Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born on 7 October 1931 in Klerksdorp, northwest South Africa —died December 26, 2021, Cape Town. He was a South African Anglican cleric who in 1984 received the Nobel Prize for Peace for his role in the opposition to apartheid in South Africa. His mother, Allen Dorothea Mavoertsek Mathlare, was born to a Motswana family in Boksburg His father, Zachariah Zelilo Tutu, was from the amaFengu branch of Xhosa and grew up in Gcuwa, Eastern Cape. Tutu had an older sister, Sylvia Funeka, who called him “Mpilo” (“life”), a name given to him by his paternal grandmother. He was his parents’ second son; their firstborn boy, Sipho, had died in infancy. Another daughter, Gloria Lindiwe, was born after him. Tutu was sickly from birth; polio resulted in the atrophy of his right hand. The family were initially Methodists and Tutu was baptised into the Methodist Church in June 1932. They subsequently changed denominations, first to the African Methodist Episcopal Church and then to the Anglican Church.
Tutu was born of Xhosa and Tswana parents and was educated in South African mission schools at which his father taught. Although he secured admission to study medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand, his parents could not afford the tuition fees and instead became a schoolteacher in 1955, He began courting Nomalizo Leah Shenxane, a friend of his sister Gloria who was studying to become a primary school teacher. They were legally married at Krugersdorp Native Commissioner’s Court in June 1955, before undergoing a Roman Catholic wedding ceremony at the Church of Mary Queen of Apostles; although he was an Anglican, Tutu agreed to the ceremony due to Leah’s Roman Catholic faith, their first child, Trevor, was born in April 1956. A daughter, Thandeka, appeared 16 months later.
He resigned his post in 1957. He then attended St. Peter’s Theological College in Johannesburg and was ordained an Anglican priest in 1961. In 1962 he moved to London, where in 1966 he obtained an M.A. from King’s College London. From 1972 to 1975 he served as an associate director for the World Council of Churches. He was appointed dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg in 1975, the first Black South African to hold that position. From 1976 to 1978 Tutu served as bishop of Lesotho.
In 1978 Tutu accepted an appointment as the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches and became a leading spokesperson for the rights of Black South Africans. During the 1980s he played an unrivaled role in drawing national and international attention to the iniquities of apartheid. He emphasized nonviolent means of protest and encouraged the application of economic pressure by countries dealing with South Africa. The award of the 1984 Nobel Prize for Peace to Tutu sent a significant message to South African Pres. P.W. Botha’s administration. In 1985, at the height of the township rebellions in South Africa, Tutu was installed as Johannesburg’s first Black Anglican bishop, In 1987 gave the keynote speech at the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) in Lomé, Togo, calling on churches to champion the oppressed throughout Africa; he stated that “it pains us to have to admit that there is less freedom and personal liberty in most of Africa now then there was during the much-maligned colonial days. There, he was elected president of the AACC, while José Belo was elected its general-secretary; they worked closely over the next decade and in 1986 he was elected the first Black archbishop of Cape Town, thus becoming the primate of South Africa’s 1.6 million-member Anglican church. In 1988 Tutu took a position as chancellor of the University of the Western Cape in Bellville, South Africa.
During South Africa’s moves toward democracy in the early 1990s, Tutu propagated the idea of South Africa as “the Rainbow Nation,” and he continued to comment on events with varying combinations of trenchancy and humour. In 1995 South African Pres. Nelson Mandela appointed Tutu head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated allegations of human rights abuses during the apartheid era.
Members of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission—including Dr. Alex Boraine (second from left), deputy chair; Archbishop Desmond Tutu (centre), chair; and Rev. Bongani Finca (right), commissioner—at the commission’s first hearing, April 1996, East London, S.Af.
Benny Gool—Oryx Media/Desmond Tutu Peace Centre
Tutu retired from the primacy in 1996 and became archbishop emeritus. A farewell ceremony was held at St George’s Cathedral in June 1996, attended by senior politicians like Mandela and de Klerk. There, Mandela awarded Tutu the Order for Meritorious Service, South Africa’s highest honour. Tutu was succeeded as archbishop by Ndungane. In January 1997, Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer and travelled abroad for treatment. He publicly revealed his diagnosis, hoping to encourage other men to go for prostate exams. He faced recurrences of the disease in 1999 and 2006.
Retirement from public life
In July 2010 he announced his intention to effectively withdraw from public life in October, though he said he would continue his work with the Elders, a group of international leaders he cofounded in 2007 for the promotion of conflict resolution and problem solving throughout the world. On October 7, 2010—his 79th birthday—he began his retirement.
Tutu maintained an interest in social issues. In July 2014, he came out in support of legalised assisted dying, later stating that he would want that option open to him personally. In December 2015, Tutu’s daughter, Mpho Tutu, married a woman in the Netherlands. Tutu attended and gave the proceedings a blessing, despite Anglican opposition to same-sex marriage
Tutu authored or coauthored numerous publications, including The Divine Intention (1982), a collection of his lectures; Hope and Suffering (1983), a collection of his sermons; No Future Without Forgiveness (1999), a memoir from his time as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time (2004), a collection of personal reflections; and Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference (2010), reflections on his beliefs about human nature. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Tutu received numerous honours, including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom (2009), an award from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation that recognized his lifelong commitment to “speaking truth to power” (2012), and the Templeton Prize (2013).
Tutu died from cancer at the Oasis Frail Care Centre in Cape Town on 26 December 2021, at the age of 90.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu Death Tribute and Condolence Messages
In a message of condolence, Queen Elizabeth II described Tutu as “a man who tirelessly championed human rights in South Africa and across the world”, and that his loss will be felt by the people across the Commonwealth, where “he was held in such high affection and esteem”.
Former United States president Barack Obama released a statement in part calling him a “universal spirit” and that he was “grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but also concerned with injustice everywhere”. President Joe Biden said that Tutu’s legacy will “echo throughout the ages”. Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton also released statements upon his death.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said in his tribute: “When you were in parts of the world where there was little Anglican presence and people weren’t sure what the Anglican church was, it was enough to say “It’s the Church that Desmond Tutu belongs to” – a testimony to the international reputation he had and the respect with which he was held.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu Funeral
On 27 December 2021 it was announced that a Funeral Mass would be held for Tutu at St. George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, on 1 January 2022. Numbers will be limited to 100 people because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the days before the funeral, the cathedral will ring its bells for 10 minutes each day at noon.