In 1948, when the apartheid regime was voted into office in South Africa, Desmond Tutu was 17. It was not until the late 1960s, as the future Anglican archbishop of Cape Town approached 40, that the concept of black liberation caused him to widen his horizons, and it was only in the mid-70s that he aligned himself with the liberation struggle.
Tutu, who has died aged 90, developed late in this respect because at first he was wholly a man of the church. He never wanted to enter politics: “No, I’m not smart enough. I can’t think quickly on my feet. I also think it’s a very harsh environment. I’m a crybaby … not tough enough for the hurly-burly of politics,” he claimed, perhaps disingenuously.
Church and state were locked in combat, however, and choices had to be made. Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists and others condemned apartheid, while the Dutch Reformed churches in South Africa defended it. When Tutu became the first black Anglican dean of Johannesburg in 1975 he was, according to his biographer, Shirley du Boulay, “less politically aware than one might have expected. His contribution to the liberation of his people [until then] had been in becoming a good priest.”
Tutu was born in Klerksdorp, a predominantly Afrikaner farming town 100 miles south-west of Johannesburg. His father, Zachariah, a Xhosa, was headteacher of the local Methodist primary school. His mother, Aletta, a Mosotho, was a domestic servant. The children were all given both European and African names and spoke Xhosa, Sotho and Tswana. Later, Tutu also learned Afrikaans and English. At the age of 14 he contracted tuberculosis and over the course of 20 months in hospital he developed a lifelong friendship with Father Trevor Huddleston, the Anglican missionary priest from Britain who, as one of the most prominent opponents of apartheid inside and outside South Africa, became his religious inspiration and mentor.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie shares a joke with Bishop Desmond Tutu at Lambeth Palace in 1981. Photograph: Popperfoto
Tutu obtained a teaching diploma in 1953 and a BA degree by correspondence a year later. He taught at high schools in Johannesburg (1954) and Krugersdorp (1955-57), before leaving to train at St Peter’s theological college, Rosettenville. Ordained a priest in 1961, he served in an African township.
His entry into the liberation struggle followed the years he spent abroad. From 1962 until 1966 he was in London, where he secured a master’s in theology at King’s College. He served as a curate in Golders Green and at Bletchingley, Surrey, where initially standoffish Tories took him to their hearts.
After teaching at the Federal Theological Seminary in the town of Alice in the Eastern Cape province, Tutu went back to Britain from 1972 until 1975 as associate director of the Theological Education Fund of the World Council of Churches. From 1976 to 1978 he served as bishop of Lesotho, returning to Johannesburg to take up the high-profile post of general secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), from which the pro-apartheid Afrikaans churches had cut themselves loose.
That appointment effectively marked the end of Tutu’s political innocence. He had seen the uglier side of Africa, and although his travels separated him from the struggle in his own country, they also moulded him, giving him a wider outlook, more self-confidence and a growing revulsion against race discrimination. In spite of passport restrictions, in the early 80s Tutu was probably the most travelled churchman in the world after Pope John Paul II. Britain was always a sanctuary for him. The turning point on that score, said Tutu, came when everyone at King’s College London treated him like anyone else. “So my gratitude to England and my gratitude to King’s is that I have discovered who I am.”
Desmond Tutu with Nelson Mandela in 1994. Photograph: Desmond Boylan/Reuters
In more than one sense Tutu became Nelson Mandela’s precursor. Both men foresaw the inevitability of liberation. Both were sufficiently above racial issues to know that, ultimately, what mattered (at least for the transition from apartheid to non-racial rule) would be reconciliation among South Africa’s races. Once the apartheid government accepted the inexorability of change, as it began to do in the 80s, the role of the prophet changed. “Demands for justice are replaced by demands for reconciliation.”
However outraged they might have been by their experiences under apartheid, both Tutu and Mandela put their personal feelings aside. In African terms, both were relatively privileged, Mandela (of Xhosa royalty) even more than the highly educated Tutu. There were differences, of course. Tutu was excitable, passionate, easily hurt; Mandela composed and imperious. In the difficult dying days of apartheid the media, especially the state-controlled broadcasting corporation (SABC), demonised Tutu as the man most white South Africans loved to hate.
But Tutu blazed the trail. When Mandela said the same things 10 years later, his words sounded fitting; when Tutu uttered them he outraged even his Anglican brethren. In 1980, he forecast that South Africa would have a black leader within five to 10 years (it took 14). The reason why many white people were so venomous was not only that Tutu told them that tomorrow would not be theirs, but that he did it with such certainty.
Desmond Tutu in July 2016 celebrating Mandela Day. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA
The entertaining, excitable, impish little man was an old-style prophet, but also one with a dry sense of humour. White people, he observed, saw him as a politician trying hard to be a bishop, with “horns under my funny bishop’s hat and my tail tucked away under my trailing cape”. His wry assessment of the impact of their arrival in South Africa was: “We had the land and they had the Bible. Then they said, ‘Let us pray,’ and we closed our eyes. When we opened them again, they had the land and we had the Bible.”
At times, Tutu was the despair of his friends. Once he said that if the Russians came to South Africa, they would be welcomed as liberators. An associate sighed, “He had this habit of going over the top.” Tutu’s support of international sanctions against South Africa caused a huge eruption among white people and also in his own church. Some liberal white South Africans classified Tutu’s Nobel peace prize in 1984 as foreign interference.
Tutu could never execute the politician’s soft-shoe shuffle. He spoke his mind, was always his own man, never trendy or fully in the political mainstream. Initially, he had been drawn to the Black Consciousness Movement and to American ideas of “black theology”, but he shifted closer to the United Democratic Front (UDF), the exiled ANC’s internal surrogate.
Sparing the sensitivities of white Anglicans was scarcely Tutu’s concern. By the time he arrived at the SACC in March 1978, the organisation was becoming a microcosm of a future, non-racial South Africa. Tutu aired his own opinions, sometimes provocatively, on world affairs. He blasted the Soviet puppet regime in Afghanistan and, simultaneously, the US for supporting the Contras in Nicaragua and Israel for bombing Beirut.
One of his more spectacular outbursts was his condemnation as “nauseating” and “the pits” of a speech by Ronald Reagan in 1988, in which the US president defended the continued involvement of American companies in the South African economy. For his part, said Tutu, “America and the west can go to hell.” Later, in his engaging way, he half-apologised, saying that perhaps he should have used “less salty language”. Patrick Buchanan, Reagan’s chief media adviser, snapped back, “Whatever his moral splendour, the bishop is a political ignoramus.”
By then, Tutu was accustomed to storms breaking over his head. In 1979, on a visit to Denmark, he criticised that country’s purchase of South African coal, thereby signalling his support for sanctions. On his return to South Africa, he was summoned to a meeting with two cabinet ministers, who asked him to retract or face possible action, not only against himself, but against the SACC as well.
However, the organisation rallied, telling the government of PW Botha that a retraction could constitute a denial of Tutu’s prophetic calling. It added, though, that it was willing to meet the government to discuss fundamental reform. It was a turning point in the mighty church v state conflict that had rocked the country since the 50s. The Anglican church was flexing its muscles. Tutu advised the government to stop playing God. During the Christian church’s 2,000-year existence, he said, tyrants had acted against it, arresting its followers, killing them, proscribing their faith. “If they take the SACC and the churches on, let them know they are taking on the Church of Jesus Christ.”
In 1980, Tutu and fellow clergymen went to Pretoria to meet Botha, six cabinet ministers and two deputy ministers. It was not an easy decision. Critics, clergy among them, warned Tutu’s delegation they were wasting their time, even betraying the struggle. It was Tutu’s intuitive genius to know when meeting an enemy showed strength rather than weakness. In 1982, the then archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, sent a five-member delegation to South Africa to demonstrate world support for the SACC – “to make the point [to the apartheid government] that you are not simply dealing with a domestic matter. If you touch Desmond Tutu, you touch a world family of Christians.”
Tutu did not meet Botha again until 1986 when, accompanied by the liberal Afrikaner churchman Beyers Naudé, he was received at the state president’s official residence in Cape Town. Tutu met Botha on two further occasions in 1986, around the time the white regime was starting to meet Mandela secretly in prison. The days of apartheid were numbered, even though few realised it.
Tutu thus began his ascent in the Anglican church just as it farsightedly started to adjust to a changing South Africa. Soon after receiving the Nobel peace prize, he left the SACC to become the first black bishop of Johannesburg (1985-86). The electoral assembly of the diocese consisted of 214 delegates – all the clergy plus one layman from each congregation. The conservative, mostly white, priests blocked Tutu, while the black priests blocked the election of a white bishop. Unable to deliver the required two-thirds majority, the assembly passed the decision to the synod of bishops, who chose the black candidate.
In April 1986, Tutu was elected to the highest Anglican post in South Africa as archbishop of Cape Town, and that September was enthroned in St George’s Cathedral. This was followed by his unanimous election as head of the All-Africa Conference of Churches at its gathering in Togo.
By then Tutu was in the thick of politics. Arrested for taking part in an illegal march, he was fined, imprisoned for a night and had his passport withdrawn. When it was returned, the irrepressible prelate promptly visited the pope, whereupon his passport was temporarily withdrawn again.
Defying the Botha government, Tutu met the ANC-in-exile at its Zambian headquarters, where – ever his own man – he informed it that, while he supported its aim of a non-racial, democratic South Africa, he could not associate himself with the armed struggle. The ANC at first refused to end it but later agreed to suspend it.
Tutu had first met Mandela in the 50s, when the latter was an adjudicator in an inter-school debate in which Tutu was a participant. He did not see Mandela again until the latter’s release from prison in 1990, although they corresponded while Mandela was a prisoner on Robben Island. When Tutu received the Nobel prize, the ANC organised a celebration for him, and on Mandela’s release from prison, he stayed at Tutu’s official archbishop’s residence in Cape Town.
“With calls coming from all over the world, and even the White House,” Tutu said, “it was quite impossible to spend time with him. Even then he was ever gracious with his old-world courtesy … His regal dignity is quite humble.” There is just a hint here of the tension that later affected the relationship.
Tutu recalled that, at a state banquet for the president of Uganda, the former president FW de Klerk had not been placed at the top table. Mandela “was genuinely concerned that De Klerk had been treated so offhandedly”. However, said Tutu, Mandela could also be “horribly stubborn”. For his part, Mandela remarked, light-heartedly, on the trouble Tutu had caused him.
Tutu married Leah Nomalizo Shinxani in 1955. They had four children. A journalist noted many years later: “It’s fair to say that only an astute, humorous and strong woman could have survived life with Tutu,” while a close friend said, “I think she has a helluva hard time. Desmond gives himself so much to everybody that I’m not sure whether there is a lot left for Leah.”
As the ANC leaders returned from exile and prison, Tutu modestly withdrew to the wings, returning to his spiritual calling. But Mandela invited him to take the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), with a mandate not to conduct Nuremberg-style trials, but to effect reconciliation by uncovering “gross violations of human rights” committed during the apartheid years – by all sides, including the ANC. It was an offer Tutu could not refuse.
Appointed in December 1995, the TRC delivered its final five-volume report to Mandela in November 1998. By then Tutu had been receiving treatment in the US for prostate cancer. His illness had a profound effect, making him consciously savour his remaining years and turn away from public life, towards his God and his wife.
The TRC – the climax of Tutu’s career – was both praised and disparaged. Historians will long debate what it achieved. It could have investigated an estimated 100,000 violations of human rights, protracting the hearings endlessly, but it focused on the worst cases, finding time to listen to mea culpas and semi-apologies from the business community, the media, churches and others.
For Tutu, the 1997 hearing at which De Klerk refused to accept political responsibility for the assassinations, kidnappings, torture and assorted crimes committed by agents of the apartheid state was traumatic. De Klerk made the extraordinary submission that apartheid was “a well-intentioned failure” – and that he and his predecessor, Botha, had presided over two final phases of “reform and transformation”. It was quite incorrect, De Klerk told the commission, “to refer to our administrations as the apartheid government. We were primarily concerned with the dismantling of apartheid.”
Tutu confessed that there were times when his Christian charity was strained to the limit. He described the white regime’s chemical and biological warfare programme under Botha as the “most diabolical aspect of apartheid”. Tutu, however, warmly commended De Klerk’s speech in February 1990 unbanning liberation movements, and when he was consulted by the Norwegian Nobel committee for advice on whether to award a joint peace prize to Mandela and De Klerk in 1993, he endorsed it.
But, he said later, “had I known then what I know now, I would have opposed it vehemently”. As for Botha, then in retirement and preparing to remarry, the TRC was a “circus” and he would not “perform” before it. Fined for contempt of court, he remained defiant to the end. The ANC’s response to the TRC report was almost as dismaying for Tutu. The report recorded that the ANC, in exile beyond South Africa’s borders for 30 years, had committed gross violations in its detention camps, torturing and executing suspected informers, rebellious members and others, and that, even after its unbanning in 1990, it had committed further crimes, including murder, mainly against black political opponents. Friends said he was saddened and perplexed by the ferocity of the criticism of the TRC by the ANC, the white rightwing and some mainstream liberals.
Tutu saw the party’s attack on the TRC as a betrayal of the ANC’s finest moral traditions. But he was comforted by the knowledge that many ANC members and supporters, including Mandela (no longer president of the ANC though still president of the country when the TRC report was published), were similarly disturbed by their organisation’s official response.
This dissent within the ANC prevented a lasting rupture between Tutu, the country’s “most prominent moral lodestar”, and the ANC. The ANC applied for an injunction to prevent publication of the TRC’s report (Mandela dissented), but the court rejected it. It was an inexplicable blunder by the ANC leadership, and an appalled Tutu exclaimed, “I have struggled against a tyranny. I did not do this in order to substitute another.”
Having stepped down as archbishop in 1996 Tutu left for the US in October 1998 to take up a two-year theology professorship at Emory University in Atlanta. Overwhelmed by invitations to address other gatherings and institutions across the US, he turned most of them down, so that he could carry his workload at Emory, pace himself through his illness and spend more time with Leah. In Atlanta, he completed his major work, No Future Without Forgiveness, published in 1999, while remaining in close touch with those parts of the TRC that were still at work.
For all its shortcomings, Tutu’s TRC was an extraordinary episode in South Africa’s history. Even if it used controversial methods and failed to deliver universal reconciliation (many white people felt they were simply in the dock), at least it uncovered much of the truth. The “gross violations” were a festering sore that had to be cleansed. Some dozen other countries have conducted their own truth commissions, but South Africa’s was the most remarkable and, for this achievement, the archbishop can take his bow before history.
Tutu was credited with coining the term “rainbow nation” for the non-racial South Africa that he, Mandela and their various supporters wanted to rise from the ashes of apartheid. On his retirement as archbishop, Mandela said of Tutu at a service of thanksgiving: “His joy in our diversity and his spirit of forgiveness are as much part of his immeasurable contribution to our nation as his passion for justice and his solidarity with the poor.”
In his final years, remarkably active in the light of his cancer, Tutu campaigned in many parts of the world for human rights and freedoms, and was often seen in his beloved London. He announced that he would retire from public life on his 79th birthday, in October 2010. But the flow of comments on a wide range of social and political issues continued unabated.
In 2013 he announced he could no longer vote for the ruling ANC because of its corruption, inequality and use of violence, and its failure to tackle violent xenophobia and poverty in the townships. At the time of his 85th birthday, in 2016, he called for the right to assisted dying, and in 2020 he joined other faith leaders in calling for an end to the criminalisation of LGBTQ+ people.
He continued in his advanced years to receive honours and awards from many countries, and in 2015 he was made a Companion of Honour by Britain.
He is survived by Leah, their children, Trevor, Theresa, Naomi and Mpho, and his sister Gloria.
• Desmond Mpilo Tutu, priest, born 7 October 1931; died 26 December 2021
• Stanley Uys died in 2014.
• Dan van der Vat died in 2019