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Desmond Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a renowned Anglican theologian and human rights activist.

Read time: 5 minutes and 42 seconds

Desmond Tutu was born in 1931 and died in December 2021.

He was the Emeritus Archbishop of Cape Town, and a renowned Anglican theologian and human rights activist who played a central role in the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa. He was the first black African to hold the posts of Bishop of Johannesburg and Archbishop of Cape Town. After Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990, the two men led negotiations to create a multi-racial, democratic South Africa. Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated human rights abuses on both sides during the apartheid era. He also spoke out on gay rights, the Iraq war and the political situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories. But his socialist political stance made him a divisive figure: he remained very popular with many black South Africans and some white liberals. But he was regarded with suspicion by the more radical black activists and by white conservatives.

Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated human rights abuses on both sides during the apartheid era.

Early life and training

Archbishop Desmond was born in October 1931 at Klerksdorp in north-west South Africa. His family background was a mixture of Xhosa and Motswana heritage. His father was the principal of a Methodist primary school. He suffered from polio as a child, which left his right hand permanently damaged. His family were Christians and he was baptised into the Methodist tradition as an infant but the family later moved to the Anglican tradition. At 12, he was confirmed, publicly declaring his Christian faith. While at school in Johannesburg, he was strongly influenced by the minister at his church, Bishop Trevor Huddleston - a vocal anti-apartheid campaigner. Archbishop Desmond completed his schooling as the authorities in South Africa began to introduce apartheid policies to separate South Africans by colour.

He trained as a teacher in Pretoria and began teaching in 1954 as the government introduced the Bantu Education Act which enforced racially segregated schooling. He married in 1955 and in 1958 gave up teaching to train as an Anglican priest.

Ordination and early career

In 1960 he was ordained as a deacon against a backdrop of rising racial tension: that year 69 black South Africans were killed by police during a demonstration at Sharpeville. The same year the government banned the African National Congress (ANC). Archbishop Desmond became a priest in 1961. The next year he travelled to the UK to study theology at Kings College, London. He returned to southern Africa in 1966 where he taught at the Federal Theological Seminary and then the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. He was a supporter of the Black Consciousness Movement, which campaigned against apartheid.

He went back to UK again in 1972 to become Director for Africa for the Theological Education Fund of the World Council of Churches. He was attracted to the ideas of African Theology and Black Theology. The latter reminded black South Africans that God was on the side of oppressed people. Archbishop Desmond felt black theology would restore dignity to black South Africans and he likened their experience to that of the Jewish people in the Old Testament part of the Bible. He wrote, God ‘…sides with the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the victims of injustice…’. He felt Christians needed to speak up for the poor and the weak and change society around them.

Continued below...

Christianity Desmond Tutu

Rising profile under apartheid

Archbishop Desmond returned to South Africa in 1975 to become Dean of Johannesburg. In 1976 he wrote to the Prime Minister BJ Vorster warning him of the rising anger among black South Africans and urging him to end apartheid. That year violence erupted in the township of Soweto. Hundreds were killed. Archbishop Desmond became an increasingly vocal and high profile critic of apartheid and white minority rule. But he continued to stress the need for non-violent protest. He called on other countries to apply economic pressure on the South African government to end apartheid and give black South Africans the right to vote. In August 1976 he was consecrated Bishop of Lesotho. Two years later he returned to Johannesburg when he was elected General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches – becoming its first black leader. His campaigning continued; he spoke in Europe and North America and met political and religious leaders. But he was regarded with suspicion by the South African government who twice confiscated his passport to stop him travelling and tried to smear his reputation. Despite this, his influence grew. In 1984 he addressed the United Nations Security Council and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

His leadership style was to build consensus rather than impose decisions.

He became Bishop of Johannesburg in 1985. That year the South African government declared a partial state of emergency as racial unrest grew. The following year he urged the international community to impose sanctions on South Africa. Months later he was installed as Archbishop of Cape Town, becoming the leader of the Anglican Church in South Africa. His leadership style was to build consensus rather than impose decisions. He oversaw the introduction of woman priests, a radical move at the time. Beyond the Church he was involved in mediating between black protestors and the security forces.

Post-apartheid roles

After the ANC leader Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990, he and Archbishop Desmond led negotiations to end apartheid and introduce a multi-racial democracy. Mandela called him ‘the people’s archbishop’. He acted as a mediator between rival black factions who were now jostling for position. When Mandela became president after the first fully democratic elections, Archbishop Desmond lead prayers at his inauguration. He was then appointed to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Archbishop suggested this process should have three elements: confession, forgiveness and restitution. Witnesses gave statements, some of them publicly; perpetrators could seek an amnesty. The aim was not to prosecute. The hearings took place between 1996 and 1998. Many were broadcast on national media. Archbishop Desmond believed the process, though not perfect, would help long-term reconciliation and healing.

The Archbishop popularised the term ‘Rainbow Nation’ to symbolise post-apartheid South Africa. He stepped down as archbishop in 1996 becoming Archbishop Emeritus. But he continued to campaign for various causes at home and overseas. He publicly criticised Mandela and two of his successors, Presidents Mbeki and Zuma and the regimes of other African leaders. He opposed the war in Iraq, condemned Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and called for action to tackle HIV/AIDS. He also championed gay rights, blessing the marriage of his daughter Mpho to another woman, likening discrimination against gay people to discrimination against women and black people. He continued to travel and lecture before retiring from public life in 2010.