East Africa

Archbishop Desmond Tutu dies at 90

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Anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu has passed away at 90, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement. 

Tutu, the last surviving South African Nobel Peace Prize laureate, died in Cape Town.

“Desmond Tutu was a patriot without equal; a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without work is dead,” President Ramaphosa said on Sunday morning. 

“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.” 

Tutu coined the phrase “the Rainbow Nation”, which is often used in post-apartheid South Africa. 

He had been fighting prostate cancer for about 20 years. 


Tutu is survived by his wife Leah, four children and seven grandchildren.

Early life

Born in Klerksdorp in the then Western Transvaal Union of South Africa in 1931, Tutu’s father was Xhosa while his mother was a Motswana, but they spoke Xhosa at home. 

An encounter with Anglican priest Trevor Huddlestone when he was nine made him decide to become a priest when he grew up.

The white priest had tipped his hat in a show of respect on a sidewalk during the dark days of apartheid, a gesture that left a young Tutu awestruck.

He was to, later on, learn that Mr Huddlestone was an anti-apartheid activist, and the Englishman went on to become his mentor and served under the priest in Sophiatown, a suburb in Jo’burg. 

Later on in life, after stints as a teacher at the University of Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho, Tutu’s stature continued to grow as a fighter for justice. 

That saw him breaking barriers and becoming Bishop of Lesotho, Bishop of Johannesburg, and Archbishop of Cape Town, becoming the first black person to serve in those roles. 

Fight to end apartheid

He used those influential positions to fight against apartheid.

Archbishop Tutu’s objection to apartheid can be traced to 1957 when he quit his teaching practice in protest of the Bantu Education Act of 1953, which deliberately established an inferior education system for back learners.

A few years earlier, after obtaining a teaching diploma from the Pretoria Bantu Normal College, he went on to complete a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of South Africa, graduating in the same class as the future Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

Soon after leaving teaching in 1957, Archbishop Tutu enrolled at St Peter’s Theological College in Rosettenville, Johannesburg.

There, he studied Bible, Anglican doctrine, church history and Christian ethics and graduated with a Licentiate of Theology degree before becoming a deacon in 1960, then a priest the following year.

To further his career as a cleric, he was admitted to London’s King’s College in 1962, where he obtained his Honours and Master’s degrees in Theology at King’s College in 1966.

Reverend Mzwandile Molo, a member of the South African Council of Churches executive committee, described Archbishop Tutu as “an instrument of justice.”

“He has lived his life as a true witness of justice, peace and reconciliation that in many ways demanded courage amid a system founded on racism, dehumanisation and colonialism,” Rev Molo told the Nation.

“He became that symbol not only committed to justice because it is a right thing nor a political project but one that is a total commitment to his faith. He became that symbol amid this evil to speak about what human beings should be. 

“He did not just fight against evil; he became a symbol of what good can be, putting the human face to civilisation. He’s an instrument of justice and became a voice and conscience of what is good.” 

For his efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

After independence, Archbishop Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was meant to heal a nation emerging from the brutal apartheid regime.

The Commission was meant to unite blacks and whites who had endured decades of fighting against each other.

Tutu’s critics: ‘He was a puppet for white people’ 

But the leader of the opposition party Black First, Land First, Andile Mgxitama, told The Nation that Archbishop Tutu’s negotiations in the Commission were not sincere.

He said the theologian left a legacy of continued suppression of black people.

“Reconciliation without justice. He provided legitimacy for the sell-out 1994 project of Nelson Mandela,” Mr Mgxitama said.

“In his Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there was no justice for the victims of apartheid. It was a whitewash. In our view, his legacy is whitewashing the sins of apartheid through that commission that had no truth.

“It was just about forcing reconciliation between the victims and the perpetrators.”

Mr Mngxitama accused Tutu of being a puppet of white people.  

“As a consequence, 27 years after democracy, no reparations have been paid to black people. There is no justice for black people,” said Mr Mngxitama.

“White people have been let scot-free. That is the legacy of Desmond Tutu. We will remember how he forced Winnie Mandela at the Commission to apologise. The perpetrators of violence against our people, such as PW Botha and FW De Klerk, were never subjected to that kind of harangue.

“So the legacy of Desmond Tutu, he is one who brought about change without change. We are sitting today in this situation of continued disparities between black and white as a consequence of that commission he headed.”

While Mr Mngxitama is one of the known critics of Archbishop Tutu, the late Zimbabwean President Mugabe was another.

Mr Mugabe once described the Archbishop as a “little man,” and the two did not see eye to eye despite sharing a history of being among the first black men to attain higher education during years of suppression.

Tutu retired from public life in 2010.

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