Desmond, centre, and Leah Tutu are seen at his 90th birthday in October. File photo: ESA ALEXANDER
Desmond, centre, and Leah Tutu are seen at his 90th birthday in October. File photo: ESA ALEXANDER

Desmond Mpilo Tutu, who has died in Cape Town surrounded by his loved ones, was among the last remaining giants of the struggle against apartheid.

A colourful, joyful personality, “Arch” was renowned for his fierce opposition to all forms of injustice both in SA and throughout the world as well as for his cackling laugh. President Cyril Ramaphosa, who announced the death of the 90-year-old on Sunday morning, described him as an iconic spiritual leader, patriot, anti-apartheid activist and global human rights campaigner.

“A man of extraordinary intellect, integrity and invincibility against the forces of apartheid, he was also tender and vulnerable in his compassion for those who had suffered oppression, injustice and violence under apartheid, and oppressed and downtrodden people around the world,” Ramaphosa said.

Ramaphosa noted that as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Tutu had articulated the universal outrage against the ravages of apartheid and “touchingly and profoundly” demonstrated the depth of meaning of ubuntu, reconciliation and forgiveness.

Tutu’s death came just over six weeks after the passing of former president FW de Klerk, whom he had criticised for his failure to make “a more wholesome apology on behalf of the National Party to the nation for the evils of apartheid”, though his foundation acknowledged last month that the families had developed closer relations in recent years.

In the democratic dispensation he remained true to his convictions and held the leadership and the burgeoning institutions to account, on issues ranging from Aids denialism during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency to the rampant corruption that defined Jacob Zuma’s time in office.

“He named wrong wherever he saw it and by whomever it was committed,” Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba said in his tribute. “Desmond Tutu’s legacy is moral strength, moral courage and clarity.”

Tutu stood up for all  marginalised groups and was almost unique among church leaders in his vocal condemnation of discrimination against gay and lesbian people, saying in 2013 that he would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven and would rather end up at “the other place”. DA leader John Steenhuisen praised Tutu for his work “towards ending stigma of all kinds, speaking out against the infringement of LGBTIQ rights across Africa”.

Tutu was born in Klerksdorp on October 7 1931 to Zacharia, headmaster of a Methodist primary school in the town, and Aletha, a domestic worker. He matriculated in 1950 at the then Johannesburg Bantu High School in Western Native Township, suffering for two years during his studies from tuberculosis.

Tutu obtained a “Bantu Teacher’s Diploma” in 1953, at the same time completing a BA through the University of SA in 1954. In 1955 he married Leah Shenxane and became a teacher in Krugersdorp. He left teaching in 1958 to study for the Anglican priesthood at St Peter’s Theological College. He was ordained as a deacon in St Mary’s Cathedral in December 1960 and as a priest at the end of 1961 at the age of 30.   

Tutu moved to England to read theology at King’s College London in 1962, obtaining his degree in 1965. This was followed by a master’s degree, for which he studied while serving as a curate in London parishes.  He returned to SA to eventually lecture at what became the Federal Theological Seminary in the Eastern Cape. 

He entered politics after the Fort Hare University strike in August 1968, where police were called in and 500 students expelled.   

Between 1970 and 1974 he lectured in Lesotho and worked again in England before returning to SA where he became dean to the Bishop of Johannesburg, Timothy Bavin.

In May 1976 Tutu sent an open letter to then SA prime minister John Vorster warning that bloodshed and violence were inevitable in SA unless something drastic was done. Shortly thereafter he was consecrated bishop of Lesotho. Later he was appointed Archbishop of Cape Town and jokingly wore a T-shirt given to him which proclaimed: “Just call me Arch”. 

In September 1977, Tutu delivered the funeral oration at the burial of black consciousness leader Steve Biko, who died in detention at the hands of the security police. In March of the following year he was appointed general secretary of the SA Council of Churches (SACC), which under his leadership became a strong voice against apartheid.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu passed away at the age of 90 on December 26 2021. TimesLIVE takes a look at the life of one of South Africa’s strongest voices against injustice.

The apartheid government removed his passport in March 1980 and again in 1981, preventing him from travelling overseas where he had become a well-renowned figure.

In October 1984, Tutu was awarded the Nobel peace prize. On receiving it he declared that he was merely “a little focus” of the stalwarts of the struggle for freedom from apartheid. A few months later he was elected Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg and in April 1986 he was elected Archbishop of Cape Town. 

It was at the Tutu home that ANC leader Nelson Mandela spent  his first night outside prison after his release in February 1990 from Victor Verster jail after the unbanning of the ANC by De Klerk. 

Mandela chose Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate the atrocities committed under apartheid. A memorable scene was his weeping when hearing the accounts of suffering by a witness. He donated half his TRC salary to bursaries for the children of Anglican clergy and for students at the University of the Western Cape. His work in the TRC earned him the Sydney Peace Prize in 1999.   

In 1999 and 2000 he was treated for prostate cancer both in the US and Cape Town. 

Tutu did not limit his political observations to developments in SA, where he was critical about the slow progress by the ANC government in addressing inequality and the fact that BEE only benefited the few. He was also vocal in condemning Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the US-led invasion of Iraq.

In 2006 he urged Zuma to drop out of the ANC’s presidential succession after his controversial rape trial and allegations of corruption. 

Tutu announced his retirement from public life in July 2010, promising to “shut up”, though said there might be times when he could not resist speaking out. 

He was outraged when the Dalai Lama, a close friend, was denied entry into SA to attend his 80th birthday celebrations in 2011. The Tibetan spiritual leader said in a statement on his website that the world had lost a “true humanitarian and a committed advocate of human rights”.


Tutu leaves behind his wife, Leah Nomalizo Tutu, and children Trevor Thamsanqa, Theresa Thandeka, Naomi Nontombi and Mpho Andrea.


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