“If we want peace, let us work for justice”

People-centered justice lessons from the life and times of Archbishop Desmond Tutu


The sad news of the passing of anti-apartheid and human rights activist, the great Archbishop Desmond Tutu spread across the world on December 26, 2021. The Nobel Laureate’s theological ideology leveraged the African concept of Ubuntu: “I am because you are,” to explore the fundamentals of a healthy social contract.

While we mourn the loss of this Elder, we also celebrate his life, achievements, and teachings. Desmond Tutu’s life is full of lessons and examples of people-centered justice in practice. With the social contract in peril, these are timely examples that can be an inspiration for people working for justice all over the world.

People-centered justice is an encompassing approach to justice that places people and their needs at the core. It requires a deep, consultative understanding of the challenges people face and the context in which they face them. This knowledge in turn, informs appropriate, innovative solutions that are inclusive and impactful.

This blog seeks to commemorate the life and times of Desmond Tutu while highlighting the theory of people-centered justice in practice.

By Themba Mahleka

Kristen Opalinski, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Equal access to Justice for All

Equality is one of the key tenets of people-centered justice. It ensures that no one is discriminated against or left behind by enabling participation in social, economic, and political activity. It guarantees dignity for every man, woman, and child. The “Arch,” as he was affectionately known, fought vehemently for equality and for the abolition of the racist and discriminatory practice of apartheid in his home country, South Africa.

“I wish I could shut up, but I can’t, and I won’t.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

He did so fearlessly and became famous for speaking truth to power even in the face of adversity. His outspoken calls for equality caused conflict with the unjust apartheid regime which at a point, effectively banned him from international travel. But even this could not ‘shut him up’. This was because the cause — the fight for equality — was far too important for him and for all South Africans.

Justice as prevention

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

People-centered justice is a two-sided coin. It entails effective resolution of people’s justice problems on one hand and, finding innovative ways to prevent justice problems on the other.

The Task Force on Justice found that one of the four areas to focus on when looking for innovative approaches to prevention is the promotion of inclusion and the advancement of human rights, particularly at times of high levels of exclusion and distrust. The Archbishop, throughout his life, fought for human rights and inclusion on multiple levels. As President Barack Obama noted in his tribute, Desmond Tutu was grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but also concerned with injustice everywhere.

Justice and the Social Contract

“When we can accept both our humanity and the perpetrator’s we can write a new story. One in which we are no longer cast as a victim, but a survivor, even perhaps a hero.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africa’s post-apartheid approach to justice was premised upon evidence-based restoration. Archbishop Tutu was not only a staunch believer in this process, but also its chairperson who navigated the painful and sensitive terrain. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission stands as one of the best-known examples of restorative justice, particularly on the African continent.

Reimagining social contracts: A call to put people at the center of justice” — a joint ministerial letter to the UN Secretary-General, notes that transforming justice and placing people at the center is key to reviving the bonds that hold our societies together and to re-establishing trust between people and communities, and governments.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is of international importance as its constitution and execution contributes to the body of knowledge of how nations can consider rebuilding their own social contracts following traumatic experiences.

Lala ngoxolo, Muthi omkhulu (rest in peace, great tree)

In South Africa, Zulu people say, “umuthi omkhulu uwile” which means that a great tree has fallen. We say a version of this statement in other cultures, in other parts of Africa and it signifies the loss of a great leader or a person of wisdom. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a gargantuan Tree, a great leader who stood for peace, equality, and justice. For those who are fighting for justice all over the world, his legacy will live forever as an example and reminder, to be steadfast and to always put people at the center.

As he put it, “Let us work to be peacemakers, those given a wonderful share in Our Lord’s ministry of reconciliation. If we want peace, so we have been told, let us work for justice. Let us beat our swords into ploughshares.”

Lala ngoxolo, Muthi omkhulu!