Desmond Mpilo Tutu, who died on 26 December at the age of 90, was the most visible face of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and abroad during the turbulent 1980s. By the time of his death he had become one of the world’s most beloved figures, noted for his warmth, joviality and preternatural ability to charm and openly engage almost everyone he met.
Born on 7 October 1931 in the mining town of Klerksdorp, he took a long and indirect path to becoming the man who in 1984 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his vocal opposition to apartheid. The son of a Xhosa teacher, Zachariah Zelilo Tutu, and a Motswana domestic worker, Aletta Dorothea Mathlare, Tutu was marked by ill health in early life. He contracted polio as a child, which resulted in the atrophy of his right hand, an affliction that he carried with him for the rest of his life.
Tutu’s father would sometimes drink excessively and beat his mother. In spite of this Zachariah managed to provide enough for his family to ensure that while they were poor, they were “not destitute either.”
Aletta would remain her son’s single greatest influence. As he told his biographer John Allen, “I resemble her in many ways. She was stumpy, and she had a big nose like mine. And I hope that I resemble her in another respect: [she] was very, very gentle and compassionate and caring, always taking the side of whoever was having the worst of an argument.”
The family settled in the West Rand township of Munsieville in the late 1940s. The teenage Tutu moved to Johannesburg where he was taken under the wing of the Anglican priest Trevor Huddleston after becoming a server in the Church of Christ the King in Sophiatown.
In 1947, during his third year at the Johannesburg Bantu High School, Tutu suffered a near-fatal bout of illness after he contracted tuberculosis and was hospitalised in Rietfontein for 18 months, thanks to Huddleston’s intervention. The hospitalised Tutu experienced what he would later describe as his earliest “God-moment,” when during a particularly difficult day he “went to the bathroom and I was vomiting blood and I said, ‘God, if it means I am going to die, OK; if I am going to live, OK…’. Through having said that I experienced a strange sort of peace.”
He initially wanted to become a doctor and gained admission to medical school at the University of the Witwatersrand. However, because of prohibitive student fees, instead he obtained a government scholarship to study teaching at the Pretoria Bantu Normal College in 1951. There he was chair of the college’s debating society, where he first met the young lawyer Nelson Mandela. Tutu also took a number of correspondence courses through the University of South Africa, where he met Robert Sobukwe, who gave him advice on sitting his exams, and where he graduated in the same class as Robert Mugabe.
After obtaining his Transvaal Bantu Teacher’s Diploma in 1954, Tutu returned to Johannesburg to take up a post as an English teacher at the Madibane High School in Western Township. In 1955 he transferred to Krugersdorp High School to teach English and History. During this time he began a courtship with Nomalizo Leah Shenxane, a friend of his sister Gloria’s. Shenxane was studying to become a teacher. They married in July 1955, and settled in Munsieville where their first son was born in April 1956.
The couple named him Trevor Armstrong Tamsanqa after Trevor Huddleston, Louis Armstrong and a brother that Desmond’s parents had lost in infancy. Their first daughter Thandeka Theresa Ursula was born six months later.
From teacher to preacher
In 1955, after the government’s introduction of the Bantu Education Act, the Tutus decided that they could not participate in a system designed to ensure the intellectual suffocation of Black South Africans and resigned from teaching. Tutu looked to the church as one of the few options still available to educated Black men of his generation. It was from practical necessity rather than evangelical devotion that in 1956 he found himself admitted to St Peter’s Theological College in Rosettenville, Johannesburg, to pursue a degree in theology. Leah retrained as a nurse in what was then known as Sekhukhune Land.
Tutu’s time at St Peter’s coincided with the increased repression of the apartheid government and equally intense protest against it, culminating in the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. He and his fellow students, though shocked by events, remained cloistered, not participating in anti-apartheid activities and remaining on the whole “a very apolitical bunch.”
In August 1960, the Tutus’ third child, Naomi, was born and in December of that year Tutu was ordained as a priest. His first church posting was as an assistant curate at St Alban’s Parish in Benoni.
After he was accepted to further his theological studies at King’s College, London, Tutu and his family departed for England in September 1962. He was supported by the white establishment of the Anglican Church, which recognised the importance of securing positions of authority within the church for its Black members.
Later, Tutu would often recall that while there were certainly deep racial divides in British society at the time, he and Leah were mostly oblivious to these and impressed by the glaring differences between the freedoms of movement and expression that they enjoyed on the streets of London and those they had been denied at home. They would often take advantage of the politeness of British policemen simply to ask for directions so that they could enjoy the respect of being referred to as “Sir and Madam” by men in uniform.
They spent the next four years in England, during which time their daughter Mpho was born in 1963, and Tutu briefly held a position as an assistant curate at a church in Surrey while completing his Master’s degree.
In 1967 he returned to South Africa, taking up a teaching position at the Federal Theological Seminary (Fedsem) in the Eastern Cape. There Tutu became a visible supporter of the nascent Black Consciousness Movement. Tutu’s political consciousness had begun to stir but his full immersion in anti-apartheid activism would have to wait as he left in 1970 to take up a teaching post at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland in Roma, Lesotho.
In 1972 Tutu left once again for England, where he began a new job as the African director of the Theological Education Fund, the body that had funded the establishment of Fedsem and helped pay for his studies at King’s College. As part of his work, Tutu spent much of his time travelling to the newly independent nations of sub-Saharan Africa. He saw the disastrous effects of the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, and was there when boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman arrived for the world heavyweight title fight, the “Rumble in the Jungle,” in 1974.
Tutu was impressed by the government of Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, appalled by the expulsion of Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin and concerned by what he saw as growing Igbo resentment in Nigeria following the Biafran War. His African travels influenced his vision for post-apartheid South Africa and also helped significantly shape his theological views.
Rising in the Anglican hierarchy
In 1975 Tutu returned to Johannesburg, where had been appointed the first Black Anglican dean of the city. It was here that he took his first significant public steps to becoming a prominent figure in the anti-apartheid movement. Declining to live in the dean’s official home in Houghton, Tutu instead moved his family to Soweto. There he saw first-hand the desperation and angry dissatisfaction of young people.
In May 1976 he famously penned a letter to Prime Minister BJ Vorster, warning him that “Unless something drastic is done very soon then bloodshed and violence are going to happen in South Africa almost inevitably. A people can only take so much and no more … I am dreadfully frightened, that we may soon reach a point of no return, when events will generate a momentum of their own, when nothing will stop their reaching a bloody denouement.”
Vorster dismissed Tutu’s letter as propaganda engineered by the white opposition in parliament. On 16 June, Tutu’s worst fears became reality and he was profoundly upset by the lack of outrage by white South Africa to the murder of Black children by the state.
When he was nominated for the position of Bishop of Lesotho only weeks after the Soweto uprisings, he was in two minds. Many anti-apartheid leaders, including Winnie Mandela, implored him to stay in Johannesburg but, believing that it would be unfair to those who had elected him, Tutu accepted the position and moved back to Lesotho. He returned to South Africa briefly in 1977 to deliver a speech at the funeral of Steve Biko.
In 1978 Tutu came back to Johannesburg to head the South African Council of Churches where he helped to transform the country’s largest legally recognised Black-majority institution into a powerful advocate for human rights. He publicly called for the release of Nelson Mandela, spoke out against apartheid and voiced his support of sanctions against South Africa.
He became “public enemy number one” for many white South Africans and the apartheid government, and received hate mail and death threats from right-wing extremists. His support for sanctions also earned him the disapproval of white liberals like Helen Suzman and Alan Paton, who believed that sanctions would be economically detrimental to both white and Black South Africans.
Tutu with other members of the clergy and leaders of alternative political movements like the trade unions, which had sprung up to fill the vacuum left by the absence of the ANC and other anti-apartheid parties on the ground, became one of the most visible faces of opposition to apartheid in the 1980s.
Unlike his fellow clergyman, the fiery orator and anti-apartheid activist Alan Boesak, Tutu was not involved in the shaping of political strategy or organisations, choosing to follow his intuition because, as he told Allen, he was, “Not a thinker. I can’t analyse things. I’m a feeling person; maybe I get inspirations.”
Though they were very different in approach both Tutu and Boesak soon became familiar faces at anti-government protests and political events including the launch of the United Democratic Front in 1983, of which Tutu served as a patron.
Tutu remained politically non-aligned, eschewing official membership of any party. He continued to travel widely and meet with heads of state to advocate sanctions. In 1984 Tutu was in New York when he was informed that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The news was greeted with little fanfare by the South African media but when the Tutus returned to Johannesburg a few days later, they were greeted by a large crowd of excited supporters led by Boesak, who was present in defiance of police orders.
In his Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo later that year, Tutu said, “Perhaps oppression dehumanises the oppressor as much as, if not more than, the oppressed. They need each other to become truly free, to become human. We can be human only in fellowship, in community, in koinonia, in peace.”
The following year he was elected as the first Black Archbishop of Johannesburg. He spent only a year in Johannesburg before he was appointed Archbishop of Cape Town. His enthronement ceremony at St George’s Cathedral in September 1986 was attended by 1 300 people including Coretta Scott King, Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder and Edward Kennedy.
Together with Boesak and Roman Catholic Archbishop Stephen Naidoo, Tutu became part of a powerful group of clergy who found themselves serving a mediation role between protesters and the government’s security forces. It was through their efforts that fatal clashes were avoided at the 1987 funeral of murdered activist Ashley Kriel and that a church service at St George’s Cathedral replaced a banned protest march by activists in 1988.
These actions earned Tutu and his fellow church leaders the finger-wagging wrath of President PW Botha, who accused Tutu of hiding behind the “structures and the cloth of the Christian church” in order to further the “Marxist ideals of the ANC and SACP.”
In a scathing eight-page rejoinder Tutu told Botha that he worked for “God’s Kingdom … For whose Kingdom with your apartheid policy do you work? I pray for you, as I do for your ministerial colleagues, every day by name. God bless you.”
Botha’s anger at Tutu made itself visible nefariously in the increased harassment of the cleric by the security forces’ notorious Strategic Communications Branch, Stratcom. Its members always vehemently denied any plot to assassinate him because, as Allen noted, “The repercussions of killing someone with his international profile … would have been ‘awesome’.”
When FW de Klerk became president in 1989, Tutu’s profile was so great that when he and other church leaders organised a 30 000-strong march in support of peace and an end to apartheid, the new president could do little but grant permission. It was while speaking to the crowd at this march that Tutu introduced a soon-to-be-familiar phrase into the national lexicon. He urged De Klerk and his cabinet to come to the streets and see for themselves “What this country is going to become. This country is a rainbow country! This country is technicolour! You can come and see the new South Africa!”
Tutu was not privy to the behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to the release of Mandela from prison in February 1990 but he was there to meet Mandela in the chamber of the Cape Town City Hall moments before South Africa’s most famous political prisoner stepped onto the balcony to deliver his first public address in almost three decades.
Tutu soon found himself serving a vital mediation role during the violent clashes between Inkatha and the ANC and in the negotiations at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, popularly known as Codesa. He was called upon to mend relations between Mandela and Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, to whom Tutu made frequent visits on what he called “the Ulundi shuttle”, urging Buthelezi to return to the negotiating table.
Life under democracy
When Mandela was to be inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected president on 10 May 1994, it was to Tutu that he turned for the preparation of the event’s religious programme. Tutu insisted that all dominations be represented and blessings were given by leaders of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu faiths. Tutu and Leah had planned that he would retire after his tenure as Archbishop ended in 1996 but fate and Mandela had other plans when Mandela chose Tutu to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1995.
Tutu believed that the commission should be dedicated to what he termed “restorative justice”, whose central concern was not, as he wrote, “Retribution or punishment but, in the spirit of ubuntu, the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships.”
It was while the TRC was still in session in 1997 that Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was in hospital for six weeks before he returned to the commission and oversaw its work until it handed its final report to Mandela in 1999.
Tutu would later admit that the process had its shortcomings. He criticised the failure of the ANC government to realise that the TRC was a “beginning and not an end”. He felt that prosecutions of perpetrators should have been carried out and a more just reparations programme implemented. But he believed that the TRC had done much needed good in helping the country to heal the wounds of the past.
After the TRC, Tutu continued to use his public platform to raise awareness about cancer, criticise the stance of the Anglican Church towards homosexuality, object to the oppression of Palestinians, campaign for his friend the Dalai Lama, and speak out against the post-apartheid ANC government’s stances on HIV/Aids and corruption.
During the last years of his life, Tutu also supported legally assisted death, writing in a letter on his 85th birthday that, “Dying people should have the right to choose how and when they leave Mother Earth. I believe that, alongside the wonderful palliative care that exists, their choices should include a dignified assisted death.”
His final years were spent mostly out of the public spotlight as his health declined but he did manage a rare public appearance at a small, Covid-19-restricted gathering for the celebration of his 90th birthday held earlier this year at St George’s Cathedral.
Tutu is survived by his sister Gloria, wife Leah, their four children, seven grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.