Image for Desmond Tutu  South Africa’s unwavering champion of human rights
Obituary

Desmond Tutu South Africa’s unwavering champion of human rights

Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning archbishop who was viewed as the country’s moral conscience and became one of the world's foremost activists for racial justice, died on Sunday aged 90.

South Africans, world leaders and people around the globe mourned the death of Tutu, who worked tirelessly to tear down apartheid — South Africa’s brutal, decades-long regime of oppression against its black population that only ended in 1994.

For his vocal criticism of human-rights breaches at home and across the world, Tutu became an icon among a generation of South Africans credited with ending apartheid that included fellow Nobel laureate and former president Nelson Mandela.

The buoyant clergyman used his pulpit as the first black bishop of Johannesburg and later the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town as well as frequent public demonstrations to galvanise public opinion against racial inequality.

Born in 1931 in a small town near Johannesburg to a domestic worker and a schoolteacher, Tutu’s anger towards the segregated and inferior education system for black children prompted him to seek a role in the church.

Ordained as a priest at the age of 30, Tutu became Johannesburg’s first black Anglican dean in 1975. His appointment as archbishop came 11 years later, propelling Tutu on to the global stage and giving him a bigger platform to rail against the injustices around him.

Candles are lit in front of a photograph of the late Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu at the Cape Town civil centre, Cape Town, South Africa, 26 December 2021.  EPA

When he became president in 1994, Mandela appointed Tutu to be chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which uncovered the abuses of the apartheid system and of the liberation movements.

Among his most painful tasks was delivering graveside orations for black people who had died violently during the struggle against white domination.

As head of the commission, Tutu and his panel listened to harrowing testimony about torture, killings and other atrocities during apartheid. At some hearings, Tutu wept openly.

“Without forgiveness, there is no future,” he said at the time.

The commission’s 1998 report lay most of the blame on the forces of apartheid, but also found the African National Congress guilty of human-rights breaches. The ANC sued to block the document’s release, earning a rebuke from Tutu.

“I didn’t struggle in order to remove one set of those who thought they were tin gods to replace them with others who are tempted to think they are,” Tutu said.

Quote
Don’t raise your voice. Improve your argument.
Desmond Tutu

He once said: "We are tired of coming to funerals, of making speeches week after week. It is time to stop the waste of human lives."

He condemned black-on-black political violence, asking crowd: “Why are we doing this to ourselves?”

In one powerful moment, Tutu defused the rage of thousands of mourners in a township football stadium after the Boipatong massacre of 42 people in 1992, leading the crowd in chants proclaiming their love of God and themselves.

After years of being denied the right to vote on account of his race, Tutu said participating in the country’s first democratic elections in 1994 was "like falling in love“, offering the world insight into his profound emotion after years of struggle against discrimination.

Tutu said his stance on apartheid was moral rather than political.

"It's easier to be a Christian in South Africa than anywhere else, because the moral issues are so clear in this country," he once said in an interview.

Tutu’s death on Sunday “is another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa”, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa 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.”

Tutu died peacefully at the Oasis Frail Care Centre in Cape Town, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Trust said on Sunday. He had been sent to hospital several times since 2015 after being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997.

“Typically, he turned his own misfortune into a teaching opportunity to raise awareness and reduce the suffering of others,” said the Tutu Trust. “He wanted the world to know that he had prostate cancer, and that the sooner it is detected the better the chance of managing it.”

In recent years, he and his wife Leah lived in a retirement community outside Cape Town.

“His legacy is moral strength, moral courage and clarity,” Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba said in a video statement. “He felt with the people. In public and alone, he cried because he felt people’s pain. And he laughed — no, not just laughed, he cackled with delight — when he shared their joy.”

His causes were not limited to his country alone. Tutu spoke out against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, likening it to the treatment of black South Africans under apartheid rule. He also stood against former US President Donald Trump’s move to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

In this file photo, Archbishop Desmond Tutu shares a joke with the Dalai Lama. Reuters

A lively wit lightened Tutu’s hard-hitting messages and warmed otherwise grim protests, funerals and marches. Short, plucky and tenacious, he was a formidable force, and apartheid leaders learnt 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.

In 1990, after 27 years in prison, Mandela spent his first night of freedom at Tutu’s residence in Cape Town. Mandela later called Tutu “the people’s archbishop”.

Tutu is survived by his wife of 66 years and their four children.

Updated: December 26th 2021, 4:48 PM