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Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1931–2021), who helped end apartheid in South Africa

by Linnea Crowther

Desmond Tutu was a South African Anglican cleric, outspoken opponent of apartheid and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Formative early years

Born Oct. 7, 1931, in Klerksdorp, South Africa, Tutu grew up in an era of systematic racial segregation that eventually became the official government policy known as apartheid. The rights of nonwhite Africans were restricted, and limitations were placed on where they could live, work and travel.

Later in life, Tutu recalled a fateful childhood meeting with the anti-apartheid priest Trevor Huddleston.

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“One day I was standing in the street with my mother when a white man in a priest’s clothing walked past,” Tutu said. “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!”

An excellent student, Tutu originally planned to become a doctor. However, his family could not afford the training, and he focused his studies on becoming a teacher. He taught high school for several years but became disillusioned with the Bantu Education Act, which restricted the education of nonwhite children to only what was needed to become an unskilled laborer. He resigned his post in 1957 and resumed his studies, this time in theology.

Priesthood and activism

Inspired by Huddleston’s example and recognizing the power of being able to criticize government policy from the pulpit, Tutu was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1961. He obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology from King’s College in London and held various positions at religious institutions in South Africa and the U.K. between 1967 and 1975.

It was during his time as Bishop of Lesotho that he came to international prominence for his criticism of the South African government. In 1976, protests that came to be known as the Soweto Riots were launched in opposition to decrees dictating which languages were to be used for each subject in classroom instruction. Tutu referred to Afrikaans as the “language of our oppressor,” and that its use in the classroom was to obscure the understanding of subjects like mathematics and social sciences. He called on world leaders to economically boycott South Africa.

However, as critical as he was of the government, he refused to support those who advocated for a violent overthrow of the regime. In addition to his support of nonviolent protests, he advocated for all parties involved in apartheid to peacefully reconcile.

Nobel Peace Prize

In 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He remarked later, “It was important for our people at that point in our history because we were tending to go off the radar screen and this brought us back spectacularly.” In 1993, less than 10 years later, apartheid was ended in South Africa. In 1994, Tutu had the honor of introducing South Africa’s first Black president, Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013), at his inauguration.

Later life

After the fall of apartheid, Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who were mandated to investigate and record human rights violations under apartheid, decide upon reparations and grant amnesty petitions. Tutu continued to critique the new South African government, especially for failures to combat poverty and provide adequate care for those suffering from Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. He also spoke out against sexism and homophobia and referred to laws against gay people as “just as wrong as apartheid laws.”

Tutu withdrew from regular public appearances and international speaking engagements into semi-retirement on his 79th birthday. He continued to support groups engaged in promoting peace and understanding between people including The World Justice Project and The Forgiveness Project.

Tutu’s Peace Prize dedication

“This award is for mothers, who sit at railway stations to try to eke out an existence, selling potatoes, selling mealies, selling produce. This award is for you, fathers, sitting in a single-sex hostel, separated from your children for 11 months a year… This award is for you, mothers in the KTC squatter camp, whose shelters are destroyed callously every day, and who sit on soaking mattresses in the winter rain, holding whimpering babies… This award is for you, the 3.5 million of our people who have been uprooted and dumped as if you were rubbish. This award is for you.” —from his speech upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize

Tributes to Desmond Tutu

Full obituary: The New York Times

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