Desmond Tutu Dies: Cleric Fought Against Apartheid in South Africa


Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town who received the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his impassioned campaign against apartheid in South Africa while Nelson Mandela languished in prison, died early Sunday.

Tutu, 90, died of cancer at a care center in Cape Town, Archbishop Desmond Tutu Trust said in a statement. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and had been hospitalized several times in recent years.

A moral beacon in a deeply troubled country, the mischievous priest in the purple cassock stood for decades as an inspirational symbol of courage, dignity and hope in a nation that at times seemed doomed to civil war. His fervent pleas for peace and racial justice, along with his irrepressible sense of humor, were a constant balm to a country on the brink.

Tutu occupied a unique place in apartheid-era South Africa, and he used his stature as an Anglican prelate to navigate violent countercurrents. He wept at funerals for victims of apartheid, risked his life to stop violence by black protesters, and defied death threats from whites for leading the international campaign to impose economic and cultural sanctions on the white minority regime.

Then, following the success of the anti-apartheid movement, he served as a spur to the ruling African National Congress, chiding leaders for corruption and a failure to adequately address the nation’s widespread poverty.

With the exception of Mandela, who died in December 2013, few people have impacted modern South Africa’s tumultuous history quite like the jovial archbishop, who often wore a T-shirt that read ‘Just Call Me Arch’ under a snappy fisherman’s hat.

He squealed with delight when, in April 1994, South Africans peacefully lined up to vote in the first ever all-racial election “a brand new president, ready for action” before a Cape Town crowd the following month.

Rather than leave the limelight, Tutu became a moral guardian of what he proudly called the “rainbow people of God.” He wasn’t afraid to bash the new government – or Mandela – when he felt it necessary.

Shortly after the 1994 election, he publicly chastised Mandela’s government for “stopping the gravy train long enough to get through.” The president sued, but soon announced pay cuts for himself, his cabinet and parliament.

In the years that followed, one of Tutu’s greatest accomplishments was heading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a statutory body tasked with investigating murder, torture, bombings, and other crimes committed by blacks and whites during apartheid , the former segregation system of the white minority rulers .

As Tutu watched, often crying, perpetrators confessed to atrocities and victims forgave them in a grueling process of national catharsis.

“To lead an attempt to heal the nation is the greatest honor of all,” Tutu told the Times in June 1997.

He also used his independent position to bemoan the state of his country, speaking out against crime, corruption and the ANC’s failures on AIDS and poverty. He believed that many South Africans were too intimidated to speak out.

Weeks before the country’s 2009 election, he criticized the ANC, warning the party “You are not God” and complaining that he wasn’t looking forward to seeing Jacob Zuma president. Zuma was later elected but resigned in 2018 after a government marred by repeated corruption scandals.

Tutu announced his retirement from public life in 2010. But he continued to speak out on social and political issues, offering support for same-sex marriage, euthanasia and human rights. In 2018, he condemned President Trump’s decision to officially recognize the divided city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, saying, “God is crying.”

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born on October 7, 1931 in a destitute black township outside the conservative white town of Klerksdorp, about 100 miles southwest of Johannesburg. His family soon moved to Muncieville, near Johannesburg, where his late father, Zachariah, was principal of the segregated black high school.

“One of the things I found difficult about him was that he drank,” Tutu told a South African Broadcasting Corp interviewer in 1997.

“He drank often. He was exaggerating. And then he wouldn’t be nice to my mother. Sometimes he hit my mother. He beat her up. And I got really, really angry.”

His mother, Anetta, was an uneducated maid for a white family. Tutu remembered her as compassionate, gentle, and caring, an abused woman who stood up for the underdog in every argument.

“Of all the people in the world, my mother was the biggest influence on me,” he said.

Tutu was a small, sickly child. As a boy, he suffered from polio, which left his right hand shriveled and semi-paralysed. As a teenager, he spent 20 months in the hospital for tuberculosis. He was so short-sighted that he was fired as a golf caddy because he kept losing sight of the balls.

He wanted to be a doctor and was one of a handful of black students admitted to medical school. But his parents couldn’t afford the fees, so Tutu became an English teacher at his father’s school instead.

Tutu married a Muncieville woman, Leah Nomalizo Shenxani, in 1955. They were inseparable over the years and had four children. He is survived by her, her children and several grandchildren.

Tutu stopped teaching because the government imposed a Bantu education aimed at training black students only as workers for whites.

“I felt like I couldn’t be a part of it,” he recalled.

He was ordained in 1961 after attending St. Peter’s Theological College in Rosettenville, near Johannesburg. He later insisted, mostly with a wink, that he join the clergy because he didn’t know what else to do.

“They weren’t lofty, noble ideas, like I wanted to serve God or our people,” he told SABC, laughing. “Which shows that God can use even the worst of instruments in His works.”

But Tutu’s oratory skills and strong intellect were undeniable. In 1962 he received a scholarship to King’s College in London. After five years he was appointed chaplain of the South African University of Fort Hare. He soon returned to Britain with the World Council of Churches.

In 1975 he returned home for good when he became the first black Anglican Dean of Johannesburg.

The then-unknown cleric made headlines in May 1976 when he wrote a public letter to white Prime Minister John Vorster. Tutu warned of his “growing nightmarish fear” that “bloodshed and violence are almost inevitable” if the repression continues.

Vorster ignored the warning and Tutu was vilified in the white run media. A month later, riots broke out near Johannesburg in Soweto, the country’s largest black township. It would take nearly 18 years and tens of thousands of deaths, but the Soweto uprising marked the beginning of the end of the apartheid era.

But that was hardly certain. With Mandela and most other black leaders in prison and the banning of the African National Congress and other liberation groups, Tutu became the most prominent public voice in South Africa to rail against racism and the oppression of white minority rule.

His influence grew when he was elected the first black general secretary of the South African Council of Churches in 1978.

He soon launched a campaign calling on the international community to put pressure on the apartheid regime by imposing punitive sanctions. Black people are already suffering, he said, in response to fears sanctions would hurt them too.

“It’s better to suffer with a purpose,” he explained.

In 1984, the same year he received the Nobel Prize, he was appointed Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg. Two years later he became Archbishop of Cape Town, the head of the Church nationwide.

Tutu and members of his family have been repeatedly arrested and harassed. His passport was confiscated and the police followed him even when he went jogging every morning.

“I like being liked,” he told the Times. “It was very, very painful to be hated… Why did they hate me? Because from their point of view, I was Ogre #1, Public Enemy #1. Because I was considered Mr. Sanctions.”

Tutu justified his political activism by calling the Bible the most subversive document in history and citing Moses’ leadership of the Jewish slaves of Egypt. He challenged the self-proclaimed Christian government for human rights abuses and repeatedly broke the law by leading protests and boycotts.

“I don’t oppose the government,” he once declared. “I obey God.”

But Tutu angered some black supporters as he also condemned violence in the townships, particularly mobs who killed suspected enemies by sticking them in tires which were then set on fire, a cruel practice known as necklacing. It’s been called a sell-out and worse.

When Mandela was released from 27 years in prison in February 1990, he spent his first night of freedom at the Archbishop’s residence in Cape Town. Tutu later mediated repeatedly as violence escalated ahead of the 1994 election.

Even in the darkest of days, Tutu said he never lost hope — or faith.

“I never gave up,” he told the Times. “It was a question of theology. Sometimes you wish you could whisper in God’s ear, “God, I know you’re there. But could you make it a little more obvious?’”

During his very active “retirement,” he led the Elders, a group of statesmen including Mandela and Jimmy Carter, who used their influence to work behind the scenes for peace.

He campaigned against AIDS and cancer and never shied away from controversial issues. In 2009, Tutu dismissed attacks on his view that four white students charged over a racist video should be forgiven instead.

“I always have people criticizing me. It’s not new,” he said. “And in the end, I’m always right.”

Drogin is a former Times contributor. Former Times contributor Robyn Dixon contributed to this report. Desmond Tutu Dies: Cleric Fought Against Apartheid in South Africa

Caroline Bleakley

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