Desmond Tutu: Nobel peace prize-winning archbishop dies aged 90

The cleric, who was described as South Africa’s moral conscience, died on Boxing Day in Cape Town

Holly Bancroft
Sunday 26 December 2021 17:27
Archbishop Desmond Tutu dies aged 90

South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel peace prize laureate and anti-apartheid veteran, has died aged 90.

The cleric was widely regarded as “South Africa’s moral conscience” in recognition of his staunch opposition to the apartheid regime, famously saying: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa said his passing was “another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa”.

He described Archbishop Tutu as a “patriot without equal; a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead”.

Renowned for his cheerful disposition, Archbishop Tutu nevertheless was unafraid of using his platform to speak harsh truths, saying in 2007: “I wish I could shut up, but I can’t, and I won’t.”

He coined the phrase “rainbow nation” to describe South Africa, and remained a tireless defender of human rights after the demise of apartheid – using his profile to campaign against corruption, poverty, xenophobia, homophobia, and raise awareness of HIV and Aids.

He abhorred all forms of violence and famously risked his own life in July 1985 to save a suspected police informant from being burned alive by an angry mob.

Reports of the diminutive archbishop pulling the bleeding man to safety, amid cries of “kill him, kill him”, made headlines around the world.

Mr Tutu later returned to speak to the man’s attackers, telling them they needed to “use righteous and just means for a righteous and just struggle”.

Although he was first and foremost a religious rather than a political figure, the archbishop was not afraid of being fiercely critical of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, under president Jacob Zuma.

He was also vocal in his condemnation of Robert Mugabe, once describing him as “a cartoon figure of an archetypical African dictator”.

The Zimbabwean president in turn called Mr Tutu an “evil and embittered little bishop”.

Born in the small town of Klerksdorp in October 1931, Desmond Mpilo Tutu initially trained as a teacher before studying theology at King’s College London and being ordained as a priest in 1960.

After returning to South Africa he was appointed Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg in 1975 – the first black person to hold that position.

From 1976 to 1978 he served as Bishop of Lesotho and in 1985 became Bishop of Johannesburg. Then, a year later, Mr Tutu became the Archbishop of Cape Town – the most senior position in southern Africa’s Anglican hierarchy.

After the fall of apartheid, he headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – a body assembled to hear witnesses describe past human rights violations and, in some cases, to grant amnesty to perpetrators of crimes if they were willing to testify.

The commission was seen as a key part of the transition to a fully democratic South Africa.

In Mr Tutu’s address to the first gathering of the commission, he said: “They say those who suffer from amnesia, those who forget the past, are doomed to repeat it.

“It is not dealing with the past to say facilely, let bygones be bygones, for then they won’t be bygones.

“Our country, our society, would be doomed to the instability of uncertainty – the uncertainty engendered by not knowing when yet another scandal of the past would hit the headlines, when another skeleton would be dragged out of the cupboard.”

Archbishop Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the late 1990s and in recent years was treated in hospital for associated illnesses.

In a statement on behalf of the Tutu family, Dr Ramphela Mamphele, acting chair of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu IP Trust, said: “Ultimately, at the age of 90, he died peacefully at the Oasis Frail Care Centre in Cape Town this morning.”

On Sunday, the Queen issued a statement on Archbishop Tutu’s death, saying he was “a man who tirelessly championed human rights in South Africa and across the world”.

She added: “I remember with fondness my meetings with him, and his great warmth and humour. Archbishop Tutu’s loss will be felt by the people of South Africa, and by so many people in Great Britain, Northern Ireland and across the Commonwealth, where he was held in such high affection and esteem.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, described Mr Tutu as a “prophet and priest, a man of words and action”. He said the archbishop was “one who embodied the hope and joy that were the foundations of his life”, adding: “Even in our profound sorrow we give thanks for a life so well lived. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”

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