Desmond Tutu – a summary

Today, 7 October 2013, is the Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 82nd birthday. Anthony Holmes summarizes his life.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was born in Klerksdorp, Transvaal and moved to Johannesburg at the age of 12, where he went to the Johannesburg Bantu High School. He expressed a wish to become a physician, but his family could not afford the fees for medical school. Instead he followed his father into a teaching career, undertaking his training at Pretoria Bantu Normal College, following which he graduated from the University of South Africa in 1954.

The National Party had come into power in South Africa in 1948 promising strict segregation of the races. The education system proposed for black students was not only separate but distinctly inferior. Tutu resigned his teaching post after three years in protest to the promulgation of the Bantu Education Act which denied black persons the prospects of a good education. On the advice of his own Bishop, Tutu commenced his studies in theology and was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1960.

Bishop Tutu

Desmond Tutu lived in England from 1962 to 1966 where he enrolled at King’s College London and received a master’s degree in theology. He returned to South Africa in 1967 and became chaplain at the University of Fort Hare and taught theology for five years. He revisited London for three years where he served as assistant director of the World Council of Churches.

In 1975 he returned to South Africa to become the first black African to serve as Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg. From 1976 to 1978 he was Bishop of Lesotho. In 1978 he became the first black General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, from which position he called for equal rights for all South Africans and denounced the apartheid system as ‘evil and unchristian’. He demanded the repeal of the pass laws which required all black adults to carry identity documents at all times, and called on the apartheid government to end forced relocation. Tutu supported non-violent resistance to the apartheid regime and advocated international economic sanctions against South Africa. The government revoked his passport to prevent him from travelling and speaking abroad, but international objections forced the government to restore his passport.

Tutu continued to be a thorn in the side of the government, speaking out against apartheid at every opportunity. At the time when the National Party Government was banning and imprisoning its critics with scant regard for their human rights, it was clear that the authorities were not prepared to risk the ire of the World’s churches by dealing with the recalcitrant cleric in a similar way. Tutu was the vociferous champion of those whom the authoritarian regime in Pretoria chose to oppress and deny their rights; and although the government shook an angry finger at him and threatened him on frequent occasions, Desmond Tutu would not be silenced.

Archbishop Tutu

In 1984 Tutu was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition for his efforts to bring human dignity and equality to South Africa. In the words of the citation, he was awarded the Peace Prize “not only as a gesture of support to him and to the South African Council of Churches of which he is leader, but also to all individuals and groups in South Africa who, with their concern for human dignity, fraternity and democracy, incite the admiration of the world.”

In 1986 he was elected Archbishop of Cape Town, becoming the first black African to serve in this position. International economic pressure and internal dissent forced the South African government to reform. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released, having served 27 years in prison. The following year the government began the repeal of racially discriminatory laws and in 1994 President Mandela appointed Tutu as chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

In 1996 he retired as Archbishop of Cape Town and was named Archbishop Emeritus. Tutu remains critical of any government action that infringes the rights and dignity of citizens. He was vociferous in his condemnation of the African National Congress (ANC) government under President Thabo Mbeki for its HIV/AIDS denialist stance. He has also been vocal in his criticism of human rights abuse in, among others, Zimbabwe, Sudan, China, Burma, Nepal and Israel’s action in Gaza.

In 2007 Tutu helped form ‘The Elders’, a private project to employ the experience of retired world leaders to help resolve some of the world’s intractable conflicts. Tutu was joined by Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan among others and was appointed chair of the group.

The Arch at 80

Celebrating his 80th Birthday two years ago, the ‘Arch’ as he wishes to be known, had another run in with the South African authorities. This time the focus of his ire was the ANC-led South African government. Tutu invited the Dalai Lama, a fellow Nobel Laureate and world-renowned spiritual leader, to help him celebrate his 80th birthday on 7 October 2011. Although the Dalai Lama had been permitted to enter South Africa previously, on this occasion the government department responsible for issuing visas delayed processing the application for so long that the Dalai Lama had still not received a visa by 4 October, three days before the ‘Arch’s’ birthday, and therefore had to cancel his proposed visit. The charismatic ‘Arch’ was visibly furious and accused the ANC government on television of being as bad as the apartheid regime.

In a tirade that stunned South African journalists, he went on: ”Let the ANC know they have a large majority. Well, Mubarak had a large majority, Gaddafi had a large majority. I am warning you: Watch out. Watch out. Our government – representing me! – says it will not support Tibetans being viciously oppressed by China. You, President Zuma and your government, do not represent me. I am warning you, as I warned the [pro-apartheid] nationalists, one day we will pray for the defeat of the ANC government.”

Despite official denials it is apparent that the trade relationship South Africa enjoys with China had a significant influence on the government’s prevarication over the Dalai Lama’s visa application. Although Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has retired from public life, he remains a powerful force for good and is respected and loved by many. His jovial and often irreverent comments are often pointed and challenging. He is a staunch and unwavering fighter for human rights and dignity wherever they may be denied. Tutu’s honours and awards are legion and include many honorary doctorates, peace and humanitarian prizes including the US highest award for a civilian, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Anthony Holmes
Read more in South Africa: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and audio.

See also articles on Nelson MandelaWalter Sisulu and PW Botha.