As a young girl growing up in Krugersdrop, South Africa, Nontombi Naomi Tutu remembers wondering why, when her family took road trips to visit her grandparents, they would have to register with the local police before they could enter the community even though both of her own parents had grown up there.
Such were the daily indignities and inconveniences of growing up black under the nation’s repressive apartheid era.
“It was a horrible time,” Tutu says. “We knew people who were beaten, tear gassed, died in police custody and some who just disappeared and were never heard from again.”
Tutu is the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the first black Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town who helped bring worldwide attention to the struggle against apartheid in the 1980s. Among his many awards, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
Following in the footsteps of her father, Naomi Tutu is a renowned human rights activist who is visiting Cincinnati March 10 to discuss her first-hand accounts of apartheid, and how racism and violence can destroy the fundamentals of a community.
Her speech is sponsored by the Woman’s City Club of Greater Cincinnati.
Enduring the effects of apartheid her entire adolescence, Tutu didn’t come to the United States until she was an adult.
“I grew up at a time in South Africa when many South Africans had no political power,” she says. “Everything was divided by race and the white South Africans had all of the power.”
The apartheid era in South Africa spanned nearly a half-century, between 1948-93, and was enforced by the National Party government.
Despite the fact that the whites were the minority, they quickly seized power and started enforcing racial segregation on all aspects of life, from buses to schools to where people could live. The latter action often resulted in forced removals in which black, “Indian” and “coloured” residents were resettled in segregated townships.
While the white facilities like housing and shops were modern and clean, the “non-white” facilities were dirty, poorly constructed and overall inferior.
When Tutu moved to the United States to attend college, apartheid was still occurring. She knew that although she had escaped, she couldn’t forget about the others who were still suffering.
In 1983 Tutu and some colleagues decided to start the Tutu Foundation for Development and Relief, based in Hartford, Conn.
“I wanted to help refugees who had fled South Africa because of the apartheid and were living in western Africa,” she says.
The organization functioned until 1992 and, after apartheid ended, most of the refugees returned to their native land.
Since then, Tutu has made it her life’s work to become involved in human rights and speaks about the negative impact human rights violations can have on a culture.
Tutu currently serves as program coordinator for the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. She is a consultant for the Spiritual Alliance to Stop Intimate Violence, an organization that explores the connection between violence in the home and violence in society.
Also, Tutu is involved in an organization called PeaceJam, which brings Nobel Peace Prize winners together with young people. The purpose of the organization is to encourage youth to become active in their own communities.
Growing up in South Africa inspired her, Tutu says, and instead of being angry, she uses that energy to educate.
“Growing up, my parents always said our role as human beings is not to dehumanize anyone,” she says. “Those values have always held a special place in my heart and I truly believe for our world to prosper everyone needs to be treated as equals.
“Everyone has a opportunity for greatness, but if we oppress anyone, then we all lose that opportunity.”