The Rev. Nontombi Naomi Tutu has spent a lifetime answering questions about and fielding comparisons with her father, the late global justice leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
But this justice advocate has her own strong voice, one influenced by her youth and adult years as a black female in South Africa.
Today, Tutu spends time in Africa and the United States, filling roles on both continents but always coming back to the same themes: justice, apartheid and gender equality. They are themes she is intimately familiar with, so her words come with the knowledge that she and people she knows and loves gained through experience.
“I was born into this struggle, raised in a system of apartheid and having my own humanity questioned by the system and the country of my birth,” she said, adding that basically meant there was no way she could walk away from the struggle for human rights because it was within her family, her church, her community.
The influence of her father — well-known at home before he became a global figure — and his ministry meant Tutu made connections at an early age with both South Africa and the struggles in the U.S. She said those issues, particularly the struggle for independence on the African continent, meant showing and realizing just how actions were connected around the world.
“Yes, for me, it was being born into the struggle, from my own perspective, and being shown how they were all struggles about human rights, justice and true peace,” she said.
It’s an issue Tutu sees from a dual perspective: black and female. Apartheid was the entrenched way of life in the South Africa of her youth, but so was gender bias.
“When I was growing up, even white women could not open bank accounts without the agreement of their husbands,” she said, adding there still was a difference because of the system privileges available to those women because of their whiteness.
Tutu said some her beliefs were formed in childhood by people who were her role models. Chief among them was her grandmother, who was thrown off the farm she and her husband owned after her husband died.
“As a black woman, she could not have a bank account and did not have the right to own property,” she said, adding the combined experience of being a black woman is evident in her life today. “I can’t take off either of those identities. They each come with struggle and they add to each other struggle.”
Tutu said things have changed in her home country, but there is a distance to go. South Africa still is a country in transition, 30 years after its first democratic elections.
“I was an adult when I first got to vote,” she said, adding she also had given birth to her first child by then. “My first child was born under apartheid.”
While things are different, important issues still haven’t been addressed. Tutu cited the economy, still controlled by white men in South Africa. Parliament has changed; where there was once only one white female member, today’s governing body is almost 40 percent female and has representatives from every racial and ethnic group. But South Africa still is a country where the poorest of the poor struggle to survive and educate their children.
“We are here in 2024 and schools in rural communities still don’t have access to books, to qualified teachers,” she said, adding high school pass rates remain skewed toward white students with better access to education.
There are problems with government corruption, something Tutu said those who struggled to modernize the country hadn’t considered.
“It has been a source of sadness and anger, given the level of sacrifice to bring an end to apartheid. We find ourselves in a struggle against corruption,” she said.
Gender equality and gender-based violence continue to be a struggle, just as they were under apartheid.
That’s part of the reason such issues are in the message Tutu brings to youth. She’s been especially active with high school and college students, and her message remains the same. She draws a parallel with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., telling her audiences that as a youth and young preacher, King did not expect to become a leader, a drum major for justice, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, the chair of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott movement. King evolved into those roles, and Tutu tells today’s youths they can do the same.
“I say to young people: don’t sell yourself short,” she said, adding when today’s youths see the names and faces of leaders who came before, they must remember accomplishment came through facing challenge. “The way you live your life, the way you carry yourself in the world, all that is part of the struggle for human rights.”
Tutu had a smile in her voice as she recounts recent conversations with youths, including a question many adults pose: how has being Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s daughter influenced her actions today. She said people have to remember that before he was a global figure, he was a recognized leader in South Africa.
“I look very much like him, so I couldn’t pretend that was not true,” she said of the family link. “I struggled a lot with that: what is my own identity?”
Tutu said she believes that is why it took so long for her to answer the call to ministry: she wanted it to be clear the call was truly hers. For years, she wasn’t certain that was true. She made peace with that question after advice from a good friend, who told Tutu she had to recognize there have been negative parts of being Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s daughter, so there must have been positive parts. So, which have been greater? Tutu said the answer came down to the positives she had as the archbishop’s daughter.
“Those experiences outweigh any cons that I have had,” she said.