South Africa and the world have lost one of the great spirits and moral giants of our age.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu passed away on the morning of 26 December 2021 in Cape Town at the age of 90.
Tutu was a living embodiment of faith in action, speaking boldly against racism, injustice, corruption, and oppression, not just in apartheid South Africa but wherever in the world he saw wrongdoing, especially when it impacted the most vulnerable and voiceless in society.
While Tutu was first and always an Anglican priest who made no secret of his deep dependence on the inner life of disciplined prayer, his faith burst the confines of denomination and religion, joyfully embracing all who shared his passion for justice and love. People of all faiths and no faith together christened him fondly as simply ‘The Arch.’
With political leaders in prison and exile, Tutu, as General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches and later Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, became the nation’s most outspoken prophet for justice. In spite of consistent smears and vicious intimidation by the apartheid regime, he refused to be cowed. Whether from the pulpit or in the streets, on trial or confronting cabinet ministers in the Union Buildings, he spoke with a fierce moral and spiritual authority that faced down his adversaries and slowly won their grudging respect.
With the freeing of Nelson Mandela and other leaders, the unbanning of political movements, the return of the exiles, South Africa’s first non-racial democratic elections, to move the country towards healing, President Mandela asked Tutu to guide the delicate but often controversial work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Presiding over months of agonising testimony and horrifying revelations, he became ‘chief pastor’ to South Africa’s painful transition and many who had dismissed him as a ‘rabble-rouser’ were moved by his deeply compassionate response to apartheid’s victims and even those of their torturers who showed remorse.
While Tutu helped shepherd the democratic dispensation into being, he was unafraid of reminding the new governing party of both its moral responsibilities toward all South Africans and its growing failings. He was realistic about the weaknesses of politicians but expressed both sadness and anger as corruption took hold in the ANC.
The wider world showered him with honours, most notably the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, and after retirement his primary international responsibility was with a group of fellow Nobel Peace Laureates and statespersons known as ‘The Elders,’ committed to international problem-solving and peace-making.
Officially “retiring” from public life on his 79th birthday, Tutu continued to speak out on a range of ethical and moral issues: illegal arms deals, xenophobia, oppressed people in Palestine, respect for the rule of law, HIV/Aids, Tibet, China, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and LGBTQI+ rights. He also vociferously campaigned for gentler stewardship of the Earth, and against the coming ravages of climate change, a very real example of how human survival rests on our ubuntu-spirited ability to cooperate and work together.
Tutu spent the closing years of his life increasingly devoted to prayer and contemplation, in the Milnerton home he and his wife shared.
We, at the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, mourn his passing and extend deep sympathy to Mrs Nomalizo Leah Tutu, siblings Trevor Thamsanqa Tutu, Naomi Nontombi Tutu, Theresa Thandeka Tutu, Mpho Tutu van Furth and their families. We commit ourselves to continue telling the story and emulating the example of this son of Africa who became an inspiring sign of peace, hope and justice across the world.
Photo Credit: Gallo Images/Joyrene Kramer