Desmond Tutu, Anti-Apartheid Campaigner Who Tried to Heal the World, Dies at 90

South African anti-apartheid campaigner, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, one of the world’s most revered religious leaders, died in Cape Town on Sunday at age 90, bringing to an end an extraordinary life filled with courage, love and a passion for justice.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced Tutu’s death, saying it marks “another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa.” Fellow anti-apartheid campaigner Nelson Mandela died in 2013, and F.W. de Klerk—the last white South African president, who worked to dismantle the South African government’s apartheid system—died in November.
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Ramaphosa paid tribute to Tutu’s work, both in ending apartheid and in fighting for human rights everything: “A man of extraordinary intellect, integrity and invincibility against the forces of apartheid, he was also tender and vulnerable in his compassion for those who had suffered oppression, injustice and violence under apartheid, and oppressed and downtrodden people around the world.”

After being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 at the age of 27, Tutu has been admitted to hospital several times.

The icon of peaceful resistance against injustice is Tutu, who was internationally recognized for his leadership of the Anglican church in South Africa and the spearheading of the struggle against apartheid. He used his faith to promote equality and freedom for all South Africans. He often noted that the apartheid system, while devastating for South Africa’s blacks, was nearly as corrosive to the spiritual, physical and political development of the white population it was supposed to protect. “Whites, in being those who oppress others, dehumanized themselves,” he was quoted as saying.

He used the Christian values of forgiveness and love as a tool in the fight against apartheid. Even those most vocal in his attacks, he regularly prayed publicly for his enemies’ wellbeing. Even though he preached forgiveness he wasn’t compromising on his core moral principles. “You are either in favour of evil, or you are in favour of good. Either you are on the side the oppressed, or the side the oppressor. You can’t be neutral,” he wrote in a statement to the United States Congress in 1984. He expanded his thinking in later speeches and sermons, noting that “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

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That philosophy was an inspiration for his activism even after the liberation of South Africa from apartheid. Tutu was an older-statesman who used his boundless energy and stature to fight for equality and social justice globally. As a peace advocate, he traveled the world advocating for justice and freedom as well as an end to wars in Israel-Palestine (Rwanda), Burma, Iraq and Burma. He campaigned against the United States’ illegal detention of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and became an outspoken supporter of LGBTQ rights, even as he risked conflict with members of his own church. “Opposing apartheid was a matter of justice,” he said in 2006. “Opposing discrimination against women is a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a matter of justice.” Though Tutu was routinely confronted with some of the most egregious aspects of human behavior at home and in his travels , he never lost his faith in his fellow man. “Despite all of the ghastliness in the world, human beings are made for goodness,” he once said.

Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu
David Turnley–Corbis/VCG/Getty ImagesDesmond Tutu (left), and Nelson Mandela are anti-apartheid campaigners. This photo was taken in 1990.

He delivered sermons that were unfailingly clear and insightful, as well as being enlightening. His speeches were a masterful blend of humor and observations, which he used to rouse his listeners into protest against injustice. After that, he guided the overstimulated emotions toward constructive action. His authorized biography was published in 2006. It received great praise. The title reads: “He was a rabble-rouser for peace.” As Mandela said: “Sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humor, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless.”

Desmond Mpilo Tutu, a South Africa school headmaster and domestic servant, was born on October 7, 1931. But when the South African government started instituting discriminatory education policies that restricted black South Africans’ employment opportunities, he quit in disgust. He enrolled in a theological college in 1958 and was ordained a priest in Anglican Church in 1961. A year later he left South African to continue his studies in London, where he experienced, for the first time, a life of freedom from apartheid’s race-based restrictions. “I’m sure there was racism there,” he noted in his biography. “But we were protected by the church. It was incredible. We didn’t have to carry our passes anymore and we did not have to look around to see if we could use that bath or that exit. It was a tremendously liberating thing.”

Tutu, who was then the Anglican Bishop for Lesotho in 1975, returned to Africa. He returned to South Africa two years later, and was elected the first Black secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches. Because of his high position in church, he was able advocate against apartheid. He also received some protection from South African authorities. With most of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement jailed or in exile, Tutu become the movement’s de facto head, and a leading spokesperson for the rights of Black South Africans. His unstinting efforts to draw national and international attention to apartheid’s discrimination earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. The awards committee said it was meant, “not only as a gesture of support to him and to the South African Council of Churches of which he was a leader, but also to all individuals and groups in South Africa who, with their concern for human dignity, fraternity and democracy, incite the admiration of the world.”

Two years later he become the Archbishop of Cape Town, the first Black man to preside over the city’s two million-strong congregation. Right-wing white Christians protested outside the cathedral at his investiture, calling it the “death of the Anglican church.” As the church’s official residence was located in an area reserved for white residents only, the apartheid government asked him to apply for the status of “honorary white” so that he could reside on the premises. He declined.

Tutu’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize helped catapult South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement into a global cause. Nearly a decade’s worth of eloquent advocacy by Tutu and his supporters around the world brought the country’s government to its knees. South African blacks gained the right of vote in 1993 and Nelson Mandela was elected their first Black president. Tutu was honoured to present the new president to his nation. Tutu has called that moment one of his most memorable moments in life. “I said to God, ‘God, if I die now, I don’t really mind.’”

But Mandela had other plans for “The Arch,” as he was affectionately called, appointing him as head of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission tasked with investigating human rights abuses committed by both sides during apartheid. Tutu oversaw the proceeding for two years and half with his signature grace and compassion.

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Often called the “moral conscience of South Africa,” Tutu was also known to be a bit of a scold. He held all of the nation’s leaders to the highest standards, and made enemies of many in the African National Congress for his well-deserved criticisms of their failings. He derided Mandela’s successor, President Thabo Mbeki, for his denial of the country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic, and took on President Jacob Zuma for his “moral failings.” Even the leaders of neighboring countries were not spared: Zimbabwe’s former president, Robert Mugabe, once described Tutu as “an evil little bishop” for Tutu’s sermons against the Zimbabwean dictator’s kleptocratic rule.

Tutu, who was ill-informed about the Anglican church’s attitudes towards homosexuality in 2007, turned his stern gaze on the Church. He told the BBC that the Church had failed to demonstrate that God is “welcoming,” and that he had felt saddened and “ashamed.” “If God, as they say, is homophobic, I wouldn’t worship that God,” he said. Later on he told supporters in Cape Town that he “would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven…. I mean I would much rather go to the other place.”

Tutu was a founder member of The Elders, an international group of ex-world leaders that work together for human rights. He continued his pursuit of justice until he retired from public life in 2010. “Instead of growing old gracefully, at home with my family, reading and writing and praying and thinking, too much of my time has been spent at airports and in hotels,” he said at the time. “The time has now come to slow down, to sip rooibos tea with my beloved wife in the afternoons, to watch cricket, to travel to visit my children and grandchildren, rather than to conferences and conventions and university campuses.”

He did, however, occasionally come out of his isolation when it was absolutely necessary. In 2017, he penned a chagrined letter to fellow Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, calling on her to speak up for the rights of Rohingya in Myanmar, saying that said the “unfolding horror” and “ethnic cleansing” of the country’s Muslim minority had forced him to speak out. “I am now elderly, decrepit and formally retired, but breaking my vow to remain silent on public affairs out of profound sadness,” he wrote in a letter he posted on social media. “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”

Tutu is survived by his wife NomalizoLeah Tutu and four children. There are also several grandchildren. A nation that has lost one of its most vocal voices for justice, the United States of America, will be without Tutu.

In 2014, the archbishop spoke in support of assisted death. He said that he would like to be cremated, despite knowing that it made some people uncomfortable, and that he would like to have his ashes interred at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. He wanted a simple coffin, he said, one that would serve as an example to others of the importance of frugal funerals: “My concern is not just about affordability; it’s my strong preference that money should be spent on the living.”

He stated that he did not want his death to be an occasion to mourn, but to serve as the end of his life. “Dying is part of life,” he said. “We have to die. Our existence and that of the many millions who have come before us is impossible to sustain. We have to make way for those who are yet to be born.”


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