Apartheid Fighter Desmond Tutu Has Died At Age 90

Known for his tenacity and good humor, Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership against South Africa's racist regime.

A smiling Desmond Tutu sits with hands clasped

Desmond Tutu, the globally revered South African Anglican archbishop and Nobel laureate who played a key role in the country’s struggle against apartheid, has died at age 90.

He died Sunday in Cape Town, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said. In a statement, the president praised the intellect, compassion, and leadership of the man affectionately known as "the Arch."

"From the pavements of resistance in South Africa to the pulpits of the world’s great cathedrals and places of worship, and the prestigious setting of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, the Arch distinguished himself as a nonsectarian, inclusive champion of universal human rights," Ramaphosa said.

The popular Tutu, known for his unwaveringly cheerful disposition, became widely regarded as “South Africa’s moral conscience” during his tireless campaign against the country’s apartheid regime during the long years of Nelson Mandela’s incarceration.

As the late Mandela himself said, Tutu was “sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid, and seldom without humor.” Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent anti-apartheid campaigning in 1984.

“Sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid, and seldom without humor.”

Tutu was born in the tiny gold-mining town of Klerksdorp in Transvaal — now in South Africa’s North West province. His mother was a cleaner and cook in a school for the blind, and his father was a teacher, a profession he would eventually enter himself.

After three years teaching in high school, he became dismayed at the 1953 Bantu Education Act — which enforced racial segregation in all South African educational establishments — and began studying theology.

Four people — three men and a woman — sitting next to each other

Tutu had been inspired by the church from an early age. He saw the white priest Trevor Huddleston working as parish priest for the Black Johannesburg slum of Sophiatown when he was 12.

“One day, 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!” he said.

This first encounter with Huddleston had a lasting effect on Tutu. When asked in his later years about why he doesn’t hate white people, he would usually respond that he was fortunate with the white people he met while he was young.

Tutu was ordained as a priest in 1960, and from 1962 to 1966, he continued his theological studies in the United Kingdom, where he received his master’s degree in theology. He returned to South Africa in 1967 and taught theology in his home country until 1972, when he returned to England to serve as the assistant director of a theological institute in London for three years.

He became the first Black Anglican dean of Johannesburg in 1975, and then the bishop of the Diocese of Lesotho in 1976.

Tutu hugging two children in a doorway

While he was already a powerful figure within the church, it was the 1976 uprising in Soweto and other Black townships — during which hundreds of people were killed — that saw him catapulted into the consciousness of white South Africans as a campaigner for reform.

He unflinchingly pushed nonviolent protest as the best means to further the anti-apartheid cause, and his outspoken campaigning inevitably led to his presence being felt more and more in the political arena. Tutu always insisted his motivation was religious rather than political, arguing that the racist apartheid system was against God’s will.

In 1984, Tutu was awarded the Nobel Prize for his “role as a unifying leader figure in the campaign to resolve the problem of apartheid in South Africa,” an award that sent a strong message from the international community to P.W. Botha’s regime.

He gained further attention for his peaceful methods in 1986 when he intervened in the streets of Duduza after a crowd of angry Black people turned on a man they said was a collaborator with the white-minority regime.

The man’s car had been set on fire “to provide his funeral pyre.” Tutu, dressed in his robes after officiating a funeral, confronted the mob, telling them their behavior “undermines the struggle,” the New York Times reported.

Tutu amid a crowd of people

In 1986, his status grew further when he was appointed archbishop of Cape Town, meaning he became the first Black person to lead the Anglican Church in South Africa.

He continued his active anti-apartheid campaign in his new role and declared in March 1988, “We refuse to be treated as the doormat for the government to wipe its jackboots on.”

Later in 1988, he put himself at risk of being thrown in jail by publicly calling for a boycott of municipal elections. He welcomed the liberalizing reforms announced by new president F.W. de Klerk when he assumed office the following year, which included a lifting of the ban on the African National Congress and the long-awaited release of Nelson Mandela.

A smiling Tutu and Mandela stand together with raised hands clasped

Mandela was freed in 1990 after 27 years of incarceration, mostly in the notorious Robben Island Prison, and Tutu stood side by side with him in front of cheering crowds at Cape Town’s City Hall only hours after he had left prison.

After the end of apartheid, Mandela became South Africa’s first Black chief executive in 1994, and his administration appointed Tutu chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Despite saying he was “appalled at the evil we have uncovered” at times during his tenure, Tutu modeled the commission on using truth as the foundation for forgiveness, and believed this was central to healing the rifts in South African society: “Without forgiveness, there can be no future for a relationship between individuals or within and between nations,” he said.

He retired from his role at the commission in 1998 and shared his experience of reconciliation processes with other post-conflict or divided societies, including Northern Ireland, the Solomon Islands, and Cyprus.

A smiling Tutu with his armed folded in front of him

He became a founding member of the Elders — a group of senior global leaders, who have included Mandela, Kofi Annan, and Jimmy Carter, working together for the advancement of peace and human rights — in 2007. He chaired the group for six years, stepping down in 2013.

As he grew older, Tutu continued to speak out wherever he saw injustice in the world. In 2008, he called on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to step down or be removed by force, saying, “He has destroyed a wonderful country. A country that used to be a bread basket — it has now become a basket case.”

Tutu standing at a podium wearing a World Cup scarf around his neck and with his fist raised

He also refused to share a platform with Tony Blair in 2012 because of the Iraq War, saying the “then-leaders of the US and UK fabricated the grounds to behave like playground bullies and drive us further apart.”

Tutu also said the Israeli blockades of the Gaza Strip were an “abomination,” and compared the country’s policies toward Palestinians to apartheid.

He announced his phased retirement from public life in 2011 at the age of 79.

In spite of seeing so much injustice in the world throughout his life, Tutu always maintained a positive outlook and maintained his faith in the good of humanity. In 2014, he said, “Despite all of the ghastliness in the world, human beings are made for goodness. The ones that are held in high regard are not militarily powerful, nor even economically prosperous. They have a commitment to try and make the world a better place.”

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