Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Anglican cleric, anti-apartheid leader, and human rights activist who was a central figure in changing the face of modern South Africa, died at the age of 90 in Cape Town earlier this morning. In a statement confirming the death, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa sent his condolences to Tutu’s family and friends, before going on to describe him as a “patriot without equal; a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead.”
Tutu first rose to wider prominence with his appointment as Bishop of Johannesburg in 1985 and as the Archbishop of Cape Town the following year, a position he held for a decade as the most senior Anglican in southern Africa’s religious hierarchy. In both instances, he was the first Black leader to inhabit the role. He used his prominent position to speak out against the country’s apartheid rule, eventually working closely with the African National Congress party and Nelson Mandela following his release from prison in 1990 to end the policies of racial segregation and discrimination enforced by the white majority government, with an emphasis on non-violent activism. Upon Mandela’s democratic election as president in 1991, Tutu was appointed chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, investigating human rights abuses under the previous regime. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, he also received around 100 honorary doctorates throughout his lifetime, and was presented with the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2009.
Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born on October 7, 1931, in what was then the Western Transvaal Union of South Africa to a Xhosa father and Motswana mother. (At home the family spoke Xhosa, but Tutu would eventually become a masterful linguist, also speaking Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Afrikaans, and English.) The family was poor, but after his mother moved to Johannesburg to work as a cook at a school for the blind, Tutu began to excel academically, also cultivating his burgeoning fascination with Christianity and becoming a keen rugby player. When his family was unable to afford his first choice of studying medicine at university, Tutu attended a teacher training institution, Pretoria Bantu Normal College, on a scholarship, where he further developed his interest in literature and debating. Around this time he also met his wife, Nomalizo Leah Shenxane, who was studying to become a primary school teacher, and the pair married in 1955. Following a short stint teaching English and history at a local high school, Tutu and his wife decided to leave the profession due to the introduction of a stricter segregation law in schools.