South Africa: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a lifelong campaign against injustice

By Farai Shawn Matiashe
Posted on Monday, 27 December 2021 17:43

South Africa Tutu Birthday
Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu reacts during a church service at the St. George's Cathedral as he celebrates his 85th birthday in Cape Town, South Africa, Friday, Oct. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

South Africans and those abroad are mourning the death of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu, who died at the age of 90 at the Oasis Frail Care Centre in Cape Town on Sunday 26 December. Archbishop Tutu, who has been described by many as a fearless activist, will be remembered for helping to end the apartheid crisis in South Africa and fighting injustice in the post-apartheid era even beyond the borders.

His death, which comes just after that of South Africa’s last apartheid-era president, FW de Klerk, who died in November this year, was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office on Sunday morning.

Tutu, a South African laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, had been battling prostate cancer for a long time.

Ramaphosa described Tutu as “a patriot without equal; a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead.”

Born in 1931 in a Transvaal gold-mining town, Klerksdorp, Tutu was influenced by Bishop Trevor Huddleston and other anti-apartheid white clergymen to become a priest in 1961. He later became the first Black Anglican dean of Johannesburg in 1975.

Tutu campaigned against police brutality and the white minority rule which, at the time, he described as “racist” that “defied God’s will”.

He became the Archbishop of Capetown in 1986, chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to investigate crimes committed during the apartheid era after his appointment by Nelson Mandela who became President in 1994.

The Cape Town City Hall is bathed in purple light to honour the passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in Cape Town, South Africa, December 26. 2021. REUTERS/Shelley Christians

‘The Arch’, an international icon

“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,” said Ramaphosa in a statement.

He is a national leader in South African. He helped to end apartheid.

People from all walks of life have been paying tribute to Tutu, affectionately known as ‘The Arch’, at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town.

The bells of Cape Town’s St George’s Cathedral will ring for 10 minutes a day every day at noon starting from Monday 27 December to the 31st in his honour.

The body of the Archbishop will lie in state at St George’s Cathedral on Friday 31 December for people to pay their last respects. The funeral service on Saturday will be presided by Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, according to a statement from Archbishop Tutu IP Trust and the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation.

US President Joe Biden described Tutu as a “true servant of God and the people.”

Senator Sekai Holland, a former co-minister of State for National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration in the Cabinet of President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai during the Government of National Unity from 2009 to 2013, says Tutu was an international icon.

“He was a distinguished international figure around the world in his spiritual work and activism in matters of human rights and justice,” Holland tells The Africa Report.

Members of the public pause after placing flowers in memory of Archbishop Desmond Tutu outside St Georges Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa, December 26, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

A defiant critic of oppression post-apartheid era

Tutu continued fighting against injustice in South Africa and beyond the borders in the post-apartheid era. He became a critic of the African National Congress (ANC) government, accusing it of continuing the legacy of the apartheid era.

Tutu was vehemently opposed to the high poverty levels among black people, racial inequality and xenophobia.

“What is even more important and missing in the post-independence human rights defenders culture is togetherness. It empowers us to build partnerships and implement policies to ensure that the benefits of the liberation struggle are shared by all citizens,” says Holland.

“The post-independence era is one my generation has handled rather unsuccessfully by focusing on the negatives,” she adds.

Outside of South Africa

In Zimbabwe, Tutu did not see eye to eye with its long-term ruler Robert Mugabe, who was removed in a military coup in November 2017. He was opposed to Mugabe’s dictatorship and extensive human rights abuses. Mugabe once described Tutu as “devilish, little bishop”.

But Father Fidelis Mukonori, a Zimbabwean religious leader of the Roman Catholic Church and Mugabe’s long-time ally who mediated between the military generals and the long-time ruler during the November 2017 coup, says Tutu is a South African icon. “He is a national leader in South African. He helped to end apartheid,” he says.

In Kenya, Tutu was involved in bringing peace to the country by brokering a power-sharing deal following political violence that erupted between rival leaders Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga after the disputed election in 2007.

He was also a leading advocate for LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage. Despite his efforts, Archbishop Buti Tlhagale, spokesperson of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) tells The Africa Report that the Catholic Church has not changed its stance.

“The teaching of the Catholic Church on a human person, marriage and sexuality, as is clear in its Catechism and other related documents, remains the same irrespective of which individuals or groups may have a differing or contrary view,” he says on the issue of gay rights in South Africa and around the world.

“Even if those individuals or groups may be members of the Catholic Church itself. The moral and faith teaching in the Catholic Church is not determined by a person or a group’s clout or the majority.”

Tutu’s remains will lie in state for two days before his funeral is held on 1 January at St George’s Cathedral, where his ashes will be buried. Across South Africa flags will be flown at half mast as the country mourns his passing for the coming week.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options