Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Anti-Apartheid Leader, Dies at 90

Published by: Carolyn Brooks Fleming on Dec 31, 2021.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Anti-Apartheid leader and humanitarian, died on December 26, 2021. He was 90.

Tutu was born in 1931 in Klerksdorp, South Africa. His parents were a teacher and a domestic worker. After Tutu battled tuberculosis as a child, he decided to become a doctor, and he was admitted to medical school. However, because his parents could not afford the tuition, Tutu changed his focus to education. He said, “The government was giving scholarships for people who wanted to become teachers. I became a teacher and I haven’t regretted that.”

Tutu intended to devote his life to teaching, but he resigned in the 1950s due to educational restrictions placed on black children by the Bantu Education Act. This was part of a greater movement in South Africa known as apartheid — an ideology that segregated citizens based on race. The white minority who controlled the government, known as Afrikaners, were mostly descendants of Dutch colonists. Of the Afrikaners, Tutu once said, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said: ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”

Tutu entered the clergy and was ordained in 1960 — a rarity for a black man at the time. He divided his time between South Africa and the UK, so for a few years he was somewhat removed from his country’s unrest.

Meanwhile, the anti-apartheid movement grew, and many protestors were arrested or killed. Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1964.

In 1975, Tutu became dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg, and soon he was appointed Bishop of Lesotho. He used his platform to speak out against apartheid. Hundreds were injured or killed in an uprising in Soweto in 1976. Anti-apartheid sentiment grew across the globe, and South Africa was banned from the Olympics from 1964 to 1988. However, due to tensions related to the Cold War, neither US President Ronald Reagan nor UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher supported sanctions against the South African government.

Tutu joined other clergy and political leaders in the United Democratic Front, or UDF, and helped organize protest marches. In 1984, while accepting the Nobel Prize for his work, Tutu said, “This land, richly endowed in so many ways, is sadly lacking in justice.” Tutu was named Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986, but that did not protect him from being arrested two years later for delivering an anti-apartheid petition to the government.

Tutu led a 20,000-person march in Cape Town in 1989, and in that same year the newly elected President F.W. de Klerk began to relax apartheid laws.

Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, after 27 years, and he succeeded de Klerk as president of South Africa in 1994. Soon after, Tutu became chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was created to address the human rights violations that took place under apartheid.

Tutu retired in 2010, but he continued to speak out against injustice, including racial prejudice, the evils of capitalism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Tutu’s awards were innumerable: President Barack Obama gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom; the Mo Ibrahim Foundation awarded him a $1 million grant; he received the Templeton Prize and the Nobel Peace Prize. Reflecting on his life, Tutu said, “When you stand out in a crowd, it is always only because you are being carried on the shoulders of others.”

Tutu is survived by his wife Nomalizo and four children.

Learn more about the life of Desmond Tutu in his own words.