Obituary: Archbishop Tutu, Priest Who Became a Spiritual “General” In The War Against Apartheid


Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. 

The Dec. 26, 2021 death of Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a towering figure who moved the center ground of Africa’s political history and shaped South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, has robbed the continent and the world of a revered hero who will remain etched in the conscience of many people across the world.

Tutu lived a long, productive, rewarding and impactful life, dying at age 90.

He won the Nobel prize in 1984 in recognition of his non-violent opposition to white minority rule in South Africa. Tutu was an unwavering and principled leader in the struggle against the racist apartheid regime.

He was a man who was subjected to innumerable pain and misery by apartheid agents who used all sorts of schemes to eliminate vocal Black leaders in the struggle against the apartheid regime. He lived to see friends incarcerated, exiled, or killed. 

Africa and the world poured glowing praise to Tutu, a man who played a critical role both in the pre-independence era and the post -apartheid period, chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which sought to unearth atrocities committed during monstrous minority rule. He helped many Africans who lost their loved ones come to terms with the brutality of the racist system.

Tutu was a towering figure in our lifetime, an important figure in the history of Africa and the world. His humility, character, wisdom, and ability to relate to the masses and those in high places won him admiration across a wide spectrum.

Little wonder that the media is awash with glowing tributes in honor of this great son of Africa; praises have come from leaders around the world, faith leaders, business executives, human rights activist, and ordinary people.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa hailed Tutu as “one of our nation’s finest patriots” adding, “our nation’s loss is indeed a global bereavement.” 

He added, “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.”

“True son and icon of Africa. His contribution to the liberation struggle and unwavering position to peace, unity and good governance will forever be cherished,” said Tanzanian president Samia Suluhu Hassan.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Tutu was “the embodiment of the struggle for liberation.” Abiy is himself winner of the Nobel peace prize but he’s now presiding over a country in the middle of a civil war. 

U.S. president Joe Biden said, “His legacy transcends borders and will echo throughout the ages.”

“Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a mentor, a friend and a moral compass for me and so many others,” former U.S. president Barak Obama said. “He never lost his impish sense of humor and willingness to find humanity in his adversaries.”

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton called Tutu’s life “a gift.”

When we look back over history and the long protracted struggle against apartheid, Tutu stands as a symbol of victory over prejudice and hatred. He was a towering leader in the unstoppable natural tide of progress that propelled “Ubuntu” forward and moved South Africa, and indeed the entire continent, away from the brutality and darkness of apartheid. South Africa has yet to realize the hope of economic equity and social justice but certainly with the ending of formal apartheid the possibilities for a freer and more democratic dispensation was expanded. 

It’s difficult today to get clergy who will speak without fear against oppression and injustice. Africa today is full of millionaire “gospel-of-prosperity” preachers who will not utter a word against corruption, oppression and social injustice. This unprincipled and money-loving crop of “religious leaders” is a wicked lot; they rarely stand for the poor and marginalized against state imposed injustices. They are notorious for sexual abuse of women, girls, boys, and for building multi-million dollar mansions.

In contrast to these destructive elite, Tutu’s life teaches us about the power of forgiveness, showing no bitterness toward our oppressors. The current “religious leaders” who focus on opulence must be shamed into emulating Tutu’s exemplary life. The too must support individuals and the organizations around the world that fight for human rights and the betterment of the lives of the majority of the poor.

Tutu’s indomitable courage and principled leadership will always be valued by African people and many others fighting against racism and global injustice. He held profound convictions, including unpopular ones, supporting gays and lesbians for example—which saw many leaders, including Zimbabwe’s late president Robert Mugabe, castigating him. Yet he remained firm in his support of the rights of LGBTQ community.

Tutu also castigated African dictators and oppressive regimes despite the attacks that he faced because of his stance. 

Opposition leaders in Africa also paid tribute to Tutu. 

“A giant has fallen,” tweeted Uganda’s Robert Kyagulanyi, a.k.a Bobi Wine, who is a constant target of harassment by Uganda’s government under Gen. Yoweri Museveni.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” tweeted a Tanzanian opposition party, the Alliance for Change and Transparency, repeating one of Tutu’s most famous quotes.

Tutu had battled prostate cancer since the disease was diagnosed in 1997. 

He was born in Klerksdorp in 1931. He spent many decades in Cape Town where he led numerous marches and protests.

He became a teacher before entering St. Peter’s Theological College in Rosetenville in 1958. He was ordained in 1961 and six years later became chaplain at the University of Fort Hare, which was once the only institution of higher learning that admitted Africans. 

Tutu became Bishop of Johannesburg in 1985, then Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986. 

In his final years, Tutu spoke strongly against corruption within the ranks and file of the African National Congress (ANC) ruling party and government. He famously said he would “pray for the downfall” of the ANC government. He decried the emergence of the powerful very wealthy African elite even as the masses went to sleep hungry and students in some schools lacked text books.  

He was a sui generis of his own times. He will be remembered for his infectious giggle and jokes; and the great compassion and empathy he shared with the victims of apartheid, such as when he broke down in tears during testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

Tutu’s legacy is similar to that of his compatriot and dear friend, the late Nelson Mandela, also a Nobel laureate, who was jailed for 27 years and went on to become South Africa’s first African president. The two shared a commitment to building a better and more just South Africa.

Tutu is survived by his wife Nomalizo Leah and their four children, including Mpho Tutu, also a priest.

In an interview several years ago, when asked how he wanted to be remembered, Tutu quipped: “He loved. He laughed. He cried. He was forgiven. He forgave. Greatly privileged.”

Hamba Kahle tata! A true and iconic spiritual leader. 

Black Star News columnist Sifelani Tsiko is a veteran journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

He can be reached via [email protected] 

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