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Desmond Mpilo Tutu – The Bishop, An Anti-apartheid Activist, Nobel Prize Winner
Desmond Mpilo Tutu – The Bishop, An Anti-apartheid Activist, Nobel Prize Winner

By - Isaac Joseph

Posted - 26-02-2020

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born on October 7, 1931, to a poor family in Klerksdorp, Union of South Africa He is of mixed Xhosa and Motswana heritage. Tutu was educated in South African mission schools, where his father taught. He initially wanted a medical career but was unable to afford training and instead became a schoolteacher.

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The Early Life of Desmond Mpilo Tutu 

While undergoing training as a teacher, he got married to Nomalizo Leah Tutu, with whom he had several children. He later resigned his post in 1957. Tutu proceeded to St. Peter’s Theological College in Johannesburg in 1960, where he was ordained as an Anglican priest. He moved to the United Kingdom to study theology at King’s College London in 1962, where he obtained an M.A in 1966. Tutu returned to southern Africa, teaching at the Federal Theological Seminary and then the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland in 1966. He became the Theological Education Fund’s director for Africa, a position that was based in London but required regular tours of the African continent in 1972.

Desmond Tutu and wife Leah Tutu

On his return to southern Africa in 1975, he was appointed first as Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg and then as Bishop of Lesotho, where he took an active role in opposition to South Africa’s apartheid system of racial segregation and white-minority supremacy. He was also appointed general-secretary of the South African Council of Churches from 1978 to 1985, emerging as one of South Africa’s most prominent anti-apartheid activists, making him a leading spokesperson for the rights of black South Africans. As an activist, Tutu emphasized on non-violent protest and foreign economic pressure to bring about universal suffrage for the people; while also warning the National Party government, that anger at apartheid would only lead to racial violence.

In 1984 Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to Tutu and this sent a significant message to South African Pres. P.W. Botha’s administration. Later in 1985, he became first black Bishop of Johannesburg at the climax of the township rebellions in South Africa and in 1986, he was named the Archbishop of Cape Town, which was the most senior position in southern Africa’s Anglican hierarchy with about 1.6 million-member Anglican church. While at the helm of affairs, he stressed a mutual-building model of leadership and monitored the introduction of women priests. In 1986, he became president of the All Africa Conference of Churches, which led to further tours of the continent. Immediately President F. W. de Klerk released Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist from prison in 1990; the pair led negotiations to end apartheid and also introduced multi-racial democracy, with Tutu acting as a mediator between rival black factions. At this period, Tutu was already the chancellor of the University of the Western Cape in Bellville, South Africa; a position he had held since 1988.

As South Africa moves toward democracy in the early 1990s, Tutu advocated the idea of South Africa as “the Rainbow Nation,” and he highlighted this statement in different events he attended. South African Pres. Nelson Mandela appointed Tutu head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1955. The commission investigated allegations of human rights abuses that happened during the apartheid era by both pro and anti-apartheid groups. Tutu’s style of politics, according to Du Boulay, “springs directly and inevitably from his Christianity”.  He believed that it was the responsibility of Christians to oppose unjust laws and that there could be no disparity between the religious and the political just as—according to Anglican theology—there is no separation between the spiritual realm (the Holy Ghost) and the material one (Jesus Christ).

Desmond Tutu

Tutu was, however, adamant that he was not personally a politician. He believed that religious leaders like himself should isolate themselves from party politics, and he mentioned names like – Abel Muzorewa in Zimbabwe, Makarios III in Cyprus, and Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran as examples in which such crossovers proved challenging. Tutu avoided alignment with any particular political party; for instance, in the 1980s, he signed a plea urging anti-apartheid activists in the United States to support both the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

Life after Apartheid

After the fall of apartheid, Tutu had already attained “worldwide respect” for his “uncompromising stand for justice and reconciliation and his unmatched integrity”. He campaigned for gay rights and spoke out on a wide range of subjects, which included the Israel-Palestine conflict, his opposition to the Iraq War and his criticism of South African Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. Just as mentioned by John Allen (his former press secretary), Tutu “made a powerful and unique contribution to publicizing the antiapartheid struggle abroad”, particularly in the United States.

Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela

His rise to prominence was smooth as a South African anti-apartheid activist because—unlike Mandela and other members of the ANC—Tutu had no links to the South African Communist Party and thus became more acceptable to Americans amid the Cold War anti-communist sentiment of the period. He was also often compared to Martin Luther King in the U.S., with the African-American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson once referring to him as “the Martin Luther King of South Africa”; a comparison that got Tutu embarrassed. At the end of apartheid, Tutu rose to become “perhaps the world’s most prominent religious leader advocating gay and lesbian rights”, according to Allen. It is believed that Tutu’s “greatest legacy” was the fact that he gave “to the world as it entered the twenty-first century an African model for expressing the nature of human community,” according to Allen.

Desmond Tutu’s Writings

In 1996, Tutu retired from the primacy and became archbishop emeritus. He announced his intention In July 2010, to effectively withdraw from public life in October, though he said he vowed to 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, on his 79th birthday – he began his retirement. Tutu has 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. Apart from Nobel Peace 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).

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Awards and Recognition

Tutu received many international awards and honorary degrees, particularly in South Africa, the United Kingdom, and United States. He had approximately 100 honorary degrees by 2003; he was the first person to be awarded an honorary doctorate by the Ruhr University of West Germany and only the third person, whom Columbia University in the U.S. agreed to award an honorary doctorate off-campus to. Several schools and scholarships were named after him. In 2000, the Munsieville Library in Klerksdorp was renamed the Desmond Tutu Library. Also, the Desmond Tutu School of Theology was launched in 2002 at Fort Hare University. In 2008, Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois proclaimed 13 May ‘Desmond Tutu Day’.

Desmond Tutu

Again, in 2015, Queen Elizabeth II was graciously pleased to approve Desmond Tutu the honorary British award of The Order of the Companions of Honour. Tutu was appointed as a Bailiff Grand Cross of the Venerable Order of St. John in September 2017 by Queen Elizabeth II. In 2010, Desmond Tutu delivered the Bynum Tudor Lecture at the University of Oxford and became Visiting Fellow at Kellogg College, Oxford. He received the £1.1m ($1.6m) Templeton Prize for “his life-long work in advancing spiritual principles such as love and forgiveness” in 2013. The fossil of a Devonian tetrapod was found in Grahamstown by Rob Gess of the Albany Museum in 2018; this tetrapod was named Tutusius umlambo in Tutu’s honour.

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