26 December 2021

South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu dies aged 90

26 December 2021

Desmond Tutu the Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist for racial justice and LGBT rights, has died aged 90.

Announcing the death, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said it was “another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa”.

An uncompromising foe of apartheid in South Africa, Tutu worked tirelessly and peacefully for its downfall.

Desmond Tutu helped bring the end of apartheid in South Africa (J Pat Carter/PA) (AP)

The buoyant, blunt-spoken clergyman used his pulpit as the first black bishop of Johannesburg and later Archbishop of Cape Town as well as frequent public demonstrations to galvanise public opinion against racial inequity both at home and globally.

Mr Ramaphosa added: “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 non-sectarian, inclusive champion of universal human rights.”

Tutu had been treated in hospital several times since 2015, after being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997.

In recent years, he and his wife Leah lived in a retirement community outside Cape Town.

Throughout the 1980s – when South Africa was gripped by anti-apartheid violence and a state of emergency giving police and the military sweeping powers – Tutu was one of the most prominent blacks able to speak out against abuses.

Desmond Tutu, right, with his wife Leah at a church service in Cape Town in October (Nardus Engelbrecht/AP) (AP)

A lively wit lightened his hard-hitting messages and warmed otherwise grim protests, funerals and marches.

Short, plucky, tenacious, he was a formidable force, and apartheid leaders learned not to discount his canny talent for quoting apt scriptures to harness righteous support for change.

The Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 highlighted his stature as one of the world’s most effective champions for human rights, a responsibility he took seriously for the rest of his life.

With the end of apartheid and South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Tutu celebrated the country’s multi-racial society, calling it a “rainbow nation” – a phrase that captured the heady optimism of the moment.

Nicknamed “the Arch”, Tutu was diminutive, with an impish sense of humour, but became a towering figure in his nation’s history, comparable to fellow Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela, a prisoner during white rule who became South Africa’s first black president.

Tutu and Mandela shared a commitment to building a better, more equal South Africa.

Desmond Tutu, right, greets then president Nelson Mandela at a service in Cape Town in 1996 celebrating the end of Tutu’s tenure as leader of the Anglican Church in South Africa (Guy Tillim/AP) (AP)

In 1990, after 27 years in prison, Mandela spent his first night of freedom at Tutu’s residence in Cape Town. Later, Mandela called Tutu “the people’s archbishop”.

After becoming president in 1994, Mandela appointed Tutu to be chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which uncovered the abuses of the apartheid system.

Tutu campaigned internationally for human rights, especially LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.

“I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this,” he said in 2013, launching a campaign for LGBT rights in Cape Town.

“I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say, ‘Sorry, I would much rather go to the other place.’”

Tutu said he was “as passionate about this campaign (for LGBT rights) as I ever was about apartheid. For me, it is at the same level”.

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