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Laudatio prof. dr. Geurt-Henk van Kooten

Aardbisschop Tutu en prof. dr. Van Kooten

Your excellency Archbishop Tutu,

As the rector, Prof. Elmer Sterken, said, it is a great honour and pleasure to recognise and celebrate your outstanding achievements as a peace-broker and activist on so many global conflicts and issues of human rights abuse and injustice throughout our broken world, and for your substantial services to the world in the fields of health and independent global leadership. There are so many noteworthy aspects and activities in your long, illustrious career; it is difficult to focus on only one or two. Yet arguably, it was your development of the philosophy behind the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and your work as its chair that has left a lasting impression on your own society in South Africa and on our global community. Today we honour your exceptional accomplishments in the peaceful transition from repression to a free and democratic South Africa, your work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, alongside your continuing efforts to promote peace, equality and justice throughout the world. Your plea for restorative justice, and your innovative use of religion in the reconstruction process of society through forgiveness, confession, and reconciliation are deservedly world-renowned.

Indeed, the transition from the repression of apartheid reminds us of another example of a race-obsessed ideology which Europe was liberated from with the defeat of Nazism. Both Nazism and Apartheid are examples of race-obsessed ideologies, Apartheid being, in your words, a “pigmentocracy” — As you wrote in your book “No Future Without Forgiveness”, your impressive account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, written after the closure of the TRC during your visiting professorship at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, “It was a pigmentocracy that claimed that what invested human beings with worth was what turned out to be a biological attribute, totally arbitrary (...) in determining the worth of a person. And this attribute was ethnicity, skin color, race (...). Almost by definition, since it could be enjoyed by only a few (...), it meant that it was exclusive. It was not a universal phenomenon possessed by all human beings.” (91) And rightly you continue by reminding us of the uneasy heritage even among the West’s ancient philosophical giants, as even Aristotle had “claimed that human personality was not a universal possession enjoyed by all human beings since slaves were devoid of this.”

Today we celebrate your chairing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) from its constitution in December 1995 till the presentation of the main report in October 1998, now 14 years ago. The TRC was one of the main pillars which supported the “historic bridge” referred to in the interim constitution which led South Africa to democracy, the “historic bridge between the past of a deeply divided society characterized by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice, and a future founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence and development opportunities for all South Africans, irrespective of color, race, class, belief or sex.” (45)

The TRC was carefully designed to offer a third way, a middle road between the two extremes of the Nuremberg Trial paradigm and general amnesty. The Nuremberg Trial paradigm would have been the imposition of a “victor’s justice” (20), general amnesty, as you said, would have led to national amnesia with regard to the past - the past which, in the wordings of the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, people are condemned to repeat if they cannot properly remember it. The third way offered by the TRC was “granting amnesty to individuals [ — after they had made an individual application — ] in exchange for a full disclosure relating to the crime for which amnesty was being sought” (30), dependent on clear conditions, in an attempt to administer not retributive justice, whose chief goal is to be punitive, but to grant restorative justice: restorative justice which, in your words, “is being served when efforts are being made to work for healing, for forgiving, and for reconciliation” (55). An intriguing process during which you and your fellow members of the TRC discovered that “there were in fact different orders of truth which did not necessarily mutually exclude one another”: (a) “forensic factual truth—verifiable and documentable”; (b) “social truth, the truth of experience that is established through interaction, discussion and debate”; and, finally, (c) the “personal truth”, which “was a healing truth” (26). What I was reminded of, as a New Testament scholar, is the saying of Jesus that “the truth will make you free” (John 8:32), an insight also uttered by ancient philosophers such as Plutarch, Cicero and Seneca, who reflected on the so-called Stoic paradoxes, namely, “that the good man alone is free, and that the bad are all slaves” (Plutarch, Cato the Younger 67.1-2; Cicero, Stoic Paradoxes 33-34; Seneca, Epistles 8.7, 37.3-5) — a conviction which contrasts sharply with Pilate’s cynical question “What is truth?” (John 18:38). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission which you chaired also has an exemplary potential for other countries that need to come to terms with their past, particularly Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine and seen in the Solomon Islands, where you were instrumental in establishing their TRC.

It is very appropriate that we bestow on you an honorary doctorate, on behalf of the Rector and the College of Deans of the University of Groningen, but also, in a sense, on behalf of the whole Academic Community in the Netherlands. After all, it is near Bishopscourt, your official residence as Archbishop of Cape Town, that the remains of the bitter almond hedge are still visible which was planted by the Dutch colonial administrator and founder of Cape Town Jan van Riebeeck in the mid-17th century, at his estate Bosheuvel, as Bishopscourt was then known. Indeed, van Riebeeck planted the bitter almond hedge “to keep the indigenous Khoikhoi people out of the area he settled”, and in a sense he imported and planted the bitterness which was to reap sour fruits in the ages to come (72-73), only to be ended, equally symbolically, by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission whose first meeting on Dec 16, 1995 took place at that very place, at Bishopscourt.

Today we are very proud that we can bestow this honorary doctorate in the best of Groningen traditions. It was at this very place, in the Martinikerk, in 1989, that the Faculty of Theology & Religious Studies, also bestowed an honorary doctorate on your close associate Frank Chikane, who was one of your successors as general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, and I am very pleased that the then dean of the faculty and honorary promotor, prof. Hans Roldanus, is with us today. Dr Chikane’s honorary doctorate took place on June 16 1989, as it happened on Soweto day, and the next day this church, so I am told, was the scene of a large Soweto manifestation. The year of Dr Chikane’s honorary doctorate, 1989, was still in the dark days, just a year after Dr Chikane’s headquarters of the South African Council of Churches in Johannesburg were bombed, on the instructions - as your TRC found out - of the then state President, Mr Botha. June 1989 was still before the fall of the Berlin Wall later that year, and before the subsequent fall of Communism in the 1990s — events which also helped to bring down the alleged anti-Communist underpinnings of Apartheid, as the ideologues of apartheid had portrayed themselves as - in your words - “the last bastion of Western Christian civilization against the depredations of Soviet Communist expansionism” (92). 1989 was still one year before the release of Nelson Mandela and five years before the first non-racial general elections after which Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected President and was introduced by you to the South African people and to the world. It was still six years before your appointment as Chair of the TRC. Now, more than twenty years after Dr Chikane’s honorary doctorate this place witnesses what was unimaginable then, and we are proud that we can now express our commitment once more, and to honor in you the tremendous work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at this place, and on this day, Heritage Day, on which you remember the cultural heritage of the many cultures of South Africa.

In your work as Chair of the TRC we honour in particular three aspects. First of all, as dean of the faculty of Theology & Religious Studies we recognize in your work a strong emphasis on the interrelatedness of religion and culture. As a faculty our leading profile in teaching and research is the relation between religion and culture, comprising both the positive relation of religion to culture through processes of accommodation, as well as the negative relation of cultural criticism, either exerted by religion or by its surrounding culture. It is such a combination of religion and culture that strongly determined your understanding of restorative justice in the TRC. This notion of restorative justice is based on the principle that “truth liberates – even without prison sentences”, and reflects an impressive conjunction of Christian theological ideas and traditional African humanist philosophy, Ubuntu. We are very impressed how in your work you have succeeded in interweaving religion with culture.

On the one hand, as you said in your account of the TRC, there was indeed a “heavy spiritual and indeed Christian religious emphasis of the commission” (82). And, as you wrote, it was theology that “helped us in the TRC to recognize that we inhabit a moral universe, that good and evil are real and that they matter. They are not just things of indifference. This is a moral universe, which means that, despite all the evidence that seems to be to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word. (...) this is a moral universe and truth will out.” (86) And in your account you often refer to the Jewish-Christian notion that humankind has been created in the image of God. In your conviction, “that which endowed human beings, every single human being without exception, with worth, infinite worth, is not this or that biological or any other extrinsic attribute. No, it is the fact that each one of us has been created in the image of God. This is something intrinsic. (...) It means that each one of us is a God-carrier, God’s viceroy, God’s representative. It is because of this fact that to treat one such person as if he or she were less than this is veritably blasphemous.” (92-93) Hence, our human values do “not depend on things such as ethnicity, gender, political, social, economic, or education status-which are all extrinsic. Each person is not just to be respected but to be revered as one created in God’s image.” (197) Indeed, as I may add from a comparative perspective, if compared with the Ancient Near East, in which the notion of the image of God had already emerged with respect to the king, the distinctively Jewish feature seems to be that all human beings, and not just the king in his capacity as the earthly manifestation of the deity, are considered to constitute God’s image and all human beings assume divine dignity (van Kooten 2008:2, 4, 7, 32, 74).

On the other hand, at the same time, this emphasis on humankind’s divine dignity, and the need for the restoration of this dignity through forgiveness, confession, and reconciliation is consistent with the African notion of ubuntu, the notion that our humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in the humanity of others, so that we - as you phrased it, “are bound up in a delicate network of interdependence because (...) a person is a person through other persons” (35). As you noticed, this is far remote from the Western, Cartesian Enlightenment perspective. As you phrased it: “We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’ It is not, ‘I think therefore I am.’ It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong. I participate, I share.’ A person with ubuntu (...) belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when other are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.” (31)

By drawing on Jewish notions of humans’ divine dignity and the African notion of ubuntu you forged an impressive combination of religion and culture and brought it to bear on the process of the restoration of society, healing breaches and redressing imbalances, and ending the dehumanization of others, of both victims and perpetrators. It is commendable that you continue to employ these ideas in your efforts to end poverty and promote peace, health, justice and understanding at a global level and through the work of the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre.

This idea of the restoration of society, the interest of rendering society sustainable for the future, ties in seamlessly with the research subjects of the University of Groningen’s new focus area of sustainable society, which will bring together perspectives from the humanities and the social sciences, and for which your work on the TRC will be truly inspirational. They will deal with the great challenges of “managing diversity,” which would include topics such as organizing cultural and religious pluralism, conflicts between social groups and societal systems (science, law, politics, etc.), sustainability and conflict management, inclusion and exclusion, governmental challenges due to conflicting rights (e.g., freedom of speech vs. freedom of religion), and other topics, such as sustainable cooperation, good governance and sustainable citizenship. As you said, “Social harmony is for us the summum bonum—the greatest good. Anything that subverts, that undermines this sought-after good, is to be avoided like the plague. Anger, resentment, lust for revenge, even success through aggressive competitiveness, are corrosive of this good.” (31)

In this your work is also exemplary for us in the new Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain established in the faculty of Theology & Religious Studies, the launch of which was celebrated last week. As your work has shown, rather than being a cause of a conflict, religion can also contribute to resolving conflicts and to the sustainability of society. The great challenge facing post-Christian, secular Europe is to acknowledge this potential of religion. However, the secular outlook developed by some philosophers focusses predominantly on questions of how people can live together and overcome the challenge of religious violence and fundamentalism by adopting a secular outlook on life and politics, and how secularism can answer the problem of religious violence (Cliteur 2010). In a similar vein, with regard to the last general elections earlier this month, the municipality of The Hague decided that for the first time church buildings and other religious buildings should no longer be used as polling stations. This is in remarkable contrast with South Africa, where the meetings of the TRC were held in town halls, civic centers, and especially church halls. And where your own passionate commitment to fight for justice and freedom was not inspired by political motives. As you write, “We were inspired not by political motives. No, we were fired by our biblical faith. The Bible turned out to be the most subversive thing around in a situation of injustice and oppression. We were involved in the struggle because we were being religious, not political” (93).

It is exactly for these reasons that The Centre for 'Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain' has been established. As its mission statement clarifies, it explores, from various perspectives, the contentious role of religion in the public sphere in modern Western society. Combining theoretical and methodological approaches from history, philosophy, law, religious studies, theology and social and political science, the Centre engages in research that is particularly focused on the intersection of religion with Western culture, politics and society. Moving beyond secularist assumptions concerning the irrelevance of religion to the West, the Centre aims to provide critical, self-reflective insight regarding the role religion has played and continues to play in social, political, philosophical and legal contexts.

In her book, with the auspicious title “After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics”, the newly appointed director of this Centre, Erin Wilson, encourages deeper self-reflection regarding the religious influences on state identity, policy and action among Western scholars, policymakers and members of Western societies. The book highlights religious themes, narratives, images and rhetoric that are implicit in the collective subconscious of the West – ideas that have become so culturally embedded that they are seen as 'normal' and 'natural' - and offers a new approach to understanding religion in the West and globally. As she argues, “Elements of religion are present within Western civilizational identity and culture and subconsciously influence conceptions of political reality, as well as being consciously utilized by political elites to construct particular interpretations of national identity and world politics, justifying specific policy choices over others. Religion needs to be acknowledged and treated as a legitimate, serious influence on Western and global politics, not as an historical relic, premodern phenomenon or a purely violent, irrational, chaotic and oppressive influence. Neither, however, does its influence need to be overemphasized. It should rather be included inauspiciously, equally and objectively among the other multiple issues and influences that scholars and policymakers take into consideration in their research and analysis.” “It is therefore important”, Wilson concludes, to find the ‘middle ground’, where religion’s influence on politics may be comprehensively appreciated, recognizing both its potential for manipulation by political elites as well as its subconscious embedded influence on values and on conceptions of political reality. This requires suspending cynicism regarding religion’s role in politics and opening up analysis within International Relations to a fuller appreciation of religion itself and of the ways in which religion can influence and be influenced by politics.”

It is with regard to the latter, the ways in which religion can influence politics, that we have seen and noticed your exemplary commitment, and are proud to honour it. Today we wish to celebrate your outstanding achievements in the peaceful transition from repression to a democratic non-racial, nonsexist South Africa, through your work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, your plea for restorative justice, and your constructive use of religion in the peace-building process through forgiveness, confession, and reconciliation.

Groningen, September 24, 2012


Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

Erin Wilson, After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, see

George H. van Kooten, Paul’s Anthropology in Context (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008).

Paul Cliteur, The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

Laatst gewijzigd:28 september 2017 13:46
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