Revelling in his humanity, in both words and actions, Tutu showed fellow South Africans and people across the world what a life lived in love looks like.
One of the world’s most respected spiritual and human rights leaders, Tutu was a living testament to faith in action, insuppressible in his opposition against the evils of racism, oppression, intolerance, and injustice not just during apartheid South Africa, but wherever in the world he saw moral wrongs, especially impacting the most vulnerable and voiceless in society.
Every public action that he took was based in his deep Christian faith and his personification of Ubuntu which gave his words and actions immense moral gravitas. Who can argue with love? The apartheid government tried and failed.
Tutu and his wife resigned from their teaching careers in protest against the racist injustice of the Bantu Education Act of 1953, a subjugating policy purposefully enacted to offer inferior education to restrict non-white learners to menial occupations.
At the University of Fort Hare in the 1960s, as an Anglican chaplain, Tutu invited women students to join their brothers as servers during the celebration of the Eucharist. At the time, it was a startling decision that foreshadowed the church’s allowing the ordination of women priests, which Tutu was instrumental in realising. As Archbishop of Cape Town in 1992, he ordained two of the first five women to become Anglican priests in South Africa.
Whether on the pulpit or at the frontlines of the fight for justice and equality in apartheid South Africa or within local churches urging shared vision, transformation, and reconciliation, Tutu demonstrated his Ubuntu spirit. “One sees him move into parishes where there is such hostility, and the gentleness, the compassion, his faith which is so deep, just emerges” observed an Anglican social justice activist at the time.
Tutu rose rapidly in the church hierarchy in Southern Africa, becoming in quick succession the Anglican Dean of Johannesburg (the first black priest in this position), Bishop of Lesotho, General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), Bishop of Johannesburg, and Archbishop of Cape Town and head of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.
Tutu’s position as an Anglican church leader combined with his passionate sense of justice and his natural talents as a powerful communicator catapulted him to international renown. In his purple cassock, Tutu became an instantly recognisable figure as he fearlessly spoke truth to power both locally and globally.
Despite suffering disapproval from some, and harassment from others, for using his authority as General Secretary of the SACC to condemn apartheid on religious and moral terms, Tutu continued to use unequivocal words to shatter the deceptive pretences of apartheid.
In 1982, President PW Botha appointed a Government Commission under Judge Eloff to investigate the SACC. He was hoping to put it, and Tutu, out of business. Instead, Tutu used his opening statement before the commission to deliver a sweeping biblical and theological defence of the church’s right to speak out and act for social justice: a devastating denunciation of apartheid. It was a tour de force, leaving the largely theologically illiterate commissioners nonplussed.
In the end, after three years of investigations and hearings, they embarrassed President PW Botha by finding no convincing evidence of wrong-doing and leaving the SACC unscathed.
Tutu also used his trademark fiery rhetoric to advocate for international sanctions against South Africa – an offence under the apartheid government’s Terrorism Act, which mandated a minimum five-year prison sentence. His courageous oratory earned him the hatred of white racists and the adulation of majority black South Africans. It projected him to a position of the most prominent anti apartheid leader on the international stage, a position cemented when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.
In 1985, Tutu intervened to stop an angry crowd in Eastern Johannesburg as it tried to “necklace” a Duduza man suspected of assisting apartheid security forces. “Necklacing” is a form of mob violence in which a crowd forces a tyre around a person’s neck and sets it alight.
“For a few tense moments, the 53-year-old Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year … seemed to be in danger himself as the mob surged around the diminutive prelate in his purple cassock,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
When black political leaders were finally released from prison in 1990, Tutu left the political stage to Nelson Mandela and others, while reserving and exercising the right to criticise politicians of any stripe, including Mandela himself, for their failures to live up to his and their ideals. Always his ideals were deeply embedded in faith, justice and ubuntu.
In a statement made years later, on behalf of the World Council of Churches, Tutu’s explained his take on racism: “Racism is a sin. It is contrary to God’s will for love, peace, equality, justice, and compassion for all. It is an affront to human dignity and a gross violation of human rights.” “Human dignity is God’s gift to all humankind. It is the gift of God’s image and likeness in every human being. Racism desecrates God’s likeness in every person. Human rights are the protections we give to human dignity. We participate in the human rights struggle to restore wholeness that has been broken by racism. The struggle against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance is the struggle to sanctify and affirm life in all its fullness.”
As a mediator during the violence of South Africa’s difficult transition to democracy in the early 1990s, Tutu famously turned his focus to helping the country move towards healing and reconciliation, pointing out that just as apartheid devastated the lives and psyches of black South Africans, it also damaged souls of prejudiced white South Africans.
Tutu’s work culminated in being appointed by newly elected President Mandela to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1995. For Tutu, the TRC meant confronting the truth of the painful atrocities that had happened during apartheid, leading to a process of national healing.
“The raison d’être for this commission is opening wounds and cleansing them so that they do not fester. And saying: we have dealt with our past as effectively as we could. We have not denied it. We have looked the beast in the eye,” Tutu said in an interview with the BBC.
Tutu openly wept during the first day of the TRC hearings, in a moment that for many South Africans brought home the reality of the trauma the country would have to work through. He later said that he regretted the moment.
“I broke down on the very first day, but I then said it wasn’t fair because the media then concentrated on me instead of the people who were the rightful victims. After that if I wanted to cry, I cried at home or in church.”
“The central concern is not retribution or punishment,” Tutu said, “but in the spirit of Ubuntu, the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationship”. The TRC eventually granted amnesty to those prepared to confess their political crimes, and recommended reparations for survivors of apartheid-era human rights abuses.
More than a decade later he called the work of the TRC “scandalously unfinished” after he and his fellow TRC leaders recommended some 300 investigations into possible prosecutions coming from evidence led at the TRC, which did not happen. It transpired that a secret deal had been made for an informal blanket amnesty for perpetrators on both sides of the struggle against apartheid.
Once again, Tutu had put principle above political expediency in his outrage over the lack of prosecutions. He warned that without reparations through full confession or through prosecution, South Africans of any colour or creed would not be able to heal from their traumatic past.
Forgiveness, Tutu was always careful to explain, requires that the wrong is fearlessly addressed by both sides, and that the necessity for restitution is honoured.
In 2007, President Mandela invited Tutu to be a founding member of “The Elders” along with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, retired UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and former Irish President Mary Robinson. The Elders vision was close to Tutu’s heart: challenging injustice, resolving conflict, and promoting ethical leadership. He was the first chair of the group. Annan called Tutu, “the foremost moral authority of our time”.
Ostensibly retiring from public life on his 79th birthday, 7 October 2010, even in his sunset years Tutu did not silence his lifetime legacy of speaking truth to power on a range of issues: corruption, illegal arms deals, xenophobia, oppressed people in Palestine, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, respect for rule of law, HIV/Aids, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and LGBTQI+ rights.
Tutu once famously remarked: “I wish I could shut up, but I can’t, and I won’t”. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said “Wherever there is abuse of human rights or people’s freedom is being snatched away, be it Burma or Tibet,” of his dear friend, Tutu “he is always the first person to speak against it. He works tirelessly for truth, honesty, and equality. He doesn’t see any differences”.
Tutu has been awarded numerous awards, the Gandhi Peace Prize in India; the Templeton Prize; the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership; is a member of the Order for Meritorious Service, Gold (South Africa), a grand officer of the Légion d’Honneur (France), and an honorary member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (UK); and has received the highest civilian honour of the US from President Barack Obama, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Tutu has also been awarded more than 100 honorary doctorates by universities globally, including Harvard in the United States and Oxford in the United Kingdom.
Most recently, Pope Francis named him, along with Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi, as one of those who inspired his third encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, which (echoing one of Tutu’s key messages) calls for human fraternity and solidarity.
Tutu was a healer at heart, an eternal optimist (a true “prisoner of hope”) and wry humourist. He will be remembered for his powerful words in defence of the most vulnerable among us, his infinite capacity for empathy, his quick wit, his infectious laugh, and his unfailing ability to turn toward the light even during unbearably dark times.
Go well, dearest Arch. In you, the world has lost a force of reckoning. You will be deeply missed. May we always be guided by your prophetic vision for our country and for humanity:
“God calls on us to be his partners to work for a new kind of society where people count; where people matter more than things, more than possessions; where human life is not just respected but positively revered; where people will be secure and not suffer from the fear of hunger, from ignorance, from disease; where there will be more gentleness, more caring, more sharing, more compassion, more laughter; where there is peace and not war”.
Rest in peace, lala ngoxolo, robala ka khotso, robala ka kgotso, tsamaya hantle, robala ka khotso, vha edele nga mulalo, rus in vrede, Etlela hiku rhula, otaung oa ha boHlalele.
Niclas Kjellström-Matseke, Chaiperson
Piyushi Kotecha, CEO