With the passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the world celebrates a moral giant who helped lead South Africa toward freedom and battled injustice everywhere he found it. Archbishop Tutu died Sunday in Cape Town. He was 90.
His disarming laugh belied his steely, unflagging commitment to freedom for all South Africans. Archbishop Tutu helped lead his nation out of apartheid, the evil of state-mandated racial subordination that enforced white minority rule in South Africa for most of the 20th century.
In 1975, he became the first Black Anglican dean of Johannesburg. In 1976, he was also named the bishop of Lesotho. Two years later, he was appointed the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches.
During the 1980s, as international opposition to apartheid stiffened, Archbishop Tutu used his platform within the Anglican church to speak out against a brutal and unrepentant government that refused to acknowledge the humanity of Black South Africans, some of whom were brutalized and murdered by security forces.
He earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, during a spike of domestic opposition to the apartheid regime.
Until the release in the early 1990s of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for nearly three decades for opposing apartheid, Desmond Tutu was the country’s most visible — and, arguably, most influential nonviolent freedom fighter.
Archbishop Tutu considered apartheid the cause for violence in his country, but his principled commitment to nonviolence and his willingness to criticize violence, whether perpetrated by members of the African National Congress or the South African police, irritated many who believed his moderation aided the status quo. But in the eyes of much of the world, his principles strengthened his moral authority.
A man of peace who took the radical admonitions of the Gospel to love one’s enemies seriously, Desmond Tutu made no moral distinction between those who resorted to violence for political reform and those who enforced white supremacy backed by the power of the state.
In 1995, South African President Nelson Mandela named Desmond Tutu chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and charged him with documenting the previous regime’s human rights violations. In exchange for amnesty, those who upheld and brutally enforced apartheid were compelled to acknowledge their crimes during televised hearings that riveted the world.
Many victims and their survivors also testified, putting a human face on the relentless violence that characterized life under apartheid.
The commission hearings were considered a public relations success for Archbishop Tutu and Mandela, though little changed structurally in the immediate aftermath. Whites still owned most of the best land; the economic benefits for the Black majority were fleeting. Freedom would mean an ongoing struggle to make South Africa a land of opportunity for all.
Desmond Tutu was not afraid to use his moral authority wherever it was needed. He spoke out, with equal force, against Black elected leaders in his country. He supported the country’s emerging LGBTQ movement and, without equivocation, championed the Palestinian cause. He denounced dictators on the African continent, supported Tibet’s struggle against China, and criticized the American occupation of Iraq.
With the exception of the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis, few clergy of any faith had his power to command public attention. Desmond Tutu’s moral authority came from suffering with the people he dared to speak for. That he could do so with a round of laughter shows how rare, beautiful and irreplaceable Desmond Tutu was.