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Archbishop Desmond Tutu, giant in struggle against apartheid South Africa, dies at 90

Desmond Tutu, the cleric and social activist who was a giant in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, has died aged 90.

Tutu, described by foreign observers and his compatriots as the moral conscience of his nation, died on Boxing Day in Cape Town.

“The passing of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is another chapter of grief in our nation’s farewell to a generation of prominent South Africans who left us a liberated South Africa,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said.

“From the pavements of resistance in South Africa to the pulpits of the world’s great cathedrals and places of worship, and the prestigious setting of the Nobel Peace Prize, Arch distinguished himself as a non-sectarian, comprehensive champion of universal human rights. ”

Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the late 1990s and has been hospitalized several times in recent years to treat infections related to his treatment.

He finally passed away peacefully this morning at the age of 90 at the Oasis Frail Care Center in Cape Town, said Dr. Ramphela Mamphele, Acting Chairman of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu IP Trust and Coordinator of the Archbishop’s Office, in a statement on behalf of the Tutu family.

She gave no details about the cause of death.

Desmond Tutu attends the unveiling of the Arch for the Arch monument as part of his 86th birthday celebrations in Cape Town. Photo: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

Tutu was born in Klerksdorp, a farming village 100 miles southwest of Johannesburg. The ailing son of a headmaster and domestic servant, he trained as a teacher before becoming an Anglican priest.

As a cleric, he traveled extensively and received an MA in Theology from London University. Although he did not emerge as a key figure in the liberation struggle until the mid-1970s, he would make a huge impact and become a household name around the world.

Excited, emotional, charismatic and highly articulate, Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. An outspoken supporter of sanctions against South Africa, he was abhorred by supporters of the apartheid regime, who viewed him as an agitator and traitor. However, Tutu was protected not only by his wit and combative spirit, but also by his immense popularity and respect. In 1986 he was appointed Archbishop of Cape Town, the effective head of the Anglican Church in his home country.

Tutu always kept his distance from the African National Congress (ANC), the party that spearheaded the liberation movement and has been in power in South Africa for more than 20 years now. He refused to support the armed struggle and unconditionally support leaders like Nelson Mandela.

However, Tutu shared Mandela’s vision of a multiracial society where all communities live together without rancor or discrimination and is credited with coining the term “rainbow nation” to describe this vision.

Desmond Tutu with former South African President FW de Klerk.
Desmond Tutu with former South African President FW de Klerk. Photo: Michelly Rall/WireImage

After the country’s first free elections in 1994, Mandela, who had become the president of a free South Africa, asked Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the controversial and emotional hearings on human rights violations in the apartheid era.

The TRC was described as the “climax of Tutu’s career” and was hailed around the world as a pioneering effort to heal deep historical wounds.

However, Tutu found the experience deeply traumatic. He was saddened and stunned by the fierce criticism from the white right, some mainstream liberals and the ANC. The horrific testimony he listened to day in and day out also brought deep emotional distress, with TV viewers watching the tough, witty cleric put his head in his hands and cry.

In the late 1990s, Tutu, who was suffering from prostate cancer, began to spend more time with his wife of 60, four children and numerous grandchildren. He continued to criticize the ANC and was initially barred from Nelson Mandela’s state funeral in 2013. His absence caused a public outcry. Tutu later said he was “very hurt”.

Desmond Tutu rests during a lunch break in a 1997 TRC hearing.
Desmond Tutu rests during a lunch break in a 1997 TRC hearing. Photo: Adil Bradlow/AP

Despite his illness, Tutu remained interested in world affairs and determined to use his enormous moral prestige to make a difference. In 2015, he launched a petition urging world leaders to create a world powered by renewable energies within 35 years, supported by more than 300,000 people worldwide. It described climate change as “one of the greatest moral challenges of our time”.

He also spoke out against homophobic legislation in Uganda and called for help with dying.

Mandela, who lived near Tutu’s home in Soweto and also won the Nobel Prize, described his close friend as “sometimes shrewd, often tender, never afraid, rarely without humor.”

Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela together in 2008.
Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela together in 2008. Photo: Themba Hadebe/AP

“Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless,” Mandela said.

In 2009, Barack Obama described Tutu as “a crusader for freedom, a spiritual leader…and a respected statesman. [who] has become a symbol of kindness and hope far beyond the borders of his native land.”

Friends remembered Tutu as a man of deep faith whose charm, warmth and intelligence few could resist, and who was happiest when active for others.

“I love to be loved,” he told the BBC’s Sue Lawley when he appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1994.