that and more. We must not whisper our songs of hope in the safety of our homes, we must now come together and sound out a rallying cry into the darkness!
We must pledge today, and every day as we wake, to be the kind of light Arch was, humbly. And the kind of light Mama Leah Tutu continues to be. Our pledge should not be a static commitment or a one-off declaration. Our pledge is not a social media hashtag! Rather, our pledge should be the way in which we choose to lead our lives in extraordinarily difficult, challenging circumstances that require more.
We must let those who would choose evil know that theirs will never be the final word! The light of our shared goodness and our shared humanity is still burning brightly, and from each generation to the next we will keep passing on the torch.
I recall being on a panel with Arch in New York. It was a panel with young people and of course Arch was loving them, talking about goodness and talking about how wonderful they were etc. and we were interrupted by the moderator who asked him quite sharply, ‘Archbishop Tutu, why are you such an optimist?’ And he shook his head and said, ‘Oh no, I am not an optimist. I am a prisoner of hope!’ And we all have to be, and are, prisoners of hope! And it is the light, and it is the hope, that will prevail in the end! And that is exactly where we are.