Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Listening to our Elders

I recently watched an interview on Al Jazeera by veteran journalist David Frost. His guest was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the famous Nobel Peace laureate, and one of the world’s most respected church leaders, was a central figure in ensuring an end to white minority rule in South Africa. Archbishop Tutu was instrumental in the struggle against apartheid, also acting as chairman of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). As a defiant campaigner against apartheid, he is one of the world's most prominent defenders of human rights.

As someone who grew up hearing and reading about Archbishop Tutu, who had retired from public life, the interview was a rare glimpse into not just the mind but the heart of a man who felt the pain of injustice and decided to do something about it.

In the interview he recalled to David Frost how the injustices he saw under apartheid tested his Christian faith:
"I really got very angry with God, and would rail at God and say: For goodness sake, how can you allow such and such to happen?"

But he later told Frost that, "someone up there must really have been on our side or batting for us.”

“After (Nelson Mandela's) release and the build-up to our first democratic election, it was one of the roughest, one of the bloodiest, periods in our history."

Archbishop Tutu also saluted the enormous role of former South African President Nelson Mandela in the dialogue that led to South Africa's peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy.

"His contribution is immeasurable; his stature. I mean for someone who was the commander-in-chief of the military wing of the ANC to be at the forefront of persuading people that it would be better for us to negotiate; it is better for us to lay down our arms. And then to try to live that."

The archbishop also gave his frank view on concerns about the direction the current government in South Africa is headed. 

If you have access to the internet, the full interview can be seen on or else perhaps the television station that rebroadcasts Al Jazeera may air it again as an act of corporate social responsibility.

Also in the interview, Archbishop Tutu was joined by former United States President, Jimmy Carter. Both Tutu and Carter are members of the “The Elders”.

Chaired by Archbishop Tutu, The Elders is an independent group of global leaders who work together for peace and human rights. They were brought together in 2007 by Nelson Mandela, who is not an active member of the group but remains an Honorary Elder. The Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was also an Honorary Elder, until her election to the Burmese parliament in April this year.

Apart from Archbishop Tutu, President Carter and President Mandela, the Elders include:

  • Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland; Nobel Peace Laureate and expert in international peace mediation, diplomacy and post-conflict state building;
  • Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Laureate; put development, human rights, the rule of law, good governance and peace at the top of the United Nations agenda;
  • Ela Bhatt, the ‘gentle revolutionary’, a pioneer in women’s empowerment and grassroots development, founder of the more than 1 million-strong Self-Employed Women’s Association in India;
  • Lakhdar Brahimi, former Algerian freedom fighter, Foreign Minister, conflict mediator and UN diplomat; an expert in peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction;
  • Gro Harlem Brundtland, the first woman Prime Minister of Norway; a medical doctor who champions health as a human right, and put sustainable development on the international agenda;
  • Fernando H Cardoso, former President of Brazil; implemented major land reform programme, reduced poverty and significantly improved health and education; an acclaimed sociologist and global advocate for drug policy reform;
  • Gra├ža Machel, International advocate for women’s and children's rights; former freedom fighter and first Education Minister of Mozambique; and
  • Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; a passionate, forceful advocate for gender equality, women’s participation in peace-building and human dignity.

None of the Elders hold public office, which makes them independent of any national government or other vested interest. They are committed to promoting the shared interests of humanity, and the universal human rights we all share. They believe that in any conflict, it is important to listen to everyone - no matter how unpalatable or unpopular this may be. They aim to act boldly, speaking difficult truths and tackling taboos. They don’t claim to have all the answers, and stress that every individual can make a difference and create positive change in their society.

You can read more about the Elders at

The Elders have been actively working towards peaceful solutions in conflict areas around the world most recently in Africa and the Middle East, where last week they called for a cessation of hostilities, and for the international community to renew efforts to resolve the decades-long conflict.

As part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, Archbishop Tutu urged men and boys to challenge harmful traditions and protect the rights of girls and women.

“I call on men and boys everywhere to take a stand against the mistreatment of girls and women. It is by standing up for the rights of girls and women that we truly measure up as men.”

Here in Fiji and Oceania, we have a traditional respect of our elders.

However in it seems that in our rush to develop, often the voices of our senior citizens are drowned out by the buzzwords of the current generation.

Most of our elders have the benefit of having learned from their mistakes, of experiencing the joys and failures in personal and community life. They often speak to us out of nothing more than a desire to not see current and future generations repeat the actions of the past.

Our country is in middle-age, perhaps we as a nation are going through a mid-life crisis. 

Sometimes it is necessary to stop listening to ourselves and start listening to those who have wise, if simple, words of wisdom; who stand ready to offer guidance to individuals as well as communities.

Perhaps Fiji and Oceania needs a group like the Elders – with no claims to public office, no vested interests; just men and women who can lead by example, creating positive social change and inspiring others to do the same.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”


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