Home News Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s moral conscience

Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s moral conscience

Published on 09/12/2014

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped dismantle apartheid and became the moral voice of his beloved "Rainbow Nation", has never been afraid to speak truth to power, whatever its creed or colour.

The tireless 83-year-old, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for fighting for inclusive democracy in white-ruled South Africa, on Tuesday cancelled all travel plans for the remainder of the year in order to battle cancer.

Notoriously outspoken, even after the fall of the white-minority regime, Tutu has never shied away from speaking out on South Africa’s shortcomings or on injustices worldwide.

“It’s a great privilege, it’s a great honour that people think that maybe your name can make a small difference,” he once told AFP.

Whether taking on his church over gay rights or calling for Palestinian statehood, his high-profile campaigns have always been thorny and often unwelcome.

Yet the “Arch” has brought a joyful playfulness to all his endeavours.

Quick to crack jokes — often at his own expense — he has always been ready to dance and laugh uproariously with an infectious cackle that has become his trademark.

It was Tutu who first baptised South Africa the “Rainbow Nation” at the first all-race elections in 1994, when Nelson Mandela became president.

At the time, Tutu was serving as the first black Anglican archbishop of Cape Town.

Ordained at the age of 30 and appointed archbishop in 1986, he has used his position to call for international sanctions against apartheid, and later to lobby for rights globally.

– ‘Moral titan’ –

Along the way, he has won admirers from world leaders to rock stars.

“I believe that God is waiting for the archbishop. He is waiting to welcome Desmond Tutu with open arms,” said Mandela, who stayed at Tutu’s home on his first night of freedom after 27 years in apartheid jail.

“If Desmond gets to heaven and is denied entry, then none of the rest of us will get in!”

Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has dubbed him a “sort of giggle-maker”, and the Dalai Lama “my spiritual older brother”.

Irish activist and pop star Bob Geldof has said he is “a complete pain in the arse” for those in power, and US President Barack Obama has hailed him as “a moral titan”.

Among his critics is Zimbabwe’s veteran President Robert Mugabe, who once described him as an “evil and embittered little bishop”.

Even with his global celebrity, his faith has remained an integral part of his life.

Even his missives blasting the evils of apartheid have been signed off with “God bless you”.

“I developed tremendous respect for his fearlessness. It wasn’t fearlessness of a wild kind. It was fearlessness anchored in his deep faith in God,” said apartheid’s last leader, F.W. de Klerk.

The married father of four was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and has undergone repeated treatments.

He retired the year before to lead a harrowing journey through South Africa’s brutal past as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

For 30 months, the commission lifted the lid on the horrors of apartheid.

Tutu, with his instinctive humanity, broke down and sobbed at one of its first hearings.

A serial award recipient, his causes have ranged from child marriage to Tibet to calls for Western leaders to be tried over the Iraq war.

He has also sworn he would never worship a homophobic God.

“I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place,” he said.

– Post-apartheid frustrations –

Born in the small town of Klerksdorp, west of Johannesburg, on October 7, 1931, Tutu is the son of a domestic worker and a school teacher.

Following in his father’s footsteps, he trained as a teacher before anger at the inferior education system for black children prompted him to become a priest.

He spent time in Britain — where, he recalled, he would needlessly ask for directions just to be called “sir” by a white policeman — and also in Lesotho and Johannesburg.

Tutu says he believes firmly in the reconciliation of black and white South Africans.

“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,” he said in 1994.

Yet modern South Africa increasingly has become a source of his laments, slipping short of the heady promise of democracy and tarnished by violence, inequality and graft.

Never a member of the ruling African National Congress, he said in 2013 he would no longer vote for the party.

“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 once said.