1975 – 1982

Unrest Seeks Guidance on a Mission of Importance

Radical change was needed and felt within the church and broader context of student protest where a guiding light came in the form of Vicar General. Resulting turmoil, criticism and protest spurred Tutu’s decision to take up office at the South African Council of Churches (SACC); one of the most pertinent and fundamental institutions in the pursuit of justice and reconciliation.

Tutu returned to South Africa in 1975 to take up post as the first Black Anglican Dean of Johannesburg and the Rector of St Mary’s Cathedral Parish in Johannesburg. Here he brought about radical change, often to the displeasure of his white parishioners.

As Vicar General during the 16th of June 1976 student protest, after receiving the news of police shooting and killing of students, Tutu spent the day engaged with students and parents about the wide-scale rebellion against forced Afrikaans school language instruction and inferior education. The Soweto Parents Crisis Committee set up in the aftermath of the killings was significantly influenced by Tutu’s involvement. What followed was Tutu’s consecration as Bishop on the 11th of July 1976.

Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko dies while in the custody of Security Police. It was during the funeral that Bishop Desmond Tutu, Mrs Leah Tutu and 71 year old Reverend William Moalusi were amongst those who were beaten by police with sjamboks (heavy leather whip).

With South Africa in turmoil following the 1976 Soweto uprising, Tutu was persuaded to take up the post of General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC). It was this position that found him to become both a national and international figure.

Goals of justice, reconciliation and an end to Apartheid were priorities pursued with vigour and commitment. The SACC became an important institution in South Africa through spiritual and political life, challenging white society and government and affording assistance to victims of Apartheid.

In 1980 Bishop Desmond Tutu led a delegation of church leaders and the SACC to speak to Prime Minister PW Botha and his cabinet delegation. It was a historical moment as it was the first time any Black leader, outside the system, talked with a White Government leader. Nothing transpired out of that meeting.

Continued criticism against Apartheid saw government withdraw Tutu’s passport and accuse the SACC of receiving overseas income to provoke unrest. Challenges to be charged in open court resulted in the Government appointing the Eloff Commission of Enquiry to investigate but no evidence was found.

After 18 months without a passport, a limited ‘travel document’ was issued to Tutu and his wife that took them to America. There, he was able to educate unaware Americans about Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.