Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Anglican archbishop whose fearless and unrelenting calls for racial justice helped crush South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime, died Sunday in Cape Town. He was 90.
Tutu resolutely held firm to his nonviolent approach despite bloody attacks against the Black majority population as the white government clung to power. He won the Nobel prize in 1984 “as a unifying leader figure in the nonviolent campaign to resolve the problem of apartheid” in his country.
Ten years later, South Africa conducted its first truly democratic elections, ending its decades-long regime of oppression. Tutu celebrated the country’s multiracial society, calling it a “rainbow nation” – and he warned that “yesterday’s oppressed can quite easily become today’s oppressors.”
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South Africa’s first Black president, Nelson Mandela, named Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a panel charged with investigating human rights abuses committed on both sides of the apartheid struggle.
In 1998, a report from the commission placed most of the blame on the forces of apartheid. But the commission’s primary goal was to promote reconciliation and forgiveness among perpetrators and victims of apartheid.
“Without forgiveness, there is no future,” Tutu said.
Mandela’s African National Congress has ruled South Africa ever since, but Tutu has sometimes been a fierce critic of the iconic political party. He often accused the ANC of failing to address issues such as corruption, poverty and xenophobic violence.
In 2011 he blasted then-President Jacob Zuma for, among other things, yielding to pressure from China by delaying a visa for the Dalai Lama.
“I am warning you, one day we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC government. You are disgraceful,” Tutu said then. “You are behaving in a way that is totally at variance with the things for which we stood.”
On Sunday the party was effusive in its praise of Tutu, saying the country and the global democratic movement “has lost a tower of moral conscience and an epitome of wisdom.”
Tutu also campaigned for LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, saying in 2013 that “I would not worship a God who is homophobic.”
Tutu was born into poverty, the son of a school teacher and a laundress. He was educated in mission schools and spent a brief period as a schoolteacher before entering theological college. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1961 and in 1978 was named general secretary of the South African Council of Churches – emerging as a leading spokesman for the rights of Black South Africans.
He would rise to become the first Black bishop of Johannesburg in 1985, then archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 until his retirement in 1996.
Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and had been hospitalized several times since. He and his wife, Leah, lived in a retirement community outside Cape Town.
“Desmond Tutu was a patriot without equal, a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement announcing Tutu’s passing.
Ramaphosa hailed Tutu as a “non-sectarian, inclusive champion” of human rights for all.
President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden issued a statement saying they were “heartbroken” to hear of Tutu’s death.
“His courage and moral clarity helped inspire our commitment to change American policy toward the repressive apartheid regime in South Africa,” the Bidens said. “Desmond Tutu followed his spiritual calling to create a better, freer, and more equal world. His legacy transcends borders and will echo throughout the ages.”
The U.S. Embassy in South Africa issued a statement extending condolences to Tutu’s family. The statement lauded Tutu as “a man who spent his life fearlessly speaking truth to power,” describing him as the “conscience of his generation.”
Former President Bill Clinton, who was in office in 1994, issued a statement Sunday remembering Tutu for his “brilliance and eloquence, steady determination and good humor, and an unshakeable faith in the inherent decency of all people.”
Former President Barack Obama fondly recalled Tutu’s “impish sense of humor” and called Tutu a “mentor, a friend, and a moral compass.”
“A universal spirit, Archbishop Tutu was grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but also concerned with injustice everywhere,” Obama said in a statement.
Contributing: The Associated Press