Desmond Tutu, who died on Sunday at the age of 90, was regarded as the moral conscience of South Africa, who helped to overthrow apartheid and then put his energy at the service of reconciliation in his country and human rights.
Until his last breath, this Anglican Archbishop emeritus, distinguished with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, imposed his meager silhouette and his frankness to denounce injustices and excesses of power, no matter who it was.
He never refrained from criticizing the South African government, even if it was the African National Congress (ANC), the main movement that fought the racist apartheid regime and that governs the country to this day.
The big issues of international politics also did not escape his criticism, lashing out at his own Church to defend gay rights, advocating for a Palestinian state, or pointing out in September 2012 that former US President George Bush and former British leader Tony Blair should be Tried by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for the Iraq War.
But it was in his own country where his comments penetrated the most. At the end of 2011, when Pretoria failed to grant a visa for the Dalai Lama, whom he had invited when he turned 80, he accused the government of having given in to pressure from China.
“Our government is worse than the apartheid government,” he said. “It is scandalous that those who have suffered under a regime of oppression do this kind of thing now,” he added.
He also protested the poor condition of South African schools, which remain deplorable for most black students after years of ANC governments.
“If Nelson Mandela saw this, he would cry,” he deplored.
This archbishop emeritus of the Cape, now retired, was characterized by his frankness, his humility, his overflowing energy and above all his humor.
When questioned about his role as the nation’s moral conscience, he smiled and said: “Do you see me in front of a mirror saying to me: hey boy, you are an icon, you know? I think that no man who is given this honor considers that he is truly what people see in him. You just go his way and do what you think is right. “
With the same humor, he thanked his family, who helped him keep his feet on the ground.
“Recently my wife put a banner in the room that said: You have the right to have wrong opinions. You see! They are there to deflate the high opinion I have of myself!” He said with a laugh.
– The “Rainbow Nation” –
Desmond Tutu gained notoriety during apartheid, organizing several peaceful marches to denounce segregation and campaigned for the adoption of international economic sanctions against the white Pretoria regime.
With the advent of democracy in 1994, he dubbed South Africa the “Rainbow Nation” and chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created to help put apartheid atrocities behind, for 30 months.
“Resentment and anger are bad for blood pressure and digestion,” he said at the time.
Desmond Tutu lashed out at the inconsistencies in present-day South Africa, publicly criticizing former President Thabo Mbeki for his management of the fight against AIDS or the judicial problems of Jacob Zuma.
He also drew the attention of his compatriots to the violence in society, lamenting that he had “lost his sense of right or wrong” and defended immigrants during the 2008 xenophobic violence in South Africa.
Born on October 7, 1931 in Klerksdorp, two hours from Johannesburg, Desmond Tutu suffered as a child from polio. Marked by this experience, he wanted to study medicine, but his family could not pay for those studies.
Ordained a priest of the Anglican Church at age 30, he studied and taught in the UK and Lesotho before settling in Johannesburg in 1975.
Increasingly visible in the fight against apartheid, his performance earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.
Appointed archbishop in 1986, he was the first black person to lead the South African Anglican Church.
A prostate cancer, diagnosed in 1997, almost ended his career, but this man of great vitality continued to be one of the great figures of South African civil society even though he officially retired from public life.
A tireless fighter for human rights and democracy, Desmond Tutu has lived since 2010 practically retired from public life and one of his last appearances was in May 2021 when he went to get vaccinated against covid-19.
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Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the moral conscience of South Africa