Archbishop Desmond Tutu opens up at the Skoll World Forum

The star of the show at the opening plenary for the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship was undoubtedly Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Now 83 years old, the Anglican bishop and social rights activist (a description that still sounds outlandish) is a little slower in his speech these days but can still conjure a little of the showman when he needs to.

His fellow panellists were certainly distinguished. Alongside him was his daughter Mpho, a Reverend and co-author of their joint effort ‘The Book of Forgiving’; Ophelia Dahl, daughter of Roald and director of not for profit health organisation Partners in Health and Zak Ebrahim, the son of a terrorist who is now a peace activist. 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu Skoll World Forum 2015Zak Ebrahim, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu at the opening plenary of the Skoll World Forum in Oxford

None of them could claim to be as well known as the Archbishop. His name is second only to Nelson Mandela’s when it comes to global recognition of the figures who stood tall in the long fight against apartheid in South Africa.

The theme of this year’s forum was ‘belief’ and there was a wealth of big hitters lined up to reveal some of the moments that lead them to become change makers.

Many of the speakers, Ebay pioneer Jeff Skoll included, paid tribute to the beliefs that were instilled in them by their families (Skoll’s were in the room) but Tutu claimed that an early act of respect towards his mother by a white priest left an indelible impression on him in his childhood. 

Drawing some laughs when admitting he looked like his mother (“stumpy and she had a large nose”) the story quickly moved from being comedic to touching when he recalled a memory of a tall figure in a cassock sweeping past, raising his hat to Tutu’s mother. 

“A white man, doffing his hat! I didn’t think that had affected me but more than any other thing it has made me believe that we are all equal.” Given the religious and political direction his life took, this moment can be seen as pivotal.

Seemingly a pillar of strength, Tutu then surprised the audience by showing some vulnerability, revealing that he is very dependent on other people. 

“I believe very fervently that I will not be able to make it on my own, that I am, as all of us are, upheld by the love and prayers and caring of others. We would not be free today if we had not been supported by people around the world when we wanted to be free of apartheid.”

The evening finished with a live performance by the Mozambique band Massukos. Often seen moving to African rhythms in protest against the injustice of apartheid, Tutu finished the evening by proving he’s still got it. Rising out of his seat, the octogenarian swayed joyfully, the trademark smile on full beam.

Photo Credit: Skoll World Forum