Desmond Tutu, the South African archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize laureate famed for fighting against apartheid during a turbulent time in the country during the 1980s, has died at the age of 90.
An uncompromising foe of apartheid — South Africa’s brutal regime of oppression against the Black majority — Tutu worked tirelessly, though nonviolently, for its downfall.
The buoyant, blunt-spoken clergyman used his pulpit as the first Black bishop of Johannesburg and later archbishop of Cape Town as well as frequent public demonstrations to galvanize public opinion against racial inequity both at home and globally.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed Tutu’s death in a statement.
Tutu’s death marked “another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa,” he said.
“From the pavements of resistance in South Africa to the pulpits of the world’s great cathedrals and places of worship, and the prestigious setting of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, the Arch distinguished himself as a non-sectarian, inclusive champion of universal human rights.”
Likened Israeli policy on Palestinians to apartheid
Tutu was also an outspoken critic of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians and what he called their “humiliation” by Israeli security forces, calling for sanctions and a global boycott to compel Israel to change its policies and likening the situation to the apartheid he experienced in South Africa.
However, he backed Israel’s right to exist and urged PLO leader Yasser Arafat to accept Israel’s existence in 1989.
In a 2002 address that was published in The Guardian, he said he supported Israel’s right to “secure borders,” but went on: “What is not so understandable, not justified, is what it did to another people to guarantee its existence. I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.”
“In our struggle against apartheid,” he noted in the same address, “the great supporters were Jewish people.” Turning to Israel and the Palestinians, he continued: “Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions, in their own history so soon? Have they turned their backs on their profound and noble religious traditions? Have they forgotten that God cares deeply about the downtrodden? Israel will never get true security and safety through oppressing another people.”
A formidable force for human rights
Throughout the 1980s — when South Africa was gripped by anti-apartheid violence and a state of emergency giving police and the military sweeping powers — Tutu was one of the most prominent Blacks able to speak out against abuses.
A lively wit lightened Tutu’s hard-hitting messages and warmed otherwise grim protests, funerals and marches. He was a formidable force, and apartheid leaders learned not to discount his canny talent for quoting apt scriptures to harness righteous support for change.
The Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 highlighted his stature as one of the world’s most effective champions for human rights, a responsibility he took seriously for the rest of his life.
With the end of apartheid and South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Tutu celebrated the country’s multi-racial society, calling it a “rainbow nation,” a phrase that captured the heady optimism of the moment.
Famously outspoken, even after the fall of the racist apartheid regime, Tutu never shied away from confronting South Africa’s shortcomings or injustices.
“It’s a great privilege, it’s a great honor that people think that maybe your name can make a small difference,” he told AFP shortly before his 80th birthday in 2011.
Whether taking on his church over gay rights, lobbying for Palestinian statehood or calling out South Africa’s ruling African National Congress on corruption, his high-profile campaigns were thorny and often unwelcome.
None at the top were spared — not even his close friend, late president Nelson Mandela, with whom Tutu sparred in 1994 over what he called the ANC’s “gravy train mentality.”
Along the way, he won a host of admirers.
“I believe that God is waiting for the archbishop. He is waiting to welcome Desmond Tutu with open arms,” said Mandela, who stayed at Tutu’s home on his first night of freedom in 1990, after 27 years in apartheid jails.
“If Desmond gets to heaven and is denied entry, then none of the rest of us will get in!”
The Dalai Lama called Tutu his “spiritual older brother.”
Among Tutu’s critics were Zimbabwe’s veteran former president Robert Mugabe, who described him as an “evil and embittered little bishop.”
Even with his global celebrity, his faith remained an integral part of his life.
His family’s road trips included quiet time for prayers, and his missives blasting the evils of apartheid were signed off with “God bless you.”
“I developed tremendous respect for his fearlessness. It wasn’t fearlessness of a wild kind. It was fearlessness anchored in his deep faith in God,” said apartheid’s last leader, F.W. de Klerk.
Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and underwent repeated treatment.
He had retired a year earlier to lead a harrowing journey into South Africa’s brutal past, as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
For 30 months, the commission lifted the lid on the horrors of apartheid.
Tutu, with his instinctive humanity, broke down and sobbed at one of its first hearings.
A recipient of numerous awards, his causes ranged from child marriage to Tibet to calls for Western leaders to be tried over the Iraq war, and in later year for the right to die.
He also swore he would never worship a homophobic God.
“I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place,” he said.
Born in the small town of Klerksdorp, west of Johannesburg, on October 7, 1931, Tutu was the son of a domestic worker and a schoolteacher.
Following in his father’s footsteps, he trained as a teacher before anger at the inferior education system set up for Black children prompted him to become a priest.
He lived for a while in Britain, where, he recalled, he would needlessly ask for directions just to be called “Sir” by a white policeman.
Tutu believed firmly in the reconciliation of black and white South Africans.
“I am walking on clouds. It is an incredible feeling, like falling in love. We South Africans are going to be the Rainbow People of the world,” he said in 1994.
But post-apartheid South Africa increasingly became a source of his despair, as the high hopes of the early days of democracy gave way to disillusionment over violence, inequality and graft.
Never a member of the ANC, Tutu said in 2013 that he would no longer vote for the party, though South African President Cyril Ramaphosa — an old friend — re-built bridges after coming to power in 2018.
Tutu made a rare public appearance in May 2021 to receive his vaccine for COVID-19. He appeared outside of hospital in a wheelchair, and waved but did not speak.