Remembering Desmond Tutu

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Desmond Tutu, Archbishop, South Afrika, on the “Deutschen Evangelischen Kirchentag”, Cologne, 2007By © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Desmond Tutu (7 October 1931 – 26 December 2021) was a South African Anglican bishop and theologian, known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist. He was the Bishop of Johannesburg from 1985 to 1986 and then the Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996, in both cases being the first black African to hold the position. Theologically, he sought to fuse ideas from black theology with African theology. He died on 26 November 2021.

Childhood & Education

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born on 7 October 1931 in Klerksdorp, northwest South Africa. He was born to a poor family. The family were initially Methodists and Tutu was baptised into the Methodist Church in June 1932. In 1936, his family moved to Tshing, where his father, Zachariah, became principal of a Methodist school. There, Tutu started his primary education, learned Afrikaans, and became the server at St Francis Anglican Church. He developed a love of reading, particularly enjoying comic books and European fairy tales. Later, he joined Swedish Boarding School (SBS) in the St Agnes Mission. Pursuing his interest in Christianity, at the age of 12 he underwent confirmation at St Mary’s Church, Roodepoort.

Although Tutu secured admission to study medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand, his parents could not afford the tuition fees. Instead, he turned toward teaching, gaining a government scholarship to start a course at Pretoria Bantu Normal College, a teacher training institution, in 1951. During one debating event he first met the lawyer—and future president of South Africa—Nelson Mandela; they would not encounter each other again until 1990.

Significant contributions

In 1985, Tutu became Bishop of Johannesburg and in 1986 the Archbishop of Cape Town, the most senior position in southern Africa’s Anglican hierarchy. In this position he emphasised a consensus-building model of leadership and oversaw the introduction of female priests. Also in 1986, he became president of the All-Africa Conference of Churches, resulting in further tours of the continent. After President F. W. de Klerk released the anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 and the pair led negotiations to end apartheid and introduce multi-racial democracy, Tutu assisted as a mediator between rival black factions. After the 1994 general election resulted in a coalition government headed by Mandela, the latter selected Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights abuses committed by both pro and anti-apartheid groups.

Award and Recognitions

In October 1994, Tutu announced his intention to retire as archbishop in 1996. Although retired archbishops normally return to the position of bishop, the other bishops bestowed on him a new title: “archbishop emeritus“. A farewell ceremony was held at St George’s Cathedral in June 1996, attended by senior politicians like Mandela and de Klerk. Because of his immense contributions, he had received more 100 honorary degrees.  Many schools and scholarships were named after him. On 16 October 1984, the then Bishop Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  There are many other recognitions but not limited to followings:

  • In 1985 the City of Reggio Emilia awarded Tutu as Honorary citizen together with Albertina Sisulu
  • In 2003, Tutu received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement presented by Awards Council member Coretta Scott King.
  • in 2007, Gandhi Peace Prize was awarded to Desmond Tutu
  • In 2015, Queen Elizabeth II approved Desmond Tutu the honorary British award of The Order of the Companions of Honour (CH).
  • In 2010 Desmond Tutu delivered the Bynum Tudor Lecture at the University of Oxford and became Visiting Fellow at Kellogg College, Oxford.

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