America’s highest award for Tutu

13 August 2009

US President Barack Obama, presenting America’s highest civilian honour to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, said the Nobel Peace Laureate exemplified “that sense of generosity, that spirit of unity, that essence of humanity that South Africans know simply as ubuntu.”

Tutu was one of 16 people to receive the 2009 US Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama at the White House in Washington on Wednesday.

These included British physicist Stephen Hawking, American actor Sidney Poitier, tennis great Billie Jean King, former Irish President Mary Robinson, Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus, and (posthumously) US gay rights activist Harvey Milk.

On receiving the medal from Obama, Tutu said the honour belonged to all South Africans who fought to free their country from apartheid. “I am standing out only because millions of my compatriots are carrying me on their shoulders.”

Obama said in his presentation speech that Tutu had “stirred the world’s conscience for decades.

“The glint in the eye and the lilt in the voice are familiar to us all,” Obama said. “But the signature quality of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, says Nelson Mandela, is a readiness to take unpopular stands without fear.

“Perhaps that explains what led the Arch, as he’s known, to preach amid tear-gas and police dogs, rallying a people against apartheid. And later, when a free South Africa needed a heart big enough to forgive its sins, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was called to serve once more, as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Tribune of the downtrodden, voice of the oppressed, cantor of our conscience, Desmond Tutu possesses that sense of generosity, that spirit of unity, that essence of humanity that South Africans know simply as ubuntu.”

Tutu said he and his wife Leah were humbled by “the extraordinary symbolism of a former South African township urchin receiving the United States’ highest civilian honour from the first African American to occupy the White House.”

Obama’s ascension to the Oval Office “has not only brought hope to America, but to a world grappling with massive challenges including global warming, global recession, poverty, prejudice and HIV/Aids.

“We are honoured that in these trying times the President saw fit to salute the contribution South Africans have made to deepen the world’s understanding of peace, justice and reconciliation.”

SAinfo reporter

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