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Desmond Tutu: The South African icon who was loved far and beyond his native land

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Archbishop Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, died aged 90. Throughout his life, he used his platform and position to advocate and argue for the oppressed

They stood hand in hand on the day Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president, for the pair had changed the nation.

Desmond Tutu was ordained a few months after the Sharpeville massacre when 69 black South Africans were shot and killed in 1960.

It was a turning point for the country – and the man – and he used his position in the church as a platform to advocate and argue for the oppressed.

He campaigned for the release of political prisoners and intervened personally – even physically in numerous violent clashes.

When the black community began to turn on itself, he condemned the violence and the brutal forms of killing deployed.

Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 and used the praise and recognition as a vehicle to increase pressure for change at home.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressing the Nelson Mandela Freedom Rally in Hyde Park on 17 July, 1988

Ten years later, he finally got the chance to vote – at the age of 68, he couldn’t contain his joy.

DESMOND TUTU (1931-2021)

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born on 7 October 1931 in Klerksdorp, northwest South Africa, where his father, Zacheriah Zililo Tutu worked as a teacher.

He wanted to be a physician but that was beyond his family’s means and he became a teacher instead.

In 1953, Tutu left the teaching profession and he was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1960, becoming chaplain at the University of Fort Hare.

In 1955, Tutu married Nomalizo Leah Shenxane, a teacher who he met while at college. They had four children together: Trevor Thamsanqa, Theresa Thandeka, Naomi Nontombi and Mpho Andrea, who all studied in Swaziland (Eswatini).

He left that post in 1962 and travelled to King’s College London, where he received degrees in theology. Tutu returned to South Africa in 1967 and, until 1972, used his lectures to highlight the plight of the African population.

He denounced terrorism and Communism and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1984 for his “role as a unifying leader figure in the campaign to resolve the problem of apartheid in South Africa”.

Tutu and Mandela met for the first time in 35 years in 1990, as the apartheid movement was coming to an end.

As well as English, Tutu could speak Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, and Xhosa.

Queen Elizabeth II, pictured here in 1987, met Tutu several times

When the newly-elected government decided to investigate the crimes of the apartheid era, Tutu was the obvious choice to lead its Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

But it wasn’t easy, and the Archbishop very publicly broke down.

Tutu criticised the decision by the ruling African National Congress to refuse the Dalai Lama a visa

Midway through the commission, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but it didn’t slow him down.

The man known as South Africa’s “naughty uncle”, continued to laugh and engage and criticise as well using his democratic rights to castigate domestic politicians, savaging a decision by the ruling African National Congress to refuse the Dalai Lama a visa.

He was praised and celebrated by international celebrities and heads of state – but he still spoke his mind, savaging Zimbabwe’s former dictator, Robert Mugabe and fellow Nobel prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.

By the time Mandela had passed away, Archbishop Tutu had fallen out with the South African authorities.

Queen Elizabeth talks with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as she and President Nelson Mandela leave St George's Cathedral in Cape Town, after attending a service to mark human rights day.
Image:Queen Elizabeth II talks with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as she and president Nelson Mandela leave St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town in 1995

His family said he wasn’t invited to Mandela’s funeral – a charge which led to a hasty, last-minute invitation.

The government of then-president Jacob Zuma said it was a misunderstanding.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu who has been presented with an honorary fellowship of the Guild of Church Musicians by Cardinal Cormack Murphy-O'Connor, leader of Catholic church in England and Wales, at a special service in Westminster Cathedral.
Image:Archbishop Desmond Tutu was presented with an honorary fellowship of the Guild of Church Musicians

A few months later, Tutu said he wouldn’t vote for the ruling ANC (African National Congress) because they had failed to help and lift the country’s poor.

He had a knack with people and those who worked with him tended to adore him.

He will be remembered for his energy – his decency and childlike enthusiasm, a South African icon who was loved and appreciated far beyond his native land.

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