Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning icon, an uncompromising foe of apartheid and a modern-day activist for racial justice and LGBT rights, died Sunday at 90. South Africans, world leaders and people around the globe mourned the death of the man viewed as the country’s moral conscience.
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.
Tutu’s death on Sunday “is another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa,” South African 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 ceremony, the Arch distinguished himself as a non-sectarian, inclusive champion of universal human rights,” he said.
Tutu died peacefully at the Oasis Frail Care Center in Cape Town, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Trust said. He had been hospitalized several times since 2015 after being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997.
“He turned his own misfortune into a teaching opportunity to raise awareness and reduce the suffering of others,” said the Tutu trust. “He wanted the world to know that he had prostate cancer, and that the sooner it is detected, the better the chance of managing it.”
In recent years he and his wife, Leah, lived in a retirement community outside Cape Town.
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.”
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.
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 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.”
Tutu also campaigned internationally for human rights, especially LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage.
“I would not worship a God who is homophobic,” he said in 2013, launching a campaign for LGBTQ rights in Cape Town. “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say, ‘Sorry, I would much rather go to the other place.’”
Tutu said he was “as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid. For me, it is at the same level.” He was one of the most prominent religious leaders to advocate LGBTQ rights — a stance that put him at odds with many in South Africa and across the continent as well as within the Anglican church.
South Africa, Tutu said, was a “rainbow” nation of promise for racial reconciliation and equality, even though he grew disillusioned with the African National Congress, the anti-apartheid movement that became the ruling party after the 1994 election. His outspoken remarks long after apartheid sometimes angered partisans who accused him of being biased or out of touch.
Tutu was particularly incensed by the South African government’s refusal to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama, preventing the Tibetan spiritual leader from attending Tutu’s 80th birthday as well as a planned gathering of Nobel laureates in Cape Town. The government rejected Tutu’s accusations that it was bowing to pressure from China, a major trading partner.
Early in 2016, Tutu defended the reconciliation policy that ended white minority rule amid increasing frustrations among some Black South Africans who felt they had not seen the expected economic opportunities since apartheid ended. Tutu had chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated atrocities under apartheid and granted amnesty to some perpetrators, but some people believed that more former white officials should have been prosecuted.
Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born Oct. 7, 1931, in Klerksdorp, west of Johannesburg, and became a teacher before entering St. Peter’s Theological College in Rosetenville in 1958. He was ordained in 1961 and six years later became chaplain at the University of Fort Hare.
He then moved to the tiny southern African kingdom of Lesotho and to Britain, returning home in 1975. He became bishop of Lesotho, chairman of the South African Council of Churches and, in 1985, the first Black Anglican bishop of Johannesburg. In 1986, Tutu was named the first Black archbishop of Cape Town. He ordained women priests and promoted gay priests.
Tutu was arrested in 1980 for joining a protest and later had his passport confiscated for the first time. He got it back for trips to the United States and Europe, where he spoke with the U.N. secretary-general, the pope and other church leaders.
Tutu called for international sanctions against South Africa and talks to end apartheid.
Tutu often conducted funeral services after the massacres that marked the negotiating period of 1990-1994. He railed against black-on-black political violence, asking crowds, “Why are we doing this to ourselves?” In one powerful moment, Tutu defused the rage of thousands of mourners in a township soccer stadium after the Boipatong massacre of 42 people in 1992, leading the crowd in chants proclaiming their love of God and themselves.
As head of the truth commission, Tutu and his panel listened to harrowing testimony about torture, killings and other atrocities during apartheid. At some hearings, Tutu wept openly.
“Without forgiveness, there is no future,” he said at the time.
The commission’s 1998 report lay most of the blame on the forces of apartheid, but also found the African National Congress guilty of human rights violations. The ANC sued to block the document’s release, earning a rebuke from Tutu. “I didn’t struggle in order to remove one set of those who thought they were tin gods to replace them with others who are tempted to think they are,” Tutu said.
In July 2015, Tutu renewed his 1955 wedding vows with wife Leah, surrounded by their four children.
“You can see that we followed the biblical injunction: We multiplied and we’re fruitful,” Tutu told the congregation. “But all of us here want to say thank you … We knew that without you, we are nothing.”
Tutu is survived by his wife of 66 years and their children.
Asked once how he wanted to be remembered, he told The Associated Press: “He loved. He laughed. He cried. He was forgiven. He forgave. Greatly privileged.”