Archbishop Desmond Tutu dies aged 90

Dec 26, 2021
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Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Photograph by Hattie Miles

"The passing of Desmond is such a profound challenge to take in. The Tutu Foundation UK will hold a memorial service in Westminster Abbey in the coming months." - Clive Conway

Archbishop Desmond Tutu's obituary written by Michael Holman.

Seldom has a public figure inspired as much universal love, and commanded such was Desmond Mpilo Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, who died yesterday aged 90.

Alongside Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first democratically elected president and fellow winner of the Nobel Peace prize, Tutu came to personify the battle against apartheid.

The loss of this hero of our time, modest and self-effacing, entertaining and courageous, will be hard for South Africa to bear. Once loathed by many whites, it is testimony to Tutu's greatness that he will surely be mourned by all South Africans, whatever their creed, colour or conviction.

That battle against apartheid's grim legacy, however, is far from over. The journey to a fair society is taking much longer than expected, the roadblocks on the route to a decent democracy are proving hard to dismantle.

It was Nelson Mandela, compassionate and pragmatic, who dealt with the practicalities of political power in post-apartheid South Africa; it was Desmond Tutu who took on the role of conscience of the nation and spokesman for the underdog. In the years that followed the 1994 election that brought Mandela and the African National Congress to office, it became increasingly clear that overcoming the obstacles to a fair and just society - notably, the flagrant abuse of state resources, the cronyism that lies behind many public appointments, the emergence of a selfish and corrupt elite - is proving almost as challenging as the fight against apartheid itself.

As Mandela moved out of the public arena after his retirement in 199x, it was Tutu who set the country's moral compass.

He pulled no punches, yet often used his impish sense of humour, punctuated by an infectious giggle, to make his point and shame his target.

He attacked Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, for his failure to tackle the Aids crisis, he berated Jacob Zuma, the current president, for his squandering of government assets.

Further afield he condemned Robert Mugabe for his flagrant and frequent violations of human rights in Zimbabwe; he was supportive of women's rights and gay marriage, opposed western intervention in Iraq.

His most harrowing task, one which strained his spiritual resilience, was to chair the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which showed the world a new approach to the trauma caused by conflict. Rather than sweep the past under the carpet, or put the men 

responsible for apartheid on Nuremberg-type trial, South Africa opted for a third way. To those who had committed gross violations of human rights, it offered amnesty in exchange for public repentance and full disclosure of the truth about their crimes; for the victims it gave a chance to be heard, to express their pain and put their case for reparation.

Listening to the testimony of the perpetrators of evil, and to hear the stories of victims who lived to tell their tale, was a painful, gruelling experience. Looking back on the commission and its work, Tutu acknowledged that it has taken a heavy toll. 

"Yes, I have been greatly privileged to engage in the work of helping to heal our nation," he wrote in 1999, at the end of his account of the commissions deliberations. "But it has been a costly privilege for those of us in the Commission, and I have come to realise that perhaps we were effective only to the extent that we were, in that celebrated phrase, 'wounded healers'".

His spiritual resilience was matched by physical courage.

At a funeral service for four guerrillas in the township of Duduza, in July 1985, he put his life at risk. During the procession from a football field to the cemetery, a crowd of angry mourners turned on a man suspected of being a police informer. The man broke away from the mob and collapsed at the feet of Tutu, crying for mercy. The punishment that was imminent was known as 'necklacing' - a car tyre forced over the head of the victim, doused in petrol, and set alight - a barbaric practice that was a symptom of a sick society. Tutu pleaded for the man's life. The oppressed, he argued, should not sink the level of the oppressor. The man was reprieved.

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born in Klerksdorp, where his father was a teacher, and his mother a cleaner and cook at a school for the blind. 

"One day", Tutu recalls, "I was standing in the street with my mother when   a white man in priest's clothing walked past. As he passed us, he took off his hat to my mother. I couldn't believe my eyes - a white man who greeted a black working-class woman!"

It marked the start of a friendship that was to influence him for the rest of his life. The white man was Trevor Huddlestone, then a parish priest in the township of Sophiatown, later to become a bishop, and an influential anti-apartheid campaigner.

Initially Tutu wanted to become a doctor, but could not afford the fees.  Instead, he followed in his father's footsteps and became a teacher. But not for long. He resigned over the Bantu Education Act, in protest at the second-class system it entrenched. 

After attending a theological college, he was ordained as an Anglican priest in December 1961.

With his wife Leah Shenxane, a teacher, he travelled to London, where he studied for his bachelor's and  masters degrees in theology. Returning to South Africa in 1967, he became chaplain at the University of Fort Hare, going on to lecture at the National University of Lesotho.

Tutu's emergence on the international stage, however, began when he became the first black person to be   appointed Anglican Dean of Johannesburg in 1975. He used this position to reach a new, wider, audience:  "I realised that I had been given a platform that was not readily available to many blacks and most of our leaders were either now in chains or in exile. And I said, 'Well, I'm going to use this to seek to try to articulate our aspirations and the anguishes of our people.'"

In 1976, shortly after he was appointed Bishop of Lesotho, further raising his international profile, Tutu wrote a letter to the South African Prime Minister warning him that a failure to quickly redress racial inequality could have dire consequences. The letter was ignored. 

In 1985, Tutu was appointed the Bishop of Johannesburg, and a year later he became the first black person to hold the highest position in the South African Anglican Church when he was chosen as the Archbishop of Cape Town. In 1987, he was also named the president of the ‘All Africa Conference of Churches’, a position he held until 1997. 

Underpinning his faith was the concept of ubuntu, central to the African Weltanschauung (or world view), which, said Tutu, touches ''the very essence of being to say someone has   ubuntu means they are generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate ... it also means my humanity is inextricably bound up in theirs.

Thus "to forgive is the best form of self-interest. What dehumanises you, inexorably dehumanises me."

"Ubuntu means that in a real sense even the supporters of apartheid were victims of the vicious system which they implemented and which they supported so enthusiastically"

When apartheid formally ended and South Africa elected Mandela as their first legitimate president, Tutu was accorded the honour of formally introducing the country's new leader.

With characteristic look of mischievous glee, and the high-pitched chuckle that endeared him to millions, he recalled that, as he basked in the joyous event, he had whispered:  ''if I die now, it would be almost the perfect moment.''

Despite disappointments and setbacks, Desmond Tutu’s essential optimism sustained his belief that South Africans would pull through, even if the odds seemed stacked against them.

"God", he declared, " does have a sense of humour. Who in their right mind could ever have imagined South Africa   to be an example of anything but awfulness; of how not to order a nation's   race relations and its governance. We South Africans were the unlikeliest lot and that is precisely   why God has chosen us   ...  God intends that others might look at us and take courage. God wants to point to us   as a possible beacon of hope ...   and say ' Look at South Africans. They had a nightmare called apartheid ...your nightmare will end too.'"

Let the last word come from his old friend, Nelson Mandela: 

"Sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid, seldom without humour, Desmond Tutu ' s voice will always be heard." 

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