Desmond Tutu, whose voice helped slay apartheid, dies at 90

“A leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead.”

FILE — Then-Bishop Desmond Tutu and his wife, Nomalizo Leah Tutu, at the General Theological Seminary in New York in 1984. Tutu, the cleric who used his pulpit and spirited oratory to help bring down apartheid in South Africa and then became the leading advocate of peaceful reconciliation under Black majority rule, died on Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021, in Cape Town, South Africa. He was 90. (Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times)

Desmond Tutu, the cleric who used his pulpit and spirited oratory to help bring down apartheid in South Africa and then became the leading advocate of peaceful reconciliation under Black majority rule, died Sunday in Cape Town. He was 90.

His death was confirmed by the office of South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who called the archbishop “a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead.”

The cause of death was cancer, the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation said, adding that Tutu had died in a care facility. He was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and was hospitalized several times in the years since, amid recurring fears that the disease had spread.


As leader of the South African Council of Churches and later as Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Tutu led the church to the forefront of Black South Africans’ decadeslong struggle for freedom. His voice was a powerful force for nonviolence in the anti-apartheid movement, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

When that movement triumphed in the early 1990s, he prodded the country toward a new relationship between its white and Black citizens, and, as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he gathered testimony documenting the viciousness of apartheid.

“You are overwhelmed by the extent of evil,” he said.


But, he added, it was necessary to open the wound to cleanse it. In return for an honest accounting of past crimes, the committee offered amnesty, establishing what Tutu called the principle of restorative — rather than retributive — justice.

But as much as he had inveighed against the apartheid-era leadership, he displayed equal disapproval of leading figures in the dominant African National Congress, which came to power under Nelson Mandela in the first fully democratic elections in 1994.

In 2004, the archbishop accused President Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor, of pursuing policies that enriched a tiny elite while “many, too many, of our people live in grueling, demeaning, dehumanizing poverty.”


Although he and Mbeki later reconciled, the archbishop remained unhappy about the state of affairs in his country under its next president, Jacob Zuma.

Then, in 2011, as critics accused the African National Congress of corruption and mismanagement, Tutu again assailed the government, this time in terms that would have once been unimaginable.

“This government, our government, is worse than the apartheid government,” he said, “because at least you were expecting it with the apartheid government.”

In early 2018, Zuma was ousted after a power struggle with his deputy, Ramaphosa, who took over the presidency in February of that year.

A global celebrity

For much of his life, Tutu was a spellbinding preacher, his voice by turns sonorous and high-pitched. He often descended from the pulpit to embrace his parishioners. Occasionally he would break into a pixielike dance in the aisles, punctuating his message with the wit and the chuckling that became his hallmark, inviting his audience into a jubilant bond of fellowship. While assuring his parishioners of God’s love, he exhorted them to follow the path of nonviolence in their struggle.


Politics were inherent in his religious teachings.

“We had the land, and they had the Bible,” he said in one of his parables. “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. Maybe we got the better end of the deal.”

Although Tutu, like other Black South Africans of his era, had suffered through the horrors and indignities of apartheid, he did not allow himself to hate his enemies. When he was young, he said, he was fortunate in the white priests that he knew, and throughout the long struggle against apartheid he remained an optimist.


“Justice, goodness, love, compassion must prevail,” he said during a visit to New York in 1990. “Freedom is breaking out. Freedom is coming.”

In 1989, after President F.W. de Klerk had at last started to dismantle apartheid, Tutu stepped aside, handing the leadership of the struggle back to Mandela on his release from prison in 1990.

But Tutu did not stay entirely out of the nation’s business.

“We’ve struggled to get these guys where they are, and we’re not going to let them fail,” he said. “We didn’t swallow all that tear gas, and be chased around and be sent to jail and into exile and killed, for failure.”


From teacher to preacher

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born Oct. 7, 1931, in Klerksdorp, on the Witwatersrand in what is now the North West province of South Africa. His mother, Aletha, was a domestic worker; his father, Zachariah, taught at a Methodist school. The young Desmond was baptized a Methodist, but the entire family later joined the Anglican Church. When he was 12 the family moved to Johannesburg, where his mother found work as a cook in a school for the blind.

While he never forgot his father’s shame when a white policeman called him “boy” in front of his son, he was even more deeply affected when a white man in a priest’s robe tipped his hat to his mother, he said.

The white man was the Rev. Trevor Huddleston, a prominent campaigner against apartheid. When Desmond was hospitalized with tuberculosis, Huddleston visited him almost every day.

After his recovery, Tutu wanted to become a doctor, but his family could not afford the school fees. Instead he became a teacher, studying at the Pretoria Bantu Normal College and earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Africa. He taught high school for three years but resigned to protest the Bantu Education Act, which lowered education standards for Black students.

By then he was married to Nomalizo Leah Shenxane, a major influence in his life. She survives him, as do their four children: a son, Trevor Thamsanqa Tutu; and three daughters, Theresa Thandeka Tutu, Naomi Nontombi Tutu and Mpho Tutu van Furth; as well as seven grandchildren.

Desmond Tutu turned to the ministry, he said, because he thought it could provide “a likely means of service.” He studied at St. Peter’s Theological College in Johannesburg and was ordained an Anglican priest at St. Mary’s Cathedral in December 1961.

After serving in local churches, he studied in England, where he earned a bachelor of divinity degree and a master’s in theology from King’s College in London. When he returned to South Africa he was a lecturer, and from 1972 to 1975 he served as associate director of the Theological Education Fund.

He was named Anglican dean of Johannesburg in 1975 and consecrated bishop of Lesotho the next year. In 1978 he became the first Black general secretary of the South African Council of Churches and began to establish the organization as a major force in the movement against apartheid.

A month after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, Tutu became the first Anglican bishop of Johannesburg when the national church hierarchy intervened to break a deadlock between Black and white electors. He was named archbishop of Cape Town in 1986, becoming spiritual head of the country’s 1.5 million Anglicans, 80% of whom were Black.

He preached forbearance, but, as he insisted to The Christian Century magazine in 1980, “I am a man of peace, but not a pacifist.”

“I will never tell someone to pick up a gun,” he said in another interview “But I will pray for the man who picks up the gun, pray that he will be less cruel than he might otherwise have been, because he is a member of the community. We are going to have to decide: If this civil war escalates, what is our ministry going to be?”

Man of forgiveness

On his frequent trips abroad during the apartheid era, Tutu never stopped pressing the case for sanctions against South Africa. The government struck back and twice revoked his passport, forcing him to travel with a document that described his citizenship as “undetermined.”

But as the author of a 1999 book titled “No Future Without Forgiveness,” he was generous in forgiving his enemies, and when the de Klerk government took steps in 1989 toward ending apartheid, Tutu was among the first to welcome the prospect of change.

“An extraordinary thing has happened in South Africa,” he said in 1990, “and it is undoubtedly due to the courage of President de Klerk. We’ve got someone here who is greater than we expected. At some points we had to pinch ourselves to be sure we were seeing what we were seeing.”

Still, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final findings in 2003, Tutu’s imprint was plain. It warned the government against issuing a blanket amnesty to perpetrators of the crimes of apartheid and urged businesses to join with the government in delivering reparations to the millions of Black people victimized by the former white minority government.

The report further said that de Klerk had knowingly withheld information from the commission about state-sponsored violations, and it reiterated charges against the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, South Africa’s second-largest Black party, accusing it of having collaborated with white supremacists in the massacre of hundreds of people in the early 1990s.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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