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Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu in Washington D.C., 1999

Photo: John Matthew Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0

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On December 26, 2021, Desmond Tutu died at the age of 90.  With his passing, the world mourned the loss of one of the greatest human rights activists of our time.  Tutu was a leader in the fight against the system of apartheid in South Africa.  He was not a politician, but, as a priest, he used the church as a platform to speak out against a brutal system.   (To read more about apartheid, please scroll down.) 

His funeral on January 1, 2022, was humble and quiet – partly because of the restrictions placed on large gatherings due to the pandemic, but also because that is how Tutu had wished his farewell to be.  While millions mourned around the world, only very few people were present in the cathedral where the service was held.  The choir sang in a different hall, to prevent the spread of the virus.

During his lifetime, Tutu had worked tirelessly to help bring the cruel and repressive system of apartheid to an end.  When it did finally collapse, he continued to spread a message of peace.  He wanted to ensure that South Africa would move forward as a unified land in which all people would have an equal chance at prosperity.  But toward the end of his life, Tutu was saddened by the ongoing injustice, division, and poverty in his country. 

The spread of the coronavirus exacerbated many social problems in South Africa.  Up until his final days, Tutu was outspoken about the problem of misinformation and disinformation regarding coronavirus vaccines, saying, “There is nothing to fear.  Don’t let Covid-19 continue to ravage our country, or our world.  Vaccinate.”

Tutu had been battling cancer for many years.  He is survived by his wife of more than 60 years, Nomalizo Leah Tutu, and their four children.

“Do your little bit of good where you are.  It’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

– Desmond Tutu

More about Desmond Tutu

– Born Desmond Mpilo Tutu on October 7, 1931, in Klerksdorp, South Africa.

– His father was the principal at a Methodist school (Methodism is a branch of the Christian Protestant church), and his mother worked as a cook.  Tutu had several siblings, two of whom died as babies.

– At first, Tutu wanted to study medicine and become a doctor.  But his family struggled to make ends meet and could not afford the cost of such an education.  His next choice was to become a teacher.  He attended Pretoria Bantu Normal College and then went on to the University of South Africa, where he got his bachelor’s degree.

– Tutu taught school for three years.  During this time, he saw firsthand the effects of the Bantu Education Act, which was a set of laws put into place by South Africa’s apartheid government.  These laws officially segregated schools based on race.  Schools for black children prepared students for work in low-skill, low-paying jobs.  Because these schools received little funding, there weren’t enough teachers or materials for learning.  Tutu decided to leave teaching because he was so disgusted by a system set up to promote inequality in South Africa.

– It was at that time that Tutu made up his mind to become a priest (his family had joined the Anglican Church years earlier).  He made it his mission to speak out against apartheid and to work for justice and equality in his country.

– Tutu was arrested numerous times as he became more and more vocal in his protests against government policies.  While he was opposed to the use of force in any form, whether it came from the side of the white police or from members of the Black community who rebelled with violence, he did believe in speaking out in the face of injustice.

– Tutu tried to convince other countries to condemn the system of apartheid and place sanctions on South Africa.

– Tutu spoke and preached at countless funeral services for people in the anti-apartheid movement, as the impoverished areas where black citizens were forced to live – called “Townships” – exploded in upheaval.

– Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, for his nonviolent work against apartheid.  At that time, South Africa’s repressive government was still firmly in place.

–  It was not until the early 1990s that the system of apartheid finally began to be dismantled.  Tutu was able to vote for the first time in 1994, which is when South Africa held its first democratic elections.

– Tutu did not see his work as finished once apartheid was gone, understanding that unity among whites and non-whites was a long way off.  He tried to encourage people from all sides to truthfully and completely acknowledge the pain of South Africa’s long period of racist policies, while at the same time moving forward into a future of forgiveness and healing.  He began calling South Africa the “Rainbow Nation,” highlighting the beauty of its diversity.

– When Nelson Mandela was elected to lead the new government as South Africa’s president, he asked Tutu to head the so-called Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The commission’s job was to investigate and bring to light the crimes of the previous government.  As its head, Tutu had to listen to testimony, upon harrowing testimony, about the horrors that apartheid brought to people’s lives.  This was a crushing experience for Tutu, who reportedly cried as he listened to the stories of  survivors of some of the worst abuses.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission under Tutu’s leadership became known the world over as a model for how to work through national trauma.

– Over the years, Tutu’s fame grew.  He was seen as a moral leader in the world.  At the same time, he was beloved for his exuberant personality and engaging style of talking and connecting with people.  He appeared on talk shows and in documentaries, shook hands with heads of state, and was seen as a global star.

– Toward the end of his life, Tutu remained deeply concerned about the fate of his country.  He saw how corruption continued to run rampant in the South African government and how the country’s poor were facing many of the same  barriers as in earlier days.

– He devoted time to the pursuit of peace all over the world and became part of The Elders, a group whose mission it is to gather the perspectives of world leaders concerned with social justice.

South Africa’s system of apartheid

The term “apartheid” comes from the Afrikaans word, “apartness.”  It was used to refer to the system of government put into place in 1948 by the South African government to not only separate whites from non-whites in every aspect of society, but to impose laws that furthered inequality.  Black children in South Africa received a much lower quality of education than did their white counterparts, and as they became adults, they had far fewer economic and professional opportunities.  Almost 150 laws were put in place under apartheid, specifically designed to tyrannize the Black population.  Black people were forced to carry identification papers at all time and were not allowed to move around freely after hours.  All public facilities were labeled either “White,” “Black,” “Indian,” or “Coloured” (= a label given to people of mixed race).  Black South Africans had to live in so-called, “homelands,” which were territories set aside for them.  These areas were often crowded and impoverished.  There were not enough jobs.  And the jobs that were available were menial and often dangerous (like mining and other forms of hard labor).  Marriage between the races was illegal, and even interracial friendships got people into trouble.  Black South Africans did not have the right to vote under apartheid.

People all over the world protested against the system of segregation in South Africa.  Finally, in 1994, apartheid was ended.

Sources: Chutel, Lindsey, The New York Times, “With a Simple Funeral, South Africa Bids Farewell to Desmond Tutu,” https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/01/world/africa/desmond-tutu-funeral-south-africa.html, January 1, 2022; Berger, Marilyn, The New York Times, “Desmond Tutu, Whose Voice Helped Slay Apartheid, Dies at 90,” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/26/world/africa/desmond-tutu-dead.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article, December 26, 2021 (updated December 28, 2021); Quist-Arcton, Ofeibea, NPR, “Desmond Tutu, an icon who helped end apartheid in South Africa, dies at 90,” https://www.npr.org/2021/12/26/494373491/desmond-tutu-dies?t=1642935128987, December 26, 2021; South Africa Online, “A history of Apartheid in South Africa,” https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/history-apartheid-south-africa.