Celebrating The Life of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: A Global Moral Compass

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He’s known to be South Africa’s ‘moral compass’, but his works made an impact on a global scale. The archbishop, Desmond M. Tutu,  a powerful force for non-violence in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. The Anglican cleric,  used his pulpit and spirited oratory to help bring down apartheid in South Africa and then became the leading advocate of peaceful reconciliation under Black majority rule. He died on Sunday in Cape Town at 90.

His death was confirmed by the office of South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa. The president described Tutu in a televised address as:

“one of our nation’s finest patriots” adding, “our nation’s loss is indeed a global bereavement.”

​​In the wake of Tutu’s death, tributes have poured in from all around the globe—U.S. President Joe Biden said:

“Tutu followed his spiritual calling to create a better, freer, and more equal world. “His legacy transcends borders and will echo throughout the ages.”

“Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a mentor, a friend and a moral compass for me and so many others,” former President Barack Obama said. “He never lost his impish sense of humour and willingness to find humanity in his adversaries.”

Bill Clinton called Tutu’s life “a gift.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that he was “deeply saddened” by TuTu’s death, and added he “will be remembered for his spiritual leadership.”

Queen Elizabeth II recalled her meetings with TuTu with “fondness,” remarking on his warmth and humor.

“Archbishop Tutu’s loss will be felt by the people of South Africa, and by so many people in Great Britain, Northern Ireland and across the Commonwealth, where he was held in such high affection and esteem,” the queen said.

The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, said that “the friendship and the spiritual bond between us was something we cherished.” Tutu, he added, “was a true humanitarian and a committed advocate of human rights.”

“Rainbow Nation” Legacy (NPR

He coined the phrase “rainbow nation” to describe the new South Africa emerging into democracy, and called for vigorous debate among all races.

When a racial civil war seemed all but inevitable, then-president P. W. Botha stepped down and was replaced by F. W. de Klerk, who enacted a series of dramatic constitutional changes that saw Mandela released from prison and his African National Congress party allowed to campaign. Overcoming infighting within the various Black activist factions of the liberation movement, in 1994, the first multi-racial general election took place, and Mandela swept to victory with over 62 percent of the vote, leading Tutu to coin the term “rainbow nation” to describe his vision for a new, racially integrated South Africa. While Tutu’s optimistic vision went on to face several challenges in the following decades, he is widely remembered as one of the key players, alongside Mandela, who helped bring the injustices of apartheid to an end.

Throughout the 1980s — when South Africa was gripped by anti-apartheid violence and a state of emergency gave police and the military sweeping powers — Tutu was one of the most prominent Black leaders able to speak out against abuses.

A lively wit lightened Tutu’s hard-hitting messages and warmed otherwise grim protests, funerals and marches. Plucky and tenacious, he was a formidable force with a canny talent for quoting apt scriptures to harness support for change.

The Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 highlighted his stature as one of the world’s most effective champions for human rights, a responsibility he took seriously for the rest of his life.

With the end of apartheid and South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Tutu celebrated the country’s multi-racial society, calling it a “rainbow nation,” a phrase that captured the heady optimism of the moment.

In his final years he also regretted that his dream of a “Rainbow Nation” had yet to come true, and often fell out with erstwhile allies at the ruling African National Congress party over their failures to address the poverty and inequalities that they promised to eradicate. Tutu largely retired from public life in 2010, but never stopped speaking his mind with wit and tenacity.

South Africa’s Moral Compass (The New York Times)

Outspoken and exuberant, Tutu never wavered in his fight for a fairer South Africa and continued to call the Black leaders of the country’s new democracy to account. In 1990, after 27 years in prison, Mandela spent his first night of freedom at Tutu’s residence in Cape Town. Later, Mandela called Tutu “the people’s archbishop.” Archbishop Tutu had always said that he was a priest, not a politician, and that when the real leaders of the movement against apartheid returned from jail or exile he would serve as its chaplain. While he acknowledged that there was a political role for the church, he prohibited ordained clergy from belonging to any political party.

Tutu worked passionately, tirelessly and non-violently to tear down apartheid — South Africa’s brutal, decades-long regime of oppression against its Black majority that only ended in 1994.

The buoyant, blunt-spoken clergyman used his pulpit as the first Black bishop of Johannesburg and later as the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, as well as frequent public demonstrations, to galvanize public opinion against racial inequity, both at home and globally.

Nicknamed “the Arch,” the diminutive Tutu became a towering figure in his nation’s history, comparable to fellow Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela, a prisoner during white rule who became South Africa’s first Black president. Tutu and Mandela shared a commitment to building a better, more equal South Africa.

Upon becoming president in 1994, Mandela appointed Tutu to be chairman of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which uncovered the abuses of apartheid.

As leader of the South African Council of Churches and later as Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Archbishop Tutu led the church to the forefront of Black South Africans’ decades-long struggle for freedom. His voice was a powerful force for nonviolence in the anti-apartheid movement, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

Archbishop Tutu preached that the policy of apartheid was as dehumanizing to the oppressors as it was to the oppressed. At home, he stood against looming violence and sought to bridge the chasm between Black and white; abroad, he urged economic sanctions against the South African government to force a change of policy.

But as much as he had inveighed against the apartheid-era leadership, he displayed equal disapproval of leading figures in the dominant African National Congress, which came to power under Nelson Mandela in the first fully democratic elections in 1994.

In 2004, the archbishop accused President Thabo Mbeki, Mr. Mandela’s successor, of pursuing policies that enriched a tiny elite while “many, too many, of our people live in grueling, demeaning, dehumanizing poverty.”

“We are sitting on a powder keg,” he said.

Although he and Mr. Mbeki later reconciled — they were photographed together in 2015 as Mr. Mbeki, by then the former president, visited Archbishop Tutu in a hospital — the archbishop remained unhappy about the state of affairs in his country under its next president, Jacob G. Zuma, who had denied Mr. Mbeki another term despite being embroiled in scandal.

“I think we are at a bad place in South Africa,” Archbishop Tutu told The New York Times Magazine in 2010, “and especially when you contrast it with the Mandela era. Many of the things that we dreamed were possible seem to be getting more and more out of reach. We have the most unequal society in the world.”

Then, in 2011, as critics accused the A.N.C. of corruption and mismanagement, Archbishop Tutu again assailed the government, this time in terms that would have once been unimaginable. “This government, our government, is worse than the apartheid government,” he said, “because at least you were expecting it with the apartheid government.”

He added: “Mr. Zuma, you and your government don’t represent me. You represent your own interests. I am warning you out of love, one day we will start praying for the defeat of the A.N.C. government. You are disgraceful.”

His words seemed prophetic when, in 2016, an alliance of religious leaders in South Africa joined other critics in urging Mr. Zuma to quit. In early 2018, Mr. Zuma was ousted after a power struggle with his deputy, Mr. Ramaphosa, who took over the presidency in February of that year.

By then, Archbishop Tutu had largely stopped giving interviews because of failing health and rarely appeared in public. But a few months after Mr. Ramaphosa was sworn in as the new president with the promise of a “new dawn” for the nation, the archbishop welcomed him at his home.

“Know that we pray regularly for you and your colleagues that this must not be a false dawn,” Archbishop Tutu warned Mr. Ramaphosa.

At that time, support for the African National Congress had declined, even though it remained the country’s biggest political party. In elections in 2016, while still under the leadership of Mr. Zuma, the party’s share of the vote slipped to its lowest level since the end of apartheid. Mr. Ramaphosa struggled to reverse that trend, but earned some praise later for his robust handling of the coronavirus crisis.

A Global Force (AP)

In 2009, upon receiving the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, Tutu was described by Barack Obama 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.”

Former U.S. President Barack Obama hailed Tutu as “a moral compass for me and so many others. A universal spirit, Archbishop Tutu was grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but also concerned with injustice everywhere. He never lost his impish sense of humor and willingness to find humanity in his adversaries.”

Tutu’s life was “entirely dedicated to serving his brothers and sisters for the greater common good. He was a true humanitarian” said the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader and Tutu’s friend.

“His legacy is moral strength, moral courage and clarity,” Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba said in a video statement. “He felt with the people. In public and alone, he cried because he felt people’s pain. And he laughed — no, not just laughed, he cackled with delight — when he shared their joy.”

Archbishop Tutu was a towering global figure for peace and an inspiration to generations across the world. During the darkest days of apartheid, he was a shining beacon for social justice, freedom and non-violent resistance. … Although Archbishop Tutu’s passing leaves a huge void on the global stage, and in our hearts, we will be forever inspired by his example to continue the fight for a better world for all.” — U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

A seven-day mourning period is planned in Cape Town before Tutu’s burial, including a two-day lying in state, an ecumenical service and an Anglican requiem mass at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. The southern city’s landmark Table Mountain will be lit up in purple, the color of the robes Tutu wore as archbishop.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu with his wife Leah

He is survived by his wife of 66 years, Leah, and their four children.

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