CAPE TOWN — A funeral service was held on Saturday in Cape Town, South Africa, for Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning equality activist who was revered in Africa for his role in ending apartheid.
The ceremony, stripped of pomp, started with a hymn and a procession of clerics down the aisle burning incense and carrying candles in the church where Tutu will also be buried.
Tutu died last Sunday at the age of 90, triggering grief among South Africans and tributes from world leaders for a life spent fighting injustice.
Famous for his modesty, Tutu gave instructions for a simple ceremony, with a cheap coffin, donations for charity instead of floral tributes and an eco-friendly cremation.
The requiem mass was held at Cape Town’s St. George’s Cathedral where, for years, Tutu used the pulpit to rail against a brutal white minority regime.
“When we were in the dark, he brought light,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the head of the worldwide Anglican church, said in a video message.
“For me to praise him is like a mouse giving tribute to an elephant,” Welby said. “South Africa has given us extraordinary examples of towering leaders of the rainbow nation with President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu…. Many Nobel winners’ lights have grown dimmer over time, but Archbishop Tutu’s has grown brighter.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who will deliver the eulogy, accorded Tutu a special category funeral, designated for presidents and very important people.
He will also hand South Africa’s multicolored flag to Tutu’s widow, Leah — a reminder of her husband’s description of the post-apartheid country as the “Rainbow Nation.”
South Africa has been marking a week of mourning, culminating with two days of lying in state.
Several thousand people, some of whom had travelled across the country, filed past a diminutive rope-handled casket made of pine, adorned simply by a bunch of carnations.
Mourners included close friends and family, clergy and a guests, including former Irish president Mary Robinson, who is to read a prayer.
Conspicuously absent from the funeral was one of Tutu’s best friends, the Dalai Lama, who was unable to travel due to advanced age and COVID restrictions.
Emblem of the struggle
Under apartheid, South Africa’s white minority cemented its grip with a panoply of laws based on the notion of race and racial segregation, and the police ruthlessly hunted down opponents, killing or jailing them.
With Nelson Mandela and other leaders sentenced to decades in prison, Tutu in the 1970s became the emblem of the struggle.
The purple-gowned figure campaigned relentlessly abroad, administering public lashings to the United States, Britain and Germany and other countries for failing to slap sanctions on the apartheid regime.
At home, from his pulpit, he slammed police violence against blacks, including the gunning down of school students during the 1976 Soweto uprising. Only his robes saved him from prison.
After apartheid was dismantled and South Africa ushered in its first free elections in 1994, Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which exposed the horrors of the past in grim detail.
He would later speak out fearlessly against the ruling African National Congress (ANC) for corruption and leadership incompetence.
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.”
Tutu’s moral firmness and passion went hand-in-hand with self-deprecatory humor and a famously cackling laugh.
For his funeral, Tutu picked as a guiding quote the scripture from the New Testament’s Gospel of St. John where Jesus addresses his disciples after their last supper.
It reads: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”