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Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s moral conscience

Archbishop Desmond Tutu helped to bring down apartheid and shaped South African society as the voice of the nation’s conscience who preached love, forgiveness and racial integration.

Even after the fall of the whites-only regime, he never shied away from shining a spotlight on modern South Africa’s failings, while travelling the globe to promote efforts at reconciliation from Ivory Coast to the distant Solomon Islands.

He brought to all his endeavours a playfulness, quick to crack jokes — often directed at himself — and always ready to skip, dance and laugh uproariously in public.

It was Tutu who first baptised South Africa the “rainbow nation” at the first all-race elections in 1994.

In 1996 — two years after Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president — he retired as archbishop of Cape Town to head up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

For 30 months, the commission lifted the lid on the horrors of apartheid by investigating atrocities. At one of its first hearings, Tutu broke down and sobbed as a disabled victim described his torture by the security forces.

Born in the small town of Klerksdorp, about an hour’s drive west of Johannesburg, on October 7, 1931, his family could not afford to send him to university, and he instead trained as a teacher on a government scholarship.

After a short stint as a teacher, his anger over the inferior education offered black children prompted him to become a priest.

“It wasn’t for very highfalutin ideals that I became a priest,” he said in an authorised biography. “It was almost by default.”

“I couldn’t go to medical school … The easiest option was going to theological college.”

Tutu was ordained at the age of 30 and lived in South Africa, Britain and Lesotho before being appointed the first black archbishop of Cape Town in 1986.

He used his status to advocate international sanctions against apartheid South Africa as a means to force the government to bring about change.

He believed firmly in the reconciliation of black and white South Africans and said at the first all-race elections in 1994: “I am walking on clouds. It is an incredible feeling, like falling in love. We South Africans are going to be the rainbow people of the world.”

Mandela is a great admirer of Tutu and has described him as “a man who had inspired an entire nation with his words and his courage, who had revived the people’s hope during the darkest of times.”

But such is their relationship that Tutu felt free to chastise Mandela for living openly with Graca Machel before their marriage.

Never a member of the ruling African National Congress, Tutu challenged authority both in government and in his church.

He spoke out against former president Thabo Mbeki’s denialism of the AIDS epidemic, and lashed the party for trying to muzzle a Truth Commission interim report in October 1998.

“I didn’t struggle in order to remove one set of those who thought they were tin gods and replace them with others who are tempted to think they are,” he said.

In August, Tutu sparked an outcry by proposing a wealth tax on whites, meant as a gesture of reconciliation. And he has piqued the government by inviting the Dalai Lama to his 80th birthday party, two years after South Africa denied the Tibetan spiritual leader a visa.

Tutu has also apologised to gays for the suffering the Anglican Church’s teachings has caused them.

“I want to say sorry to you and all the others who have been made to suffer so horribly. Sometimes the Bible says these things are unnatural. But, I ask, unnatural to whom?”

Some of his sharpest barbs were directed at Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, calling him a “caricature of an African dictator”. The veteran Zimbabwean president in turn called him “an evil little bishop”.

Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and underwent repeated treatments.

He married his wife Leah in 1955 and they had four children.