Desmond Tutu, giant of Apartheid struggle in South Africa, dies aged 90

Tutu was once called the moral conscience of his nation. He died in Cape Town on Boxing Day

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu, a giant of the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, has died aged 90.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist for racial justice and LGBT rights, and retired Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, was the moral conscience of his nation.

“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,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement.

“From the pavements of resistance in South Africa to the pulpits of the world’s great cathedrals and places of worship, and the prestigious setting of the Nobel peace prize ceremony, the Arch distinguished himself as a non-sectarian, inclusive champion of universal human rights.”

“Ultimately, at the age of 90, he died peacefully at the Oasis Frail Care Centre in Cape Town this morning,” Dr Ramphela Mamphele, acting chairperson of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu IP Trust and coordinator of the Office of the Archbishop, said in a statement on behalf of the Tutu family.

She did not give details on the cause of death.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation said in a statement: “The loss of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu is immeasurable. He was larger than life, and for so many in South Africa and around the world his life has been a blessing. His contributions to struggles against injustice, locally and globally, are matched only by the depth of his thinking about the making of liberatory futures for human societies. He was an extraordinary human being. A thinker. A leader. A shepherd. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this most difficult time.”

In India political leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid tributes to the icon.

“Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was a guiding light for countless people globally. His emphasis on human dignity and equality will be forever remembered. I am deeply saddened by his demise, and extend my heartfelt condolences to all his admirers. May his soul rest in peace,” Modi said.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said Archbishop Tutu will always be a “source of inspiration to all of us across the world”. 

“My condolences on the passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was a champion of the anti-apartheid movement and a Gandhian,” he tweeted. “Such great heroes of social justice will always be a source of inspiration to all of us across the world.”

Others too expressed grief at Tutu’s passing.

Key Dates

1931: Desmond Tutu is born in Klerksdorp, a town around 170 kilometres to the west of Johannesburg

1943: Tutu’s Methodist family joins the Anglican Church

1947: Tutu contracts tuberculosis while studying at a secondary school near Sophiatown, Johannesburg. He befriends a priest and serves in his church after recovering from illness

1948: The white National Party launches Apartheid in the run-up to 1948 national elections. It wins popular support among white voters who want to maintain their dominance over the Black majority

1955: Tutu marries Nomalizo Leah Shenxane and begins teaching at a high school in Johannesburg where his father is the headmaster

1958: Tutu quits the school, refusing to be part of a teaching system that promotes inequality against Black students. He joins the priesthood

1962: Tutu moves to Britain to study theology at King’s College London

1966: Tutu moves back to South Africa and starts teaching theology at a seminary in the Eastern Cape. He also begins making his views against Apartheid known

1975: Tutu becomes the first Black Anglican dean of Johannesburg

1980: As general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, Tutu leads a delegation of church leaders to prime minister PW Botha, urging him to end Apartheid. Although nothing comes of the meeting it is a historical moment where a Black leader confronts a senior white government official. The government confiscates Tutu’s passport

1984: Tutu is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

1985: Tutu becomes the first Black bishop of Johannesburg. He publicly endorses an economic boycott of South Africa and civil disobedience as a way to dismantle apartheid

1986: Tutu becomes the first Black person appointed as bishop of Cape Town and head of the Anglican Church of the Province of Southern Africa

1990: President FW de Klerk lifts ban on the African National Congress and announces plans to release Nelson Mandela from prison

1991: Apartheid laws and racist restrictions are repealed and power-sharing talks start between the state and 16 anti-apartheid groups

1994: After Mandela sweeps to power, Tutu coins the term ‘Rainbow Nation’ to describe the coming together of various races in post-apartheid South Africa

1994: Mandela asks Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was set up to listen to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to perpetrators of human right violations under apartheid.

1996: Tutu retires from the church to focus solely on the commission

1997: Tutu is diagnosed with prostate cancer

2011: The Dalai Lama inaugurates the annual Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture but does so via satellite link after the South African government denies the Tibetan spiritual leader a visa to attend.

2013: Tutu makes outspoken comments about the ANC. He says he will no longer vote for the party because it had done a bad job addressing inequality, violence and corruption

2013: Dubbed ‘the moral compass of the nation’, Tutu declares his support for gay rights, saying he would never “worship a God who is homophobic”

December 26, 2021: Tutu dies in Cape Town, aged 90