Circle 041: Desmond Tutu and Harry Belafonte, Witness to Apartheid, May 29, 1986

Permanent URI for this collection

Bishop Desmond M. Tutu Thursday (May 29) issued an impassioned plea to the United States government to impose sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa, saying that the alternative was probably civil war.

"You are the key to the solution to the crisis in our land," Tutu told a crowded Capitol Hill caucus room. "These are issues of life and death. And that's not a figure of speech. There is no neutrality. Either you are for justice or you are for injustice. ...I beg you. I beg you to help us. Please."

Speaking at the 41st meeting of the New England Circle, a decade-old Boston-based society that is the host of forums on social, political, educational and literary topics, Bishop Tutu called on the Reagan administration to drop its policy of "constructive engagement."

"As a church person, a peace-lover, I work to ensure that we do not have an all out civil war," said Tutu, the Anglican bishop of Johannesburg and winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize.

"My position is that I oppose and condemn all forms of violence. But the church has always taught that a set of circumstances can arise where you choose between the lesser of two evils to overthrow an oppressive system. It's the same thing that applied to Nazism. The church said that the lesser evil was another evil, war. I can support the church's teachings on that."

The bishop's remarks were presented in conjunction with two reports on the torture of children in South Africa.

One was a documentary film by former NBC reporter Sharon I. Sopher called Witness to Apartheid, which has been seen in American movie theaters and has recently had its U.S. television debut on the Public Broadcasting Service. The documentary focuses on police and security force violence against children.

The other was a written report by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights called "The War Against Children: South Africa's Youngest Victims." Committee staff member Helena Cook wrote the report after two extended trips last year to South Africa.

With the cooperation of what she said is a "rather sophisticated human rights network inside South Africa, Cook wrote that more than 1,400 people had been killed in South Africa during the last 19 months. Almost all were black. More than 200 children have been killed and hundreds more tortured and wounded by South African security forces during that time.

Speaking after the documentary film was shown and reflecting on the horrific toll of brutality, Bishop Tutu asked, "Why should children 7, 8, 9 years old already know the inside of a jail cell? Why should an 11-year-old know the pain of torture and solitary confinement."

A bipartisan group of 44 members of Congress rallied behind Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. William H. Gray 3rd (D-Pa.), when they introduced legislation that would impose economic sanctions against South Africa. That legislation is now law.

Bishop Tutu told the group, "I would hope that men and women of conscience will ensure that your administration is not let off the hook this time," referring to last year when President Reagan adapted what some critics called mild sanctions into executive order, thus heading off stronger sanctions proposed by legislation in Congress.

The bishop was introduced by actor and activist Harry Belafonte, who said in an interview before the program, "I'm not sure that the sanctions might not be too late. ...But if there is any way, if there is any humanity left at all in Western civilization, it would be to see that sanctions take place."

In the face of grim tales unfolding every day from South Africa, he said, "the very least any civilized nation can do is to impose sanctions."

by Gerald B. Jordan (Knight-Ridder Newspapers)