Desmond Tutu, the black South African Anglican archbishop and anti-apartheid activist, died Sunday at the age of 90. The Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation said that Tutu had passed away from cancer in a care facility. Tutu was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and had since been hospitalized several times.
Tutu will be remembered as a skilled orator who was unafraid to mix politics and the pulpit. He leaves a legacy of nonviolent activism that played an essential role in moving what he called the “Rainbow nation” beyond the system of apartheid. His death has inspired tributes on social media and elsewhere from some of the world’s most influential political and spiritual figures.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed the Archbishop’s passing, calling Tutu “a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead.” The current archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, said in a statement that Tutu’s “legacy is moral strength, moral courage and clarity. 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.”
The Dalai Lama called the late Tutu “a true humanitarian and a committed advocate of human rights.” The Tibetan spiritual leader went on to write that “the best tribute we can pay him and keep his spirit alive is to do as he did and constantly look to see how we too can be of help to others.”
President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden also offered their condolences, saying that the first couple had been reflecting “on the power of his message of justice, equality, truth, and reconciliation as we confront racism and extremism in our time today.” As did former President Barack Obama, who said Tutu was “grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but also concerned with injustice everywhere.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson joined the ranks of those celebrating Tutu’s life on Twitter, writing that Tutu will be “remembered for his spiritual leadership and irrepressible good humor.”
Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born in Klerksdorp, South Africa on Oct. 7, 1931 to Zachariah and Aletha Tutu, and was baptized into the Methodist church the following year. Desmond’s father, a high-functioning alcoholic who occasionally beat his wife, was a teacher at a Methodist school and eventually became a high school principal. His mother was a domestic worker until Desmond was twelve, when the Tutus moved to Johannesburg and his mother began working at a school for blind children. Like many other black South Africans, the Tutu family’s economic opportunity was limited by the color of their skin. “Although we weren’t affluent, we were not destitute either,” Tutu said of his family’s standing. Despite their shortcomings, particularly his father’s, Tutu kept a good relationship with both of his parents.
After the Tutus converted from the Methodist to the Anglican church and Desmond had entered high school, he contracted tuberculosis and was hospitalized for nearly a year and a half. During his stay at a hospital in Rietfontein, he was visited almost daily by Rev. Trevor Huddleston, a white priest and anti-apartheid activist. “This little boy very well could have died,” Father Huddleston said in an interview about Tutu years later, “but he didn’t give up, and he never lost his glorious sense of humor.”
Once Tutu had recovered and returned to school in 1949, he was inspired by his own treatment and recovery to become a doctor. His parents, however, were unable to afford the tuition for the University of the Witwatersrand, where Tutu had been admitted to study medicine.
Instead, Tutu looked to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an educator. He got a scholarship from the South African government to train as a teacher at Pretoria Bantu Normal College in 1951 and later received a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Africa. Once Desmond completed his courses and began teaching, however, he grew disenchanted with the path he had chosen. He found the curriculum pushed by the white government onto black students through the Bantu Education Act insulting. Tutu resigned in protest.
Recalling the kindness shown him as a young man by Rev. Huddleston, Tutu decided to explore opportunities in the Anglican Church, where he could more readily enter the fray against apartheid. With help from Huddleston and wealthy South African industrialist Harry Oppenheimer, Tutu was ordained in 1961.
In the years following his ordination, Tutu continued his theological studies. He studied for four years at King’s College London where he earned his Masters in Theology. His four years in England taught him that racial coexistence was possible; it was the first time Tutu and his family had experienced life beyond apartheid. In London, Tutu shed his sense of racial inferiority and his animosity toward normal white people. Both developments would shape his later activism.
“There is racism in England, but we were not exposed to it,” Tutu would later say of his time in London.
The 1970s were arguably the defining period of Tutu’s life. In this decade, he discovered liberation theology and further embraced “black theology”—a theological approach that views the Gospel as a way to liberate black people from racial oppression. At a conference in 1973 at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary, Tutu said, “black theology is an engaged, not an academic, detached theology. It is a gut level theology, relating to the real concerns, the life and death issues of the black man.” Like God in the burning bush, Tutu simply claimed that “black theology is,” and
No permission is being requested for it to come into being…. Frankly the time has passed when we will wait for the white man to give us permission to do our thing. Whether or not he accepts the intellectual respectability of our activity is largely irrelevant. We will proceed regardless.
For the rest of his life, Tutu attempted to reconcile African theology—the more traditional theological outlook that he had been exposed to as a young man—with some of the more radical elements of black theology he was exposed to in the West.
Tutu’s intellect and oratory skills helped propel his ascension in the church despite the effects of apartheid on South African society. In 1975, Tutu became the first black South African appointed as dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg. There, he shepherded a majority-white but racially mixed congregation and more fully embraced the political power of the pulpit. Tutu began advocating for political positions he believed could break the back of apartheid. He spoke out against the Terrorism Act of 1967 alongside Winnie Mandela—the second wife of Nelson Mandela—and held a 24-hour-long prayer vigil for the activists detained under the law. He even went so far as to advocate for an international economic boycott of South Africa until the end of apartheid. Tutu also changed his congregation’s liturgies, substituting masculine for gender-neutral pronouns.
Less than a year later, he was elected the consecrated bishop of Lesotho, a position he begrudgingly accepted. He continued speaking in favor of the black consciousness movement, especially at the funeral of Steve Biko, a black consciousness activist killed by police in 1977.
The following year, Tutu was named the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches— the first black man to hold the position—where he committed the council to support civil disobedience and continued to advocate for an international boycott against the apartheid government. The South African government responded by revoking Tutu’s passport in 1980, a move that drew the condemnation of the U.S. and other countries until his passport was reinstated the following year.
By the early 1980s, Tutu had become an icon for black South Africans organizing against apartheid, eclipsed only by his friend Nelson Mandela. He was a perennial nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize until he won the award in 1984. While Mandela and other prominent activists were jailed and other anti-apartheid political groups and parties were repressed, Tutu promised to serve as the anti-apartheid movement’s de facto chaplain until Mandela and others were released. This degree of separation from the African National Congress (ANC) and other activists allowed Tutu to blaze his own path of anti-apartheid activism.
Tutu notably deviated from the ANC’s position on armed conflict. The ANC felt that armed struggle would be a necessary part of bringing the apartheid government to its knees. Tutu insisted that the movement must stay nonviolent if it were to succeed.“I will never tell someone to pick up a gun,” Tutu once said in an interview. “But I will pray for the man who picks up the gun, pray that he will be less cruel than he might otherwise have been, because he is a member of the community. We are going to have to decide: If this civil war escalates, what is our ministry going to be?”
In 1985, Tutu famously intervened to stop the extrajudicial execution of a black man accused of informing for the apartheid government, whom a mob had gathered to “necklace”—a horrific practice that involved soaking a tire in gasoline before squeezing it around the person’s body and lighting it on fire.
After his passport was restored, Tutu spent time touring Europe and North America, meeting with some of the world’s most influential leaders, such as Pope John Paul II. When he visited the United States in 1984, he met with the Congressional Black Caucus and was invited to the White House by President Ronald Reagan. There, he unsuccessfully tried to convince Reagan to change the United States’ policy of constructive engagement, which sought to incentivize South Africa to gradually end apartheid, rather than fully isolate it as Tutu had promoted. Later, Tutu would call the Reagan administration “an unmitigated disaster for us blacks,” and described Reagan himself as “a racist pure and simple.”
In 1986, Tutu was named the Archbishop of Cape Town, making Tutu the spiritual leader of the 1.5 million Anglicans in South Africa, of whom 80 percent were black. As archbishop, Tutu approved the ordination of female priests in the Anglican church, comparing the exclusion of women from the pulpit to apartheid. He also appointed gay priests to higher positions of authority in the church.
When Mandela and the leaders of the ANC were released from prison in 1990, Tutu kept his promise, and let them take the lead in a movement he had been instrumental in building while they were interned.
When apartheid fell in 1994, Tutu called it “a religious experience, a transfiguration experience, a mountaintop experience,” to vote in Cape Town’s Gugulethu township. Mandela and the ANC were subsequently declared the victors. The same year, Tutu declared his intention to retire as archbishop in 1996.
Mandela’s government was attempting to usher in a fresh start for South Africa by grappling with the legacy of apartheid. In July 1995, parliament passed legislation to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and Tutu was named one of its seventeen commissioners.
When approached about helping oversee the TRC, Tutu, informed by his faith, recommended the TRC take a three-step approach to addressing apartheid. First was confession, in which those responsible for human rights abuses under apartheid fully admitted to their wrongdoing. Second was forgiveness through legal amnesty from prosecution. Finally was restitution, in which the perpetrators would find ways to right the wrongs they had committed. Mandela, who at times had a strained relationship with Tutu, named the archbishop as the TRC’s chairman.
Tutu focused on the committee that investigated human-rights abuses, which was often the site of intense emotion as testimonies were read. As the TRC chair, he spoke out against abuses by both black and white forces. When the ANC attempted to suppress parts of the TRC’s findings that would have damaged its public image, Tutu was enraged. “Yesterday’s oppressed can quite easily become today’s oppressors,” Tutu said, “we’ve seen it happen all over the world and we shouldn’t be surprised if it happens here.”
Nonetheless, Tutu believed that the TRC had accomplished what it set out to do: Offer the nation an opportunity, though one more brief than he had hoped, for forgiveness.
After the battle against apartheid was won, Tutu turned his focus on other social issues—particularly gay rights within the Anglican Church. As with women in the priesthood, Tutu regarded traditional biblical proscriptions against homosexual activity as akin to discrimination against black people. When the church refused to budge on the sinfulness of homosexual acts, Tutu wrote, “I am ashamed to be an Anglican,” in a letter to George Carey. In 2007, Tutu proclaimed, “If God, as they say, is homophobic, I wouldn’t worship that God,” and called upon the Anglican Church of Southern Africa to conduct gay marriages.
Though Tutu began entrenching himself in political skirmishes against his own church, he maintained keen political instincts. He spoke out against the Iraq War, and was early in his warnings that South Africa was once again at risk of devolving into chaos fueled by racial resentment thanks to a feckless and corrupt national government. “We are sitting on a powder keg,” he said of the devolving situation.
In an interview with the New York Times Magazine in 2010, Tutu said:
I think we are at a bad place in South Africa, and especially when you contrast it with the Mandela era. Many of the things that we dreamt were possible seem to be getting more and more out of reach. We have the most unequal society in the world. We have far too many of our people living in a poverty that is debilitating, inhumane and unacceptable.
As conditions continued to worsen, Tutu found himself unable any longer to vote for the ANC. “We really need a change,” Tutu wrote in a 2013 op-ed published in Mail & Guardian. “The ANC was very good at leading us in the struggle to be free from oppression. They were a good freedom-fighting unit. But it doesn’t seem to me now that a freedom-fighting unit can easily make the transition to becoming a political party.” A year later, Tutu told South Africa’s Sunday Times, “I’m glad that [Mandela] is dead. I’m glad that most of these people are no longer alive to see this.”
In the coming days and weeks, Tutu will continue to receive deserved praise for his role in ending apartheid and preventing an all-out civil war in South Africa. Upon further reflection, however, it is difficult to ignore Tutu’s willingness to invoke apartheid as he sought to undermine the moral teachings of his own church.
Some of the systems razed in pursuit of liberation, like apartheid itself, deserved to be destroyed. But the liberal disposition Tutu embodied tends to dismantle systems and social conventions not because they deserve to be destroyed but simply because they exist. This disposition, undoubtedly formed and cemented by the struggles he faced under apartheid, partially explains Tutu’s embrace of controversial elements of black theology and black consciousness as a cleric. It also explains why Tutu, after playing a pivotal role in dismantling apartheid, entrenched himself in battles against other social conventions.
Desmond Tutu’s life was defined by the battles he packed into his 90 years on earth. In many of them, including the one he cared about most, he emerged victorious.
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