The late Archbishop emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu passed away on Sunday 26 December 2021 in Cape Town. He was 90 years old. The Archbishop had been battling cancer since about 1998. The nation is in mourning. A phenomenal public citizen has departed, and the citizens are left bereft.

Archbishop Tutu was quintessentially a churchman, a spiritual leader, and a moral guide to this nation over a period of some 45 years since he broke into public life in South Africa when, as Dean of Johannesburg, he wrote that prophetic open letter to the Mr BJ Vorster, then Prime Minister of the National Party Government that was in power. In that letter he boldly warned about the catastrophe that was looming as young Black people would no longer tolerate the conditions of life that apartheid was imposing on them, and that the townships ghettoes were bursting with anger and resentment. As history would have it, on 16 June 1976 the Soweto Students’ protests erupted barely three months since Tutu’s letter was written to the apartheid authorities and for which he never received even the decency of an acknowledgement.

But that was not all, there was about Archbishop Tutu. As General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, the now Bishop Desmond Tutu, championed an ecumenical vision that was founded on justice, equality, and the dignity of the human person. The SACC was organised to be able to respond to human needs in South Africa and to denounce all that denied the capacity of God’s people to become more fully human. During that time a programme to support those who were prisoners of conscience, those who were banned or banished from their homes by the system, victims of forced removals and the churches were mobilized to provide care for their dependents of such victims of a pernicious system. He led the churches into a world-wide movement to boycott the apartheid state and called for sanctions to be applied against the apartheid regime.

As Bishop of Johannesburg and later as Archbishop of Cape Town, Archbishop Desmond Tutu accomplished three extraordinary feats. He caused the world community to recognize the SACC as an alternative governmental forum in South Africa that met the developmental needs of the poor whereas the apartheid state sought to oppress and suppress free expression and indulged in inhumane treatment of citizens on the basis of colour. Secondly, in his time he sought to unite all South Africans and to recognise the leadership of the people even if they were incarcerated on Robben Island or exiles based in neighbouring states, or their organisations whether they were banned or not. He insisted on his right to recognize any and never to be dictated to by the apartheid regime in recognizing who the leaders of the people would be. He freely travelled and he freely met and ministered to those who were in the liberation movement. He affirmed that Nelson Mandela was destined to become the President of South Africa.

Thirdly, he recognised that as the apartheid system was facing defeat, notwithstanding that a war was unleashed against the people by agents of the apartheid state. He decried negative stereotypes of our struggle as in the pernicious practice of necklacing, and he prevented gang justice against those suspected to be agents of the apartheid system thereby risking his own life. For him, while the Peace Process was paramount, it needed to be understood as provoked by the apartheid state itself as it sought to further entrench itself and to avoid the inevitable.

It is fair to say that that the work he did in his militant opposition to apartheid and in his indefatigable quest for peace even in difficult circumstances won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. South Africans were ecstatic, and the apartheid state was morose as yet another brick in the apartheid system was set to fall. Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu received many international accolades and awards from states as far apart as US, Britain and India; from over 100 universities and from many other international bodies. He served as President of the All Africa Conference of Churches and there he was honoured for his Pan African vision.

Archbishop emeritus Tutu fashioned his life and the church that he served to become truly the agents of reconciliation by expressing with urgency the need for national identity and social cohesion. It was then that for him the defining characteristic of South Africa was as a rainbow nation of God. Thus, he spoke of his dreams about South Africa as a home for all her people – something that was at loggerheads with the apartheid dictat, and that was of course at the heart of the Freedom Charter.

To many, he may have made a mistake in announcing that now that the leadership of the liberation movement was back, he was happy to withdraw to his church responsibilities. While that may have been said in a light-hearted manner or as a dig on those who accused him of having political ambitions. He sought to establish the church as a critical partner in development and in nation-building.

As it happened, the National Conference of Churches held in Rustenburg Conference in 1990 provided an opportunity for the churches to reflect together on the role of the churches and to make a common declaration considering the political changes that were then underway. The Conference became famous for the confessions made by the delegates from the DRC Churches, but more seriously, the Conference called for a new solidarity in nation building.

That became the mission of Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu for the remainder of his episcopate. Upon his retirement as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996, he was appointed by President Nelson Mandela as Chairperson of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. In that capacity he drove this nation to revealing as true a nature of the inhumanity of apartheid as one could; amnesty was granted, and reparations proposed. The TRC laid bare the depravity of the apartheid system and gave credence if any was needed to the charge by the international community that apartheid was a crime against humanity.

Archbishop Tutu became identified worldwide as the face of the TRC. He empathized with the victims; he was outraged by the sheer inhumanity and dehumanisation of the apartheid police, and he shared the pain of the survivors and their families, and he lamented leaders in government, church and society pretended that they were ignorant of the goings-on in the security system that they did nothing about for far too long. In many respects he became a Pastor Niemoller of our times.

In his life Archbishop emeritus became a teacher and a prophet. He reminded this nation about its truest values of ubuntu and, to the recalcitrant, he pronounced the wrath of God in no uncertain terms. As a public figure he was never in doubt about his role in society. He was proud to be a South Africa under our constitutional dispensation but when, soon thereafter the democratic dispensation became self-serving and simply perpetuated the inequalities of the past, he did not hesitate to denounce policies that failed to change the system bequeathed by apartheid. When the politicians showed no regard for the poor and the needy, he decried the state in which our country had found itself.

South Africa has lost a great South African. He was a global figure who had his feet on the ground; a spiritual and a church leader who was guided only by the prescripts of the gospel. As Shakespeare puts it:

“he doth bestride the narrow world

Like a Colossus, and we petty men

Walk under his huge legs…”

This is the time for this nation to take stock and to press the re-set button if it is to honour the teachings of and celebrate the life of such a great South African.

The TMF was honoured to partner with the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation to establish the National Foundations Dialogue Initiative (NFDI) as an instrument to encourage the nation to bring matters to resolution by dialogue, and to abjure conflict, and ethnic sentimentality and other narrow and exclusionary identities.

The Patron of the TMF, President Thabo Mbeki, our Board and the Staff would like to convey our deepest condolences mam’uNomalizo Leah Tutu, their children; Trevor Thamsanqa, Thandeka Theresa, Nontombi Naomi, Mpho Andrea and the entire Tutu family.

May Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu rest in eternal peace!

Issued by the Thabo Mbeki Foundation

28 December 2021

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