I knew that starting my recent interview in Miami with Archbishop Desmond Tutu with a question about soccer would distract a little from our main topic. But with public excitement about the World Cup mounting, I wanted to know if his home country of South Africa _ the first African nation to host the competition _ was ready for that challenge.

“Yes, I think so,” said Tutu, with the wide, free smile of a mischievous child. “We got one or two things that we still got to do, but it’s been wonderful to see the stadiums come up and the excitement.”

While the World Cup is important, my primary goal was to get Tutu’s perspective on the current troubles immigrants are facing in the United States. In the ‘80s, he was one of the most ardent and important opponents of apartheid in South Africa _ the brutal system by which the country’s small white minority suppressed and discriminated against the majority black population. For these efforts, he was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

While some might not immediately see the parallels between U.S. immigration law and South African apartheid _ which legislated a strict divide between races _ I would argue that in practice, the two are surprisingly similar and have some of the same effects: millions living under the shadows and in fear of persecution, taxation without political representation, forced deportations that tear families apart, well-paying jobs closed to even highly qualified members of the outsider group.

The new anti-immigrant law in Arizona, according to its critics, promotes racial profiling the same way it happened in South African during the apartheid.

Tutu agreed, and recalled three valuable lessons, drawn from the experiences of black South Africans under apartheid, that could be of use to today’s supporters of immigrants’ rights.

(Algunos quizás no vean inmediatamente el paralelismo entre las actuales leyes de inmigración y el apartheid en Sudáfrica –que legislaba una clara división entre las razas- pero yo argumentaría que, en la práctica, las dos son muy parecidas y tiene los mismos efectos: millones viviendo en las sombras y con miedo a ser perseguidos, pago de impuestos sin representación política, deportaciones que separan a familias, y falta de acceso a trabajos bien pagados, incluso para aquellos que tendrían las cualidades para realizarlos.

La nueva ley anti-inmigrante en Arizona, de acuerdo con sus críticos, promueve la discriminación racial de la misma manera en que ocurrió en Sudáfrica durante el apartheid.

Tute estuvo de acuerdo y recordó tres valiosas lecciones, aprendidas de la población negra sudafricana durante el apartheid, que podrían usarse para apoyar los derechos de los inmigrantes hoy en día.)

“What can the Latino immigrants that fight against discrimination in the United States learn from the struggle for human rights that took place in South Africa?” I asked him.

“One, very important, is to know that you will win,” he said. “Injustice can’t continue forever. And when people are unjust and treat others unjustly they suffer as well. They discover later that it was much, much better if we accept one another as members of one family.”

Tutu said it was activists’ and ordinary people’s faith in the justice and eventual victory of their cause _ the struggle against apartheid _ that made possible the toppling of white minority rule and the transformation of South Africa to a pluralistic country with 11 official languages. “It’s (a way of) saying ’let’s celebrate our diversity,’” Tutu said. “I mean, we’ve said that we are a rainbow nation.”

The apartheid system in South Africa is now ended and equality and civil rights for all are enshrined in the country’s constitution, but I told Tutu that during a visit to South Africa I still saw signs of rejection and discrimination against black people.

That change will take time, he said. “You remember how Martin Luther King said you can’t legislate for people to love one another but, he said, it is important that you can legislate to say ’don’t lynch me.’ You hope that people are going to begin to understand that is better to live in harmony rather than as enemies.”

Tutu likes to speak of “Uvuntu.” What is that? “Uvuntu is the essence of being human,” he explained. “It says: ’I am a person because you are a person.’”

The man who introduced this concept of “Uvuntu” to politics was Nelson Mandela, the nation’s president from 1994 to 1999. Mandela _ who spent 27 years in jail for his activities in opposition to the white minority _ was widely known for his politics of reconciliation and for negotiating with his enemies.

I asked the archbishop: What should other leaders learn from Mandela? “I think it’s a gift that God gives you to be a leader,” said Tutu. “And the great gift is to remember that you are a leader for the sake of the led. You are not a leader for self-recognition. It’s not that you can enrich yourself. You’re there for the sake of the ones that say ’you are our leader.’”

Tutu has an extraordinary capacity to make one feel relaxed and at home. That’s why, though we had been talking only a few minutes, I risked asking the toughest question: Which team will win the first game of the World Cup: Mexico or South Africa?
“I am from Mexico,” I started to say …

He interrupted me immediately. “Tough luck!” he said. His happy laughter bounced off the walls of the room, and we couldn’t speak anymore. I shook his hand. He held my hand between both of his, fixed his frank, direct gaze on me and said: “May God bless you.” And he kept on laughing.

By Jorge Ramos Avalos
© 2010 Jorge Ramos
(November 22, 2010)

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Jorge Ramos has been the anchorman for Noticiero Univision since 1986. He writes a weekly column for more than 40 newspapers in the United States and Latin America, and provides daily radio commentary for the Radio Univision network. Ramos also hosts Al Punto, Univision’s weekly public affairs program offering analysis of the week’s top stories, and Fusion’s AMERICA with Jorge Ramos, a news program geared towards young adults. Ramos has won eight Emmy awards and is the author of ten books, most recently, STRANGER - The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era.

A survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center found that Ramos is the second most recognized Latino leader in the country. Latino Leaders magazine chose him as one of “The Ten Most Admired Latinos” and “101 Top Leaders of the Latino Community in the U.S.”