Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, the influential anti-apartheid activist and one of the most highly respected figures in South African history, has passed away at the age of 90. Though he had battled health issues in recent years, the announcement of his death on the morning of Sunday 26 December 2021 still came as a shock to many. A moral powerhouse and outspoken advocate for social justice, Tutu will be remembered for his tireless work to end South Africa’s systematic racism and segregation policies. He is also credited with coining the phrase “Rainbow Nation” to describe the post-apartheid South Africa – the phrase has since been extended beyond racial differences. He is survived by his wife of 66 years, Nomaliza Leah (née Shenxane), their four children and nine grandchildren.
Tutu was born on 7 October 1931 in Klerksdorp, which is located southwest of the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. He originally trained as a teacher, following in the footsteps of his father, after studying via correspondence with the University of South Africa. After teaching for just 3 years, Tutu quit the profession in 1958 when the Bantu Education Act was enforced to create a separate education system for blacks. He then studied theology and was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1960, the same year as the Sharpeville massacre which brought a new level of violence and ruthlessness to an already oppressed society. He read for a Bachelor of Theology at King’s College in London from 1962-65 and spent another year researching Islam in West Africa before returning to South Africa.
Nearly 20 years later, Tutu made history when he became the first black person to be appointed Bishop of Johannesburg and a year later, Archbishop of Cape Town, the highest rank in the Anglican church in Southern Africa. His domestic and international work as the President of the All Africa Conference of Churches took him across Africa and around the world. This gave him a platform on which to advocate for the end to apartheid in 1990. He announced his decision to step down as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1994 and became the archbishop emeritus in 1996 when President Nelson Mandela appointed him the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He later became a fierce critic of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) during the presidency of Jacob Zuma and declared that he would stop voting for them in 2013.
Tutu received over 100 awards during his career, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, the Albert Schweitzer International Prize for Ethics and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. The Dalai Lama created the annual Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture in 2011. He inspired countless people around the world with hope that it is possible to create a better future. After retiring from public life in 2010, Tutu remained an active voice on issues such as HIV/AIDS and gay rights until his death. Tutu was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and successfully fought it again in 1999 and 2006 before succumbing to it in 2021.
“Desmond Tutu was a patriot without equal; a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical faith that faith without works is dead. We pray that Archbishop Tutu’s soul will rest in peace but that his spirit will stand sentry over the future of our nation”Cyril Ramaphosa. 26 December 2021
Desmond Tutu was the voice of reconciliation and peace in South Africa, who preached for tolerance regardless of race or religion. The world will remember him as a man whose words had power that transcended borders, uniting people from all walks of life into one human family. His legacy is an inspiration not just to Africans but also to people around the world. May the gentle soul of this proud son of South Africa rest in eternal peace.
Three books to remember Archbishop Desmond Tutu by:
- The book of joy: lasting happiness in a changing world by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu
- The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu
- No future without forgiveness by Desmond Tutu