South African anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu, described as the country’s moral compass, died on Sunday aged 90, sparking an outpouring of tributes for the outspoken Nobel peace laureate.
Tutu, who had largely faded from public life in recent years, was remembered for his easy humour and characteristic smile — and above all his tireless fight against injustices of all colours.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, announcing the archbishop’s death on Sunday, called him a man of “extraordinary intellect, integrity and invincibility against the forces of apartheid”.
“The passing of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu 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,” he said, weeks after the death of FW de Klerk, the country’s last white president.
Former US president Barack Obama, the country’s first Black leader, hailed Tutu as a towering figure and “moral compass”.”A universal spirit, Archbishop Tutu was grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but also concerned with injustice everywhere,” Obama said in a statement.
Mourners gathered at his former parish in Cape Town, St George’s Cathedral, while others massed at his home, some holding flower bouquets, according to an AFP journalist.
“If it was not for him, probably we would have been lost as a country,” said Miriam Mokwadi, a 67-year-old retired nurse, outside the cathedral. The South African cricket team wore black armbands in his honour on the first day of the first Test against India in South Africa.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said Tutu had “inspired a generation of African leaders who embraced his non-violent approaches in the liberation struggle”.
European leaders joined the chorus with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling him a “critical figure” in the struggle to create a new South Africa and French President Emmanuel Macron saying Tutu had “dedicated his life to human rights and equality”.
The Vatican said Pope Francis was saddened and offered “heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones”.
A tireless activist, Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for combating white minority rule in his country. He coined the term “Rainbow Nation” to describe South Africa when Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president in 1994.
And he retired in 1996 to lead a harrowing journey into South Africa’s brutal past as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which lifted the lid on the horrors of the apartheid regime.
However, Tutu has also criticised the ruling African National Congress (ANC) — the vanguard of the fight against white-minority rule. He challenged Mandela over generous salaries for cabinet ministers and stridently criticised the corruption that mushroomed under ex-president Jacob Zuma.
Ordained at the age of 30 and appointed archbishop in 1986, he used his position to advocate for international sanctions against apartheid, and later to lobby for rights globally.
Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and repeatedly underwent treatment. His public appearances became increasingly scarce and, in one of his last this year, he emerged from hospital in a wheelchair to get a Covid vaccine, waving but not offering comment.
The archbishop had been in a weakened state for several months and died peacefully at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) on Sunday, according to several of his relatives interviewed by AFP.
Larger than life
The Nelson Mandela Foundation called Tutu “an extraordinary human being. A thinker. A leader. A shepherd.” “He was larger than life, and for so many in South Africa and around the world his life has been a blessing,” it said in a statement.
Tutu was born in the small town of Klerksdorp, west of Johannesburg, on October 7, 1931, to a domestic worker and a school teacher.
He trained as a teacher before anger at the inferior education system set up for black children prompted him to become a priest. He lived for a while in Britain, where, he recalled, he would needlessly ask for directions just to be called “Sir” by a white policeman.
Tutu relentlessly challenged the status quo on issues like race, homosexuality and religious doctrine and gave his pioneering support for the assisted dying movement. And he did not shy away from his own end.
“I have prepared for my death and have made it clear that I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs,” he said in an opinion piece in The Washington Post in 2016.
“I hope I am treated with compassion and allowed to pass on to the next phase of life’s journey in the manner of my choice.”
by Gersende RAMBOURG