Outspoken critic of apartheid, teacher, author, lecturer, Nobel Prize winner, former Archbishop of Cape Town, Archbishop Emeritus of South Africa
Desmond Mpilo Tutu (known fondly as the "Arch) was born in Klerksdorp on 7 October 1931. His father, Zachariah, who was educated at a Mission school, was the headmaster of a high school in Klerksdorp, a small town in the Western Transvaal (now North West Province). His mother, Aletha Matlhare, was a domestic worker. They had four children, three girls and a boy.
He was eight years old when his father was transferred to a school that catered for African, Indian and Coloured children in Ventersdorp. He also was a pupil at this school, growing up in an environment where there were children from other communities. Tutu was baptised as a Methodist but it was in Ventersdorp that the family followed his sister, Sylvia’s lead into the African Methodical Episcopal Church and finally in 1943 the entire family became Anglicans.
Zachariah Tutu was then transferred to Roodepoort, Western Transvaal. Here the family were forced to live in a location which was a slum and his mother worked at the Ezenzeleni School of the Blind.
In 1943, the family was forced once more to move to Munsieville, a Black location in Krugersdorp. The young Tutu used to go to White homes to collect and return laundry for his mother to wash. To earn pocket money, together with a friend, he would walk three miles to the market to buy oranges, which he would then sell. Later he sold peanuts at railway stations and caddied at a golf course in Killarney. Tutu joined the Scouting movement and earned his Tenderfoot, Second Class and Proficiency Badge in cooking.
In 1945, he began his secondary education at the Western High, a Government secondary school in the old Western Native Township, near Sophiatown. At about this time he was hospitalised for over a year, with tuberculosis. It was here that Father Trevor Huddleston befriended him. Father Huddleston brought him books to read and a deep friendship developed between the two. Later, Tutu became a server at Father Huddleston’s parish church in Munsieville, even training other boys to become servers. Apart from Father Huddleston, others also influenced him, such as a Pastor Makhene and Father Sekgaphane who admitted Tutu into the Anglican Church and the Reverend Arthur Blaxall and his wife in Ventersdorp.
Although he had fallen behind at school, owing to his illness, his principal took pity on him and allowed him to join the Matriculation class. At the end of 1950, he passed the Joint Matriculation Board examination, studying into the night by candlelight. Tutu was accepted to study at the Witwatersrand Medical School but was unable to obtain a bursary. He decided to follow his father’s example and become a teacher. In 1951, he enrolled at the Bantu Normal College, outside Pretoria, to study for a teacher’s diploma.
In 1954, Tutu completed a teaching diploma from the Bantu Normal College and taught at his old school, Madipane High in Krugersdorp. In 1955, he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Africa (UNISA). One of the people that helped him with his University studies was Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, the first president of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).
On 2 July 1955, Tutu married Nomalizo Leah Shenxane, one of his father’s brightest pupils. After their marriage, Tutu began teaching at Munsieville High School, where his father was still the headmaster. He is remembered as an inspiring teacher. The implementation of the Bantu Education Act on 31 March 1953 reduced Black education to second rate. Tutu continued in the teaching profession for three years and followed through with the children that he had begun teaching at the junior level. After that he quit in protest against the deteriorating standard of Black education.
During his stay at Munsieville High, he thought hard about joining the priesthood. He offered himself to the Bishop of Johannesburg to become a priest. By 1955, together with his former scoutmaster, Zakes Mohutsiou, he had been admitted as a sub-Deacon at Krugersdorp. In 1958, he enrolled at St Peter's Theological College, in Rosettenville which was run by the Fathers of the Community of the Resurrection. Here Tutu proved to be a star student excelling at his studies. He was awarded licentiate of Theology with two distinctions. Tutu still regards the Community of Resurrection with reverence and considers his debt to them as incalculable.
He was ordained as a deacon in December 1960 at St Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg and took up his first curacy at St Albans Church in Benoni location. By now, Tutu and Leah had two children, Trevor Thamsanqa and Thandeka Theresa. Nontombi Naomi was born in 1960. At the end of 1961, Tutu was ordained as a priest, following which he was transferred to a new church in Thokoza. The fourth child, Mpho, was born in London in 1963.
On 14 September 1962, Tutu arrived in London to further his theological studies. Money was obtained from various sources and he was given bursaries by Kings College in London and awarded a scholarship by the World Council of Churches (WCC). In London, he was met by writer Nicholas Mosley at the airport, an arrangement made by Father Aelred Stubbs, his former lecturer in Johannesburg. Through Mosley, the Tutus met Martin Kenyon who was to be a lifelong friend of the family.
London was an exhilarating experience for the Tutu family after the suffocating life under apartheid. Tutu was even able to indulge in his passion for cricket. Tutu enrolled at Kings College, at the University of London, where he again excelled. He graduated at the Royal Albert hall where the Queen Mother who was the Chancellor of the Universality awarded him his degree.
His first experience of ministering to a White congregation was in Golders Green, London where he spent three years. Then he was transferred to Surrey to preach. Father Stubbs encouraged Tutu to enrol for a postgraduate course. He entered an essay on Islam for the ‘Archbishop’s Essay Prize’ and won the Prize. He then decided that this was to be the subject of his Masters degree. Tutu had a profound influence over his parishioners such that after he had completed his Masters degrees in the Arts in 1966, the entire village where he was the priest turned out to bid him farewell.
Tutu then returned to South Africa and taught at the Federal Theological Seminary at Alice in the Eastern Cape, where he was one of six lecturers. Apart from being a lecturer at the Seminary, he was also appointed as the Anglican Chaplain to the University of Fort Hare. At the time, he was the most highly qualified Anglican clergyman in the country. In 1968, while he was still teaching at the Seminary, he wrote an article on the theology of migrant labour for a magazine called the South African Outlook.
At Alice, he began working on his Doctorate, combining his interest in Islam and the Old Testament, although he did not complete it. At the same time, Tutu began making his views against apartheid known. When the students at the Seminary went on protest against racist education, Tutu identified with their cause.
He was earmarked to be the future Principal of the Seminary and was, in 1970, due to become the Vice-Principal. However, with mixed feelings he accepted an invitation to become a lecturer at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, based at Roma in Lesotho. During this period, “Black Theology” reached South Africa and Tutu espoused this cause with great enthusiasm.
In August 1971, Dr Walter Carson, the acting Director of the Theological Education Fund (TEF) asked Tutu to be shortlisted for the post of Associate Director for Africa. The Theological Education Fund was started in 1960 to improve theological education in the developing world.
Thus, the Tutu family arrived in England in January 1972, where they set up home in southeast London. His job entailed working with a team of international directors and the TEF team. Tutu spent almost six months travelling to Third World countries and was especially excited at being able to travel in Africa. At the same time, he was licensed as an Honorary Curate at St Augustine’s Church in Bromley where, again, he made a deep impression on his parishioners.
In 1974, Leslie Stradling, for many years the Bishop of Johannesburg retired and the search for his successor began. However, Timothy Bavin, who had consistently voted for Tutu during the elective process, was elected as Bishop. He then invited Tutu to become his Dean. Tutu returned to South Africa in 1975 to take up a post as the first Black Anglican Dean of Johannesburg and the Rector of St Mary’s Cathedral Parish in Johannesburg. Here he brought about radical changes, often to the chagrin of some his White parishioners.
On 6 May 1976, he sent an open letter to the then Prime Minister, John Vorster reminding him of how Afrikaners had obtained their freedom and, inter alia, drew his attention that Blacks could not attain freedom in the homelands, the horrors of the pass laws and discrimination based on race and that a National Convention of recognised leaders be called. He also suggested ways in which the Government could prove its sincerity in its then oft quoted refrain of wanting peaceful change. Three weeks later, the Government replied stating his motive in writing the letter was to spread political propaganda.
On 16 June 1976, Soweto students began a wide scale rebellion against being forced to accept Afrikaans as the language of instruction and the inferior education they were forced to endure. At the time, Tutu was the Vicar General when he received news of the police shooting and killing students. He spent the day engaged with students and parents. Tutu played a significant role in the Soweto Parents Crisis Committee which was set up in the aftermath of the killings.
Following this, Tutu was persuaded to accept the position of Bishop of Lesotho. After much consultation with his family and church colleagues, he accepted and on 11 July 1976, he was consecrated as Bishop of Lesotho. During his visit to rural parishes, he often travelled on horseback, sometimes for up to eight hours. Whilst in Lesotho, he did not hesitate to criticise the unelected Government of the day, which it resented. At the same time, he groomed a Lesotho national, Philip Mokuku to succeed him. It also was while he was still in Lesotho, that he was invited to deliver the funeral oration at Steve Biko’s funeral. Biko was killed in detention by the South African Police.
After only a few months in his new post, Tutu was invited to become the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), which he took up on 1 March 1978, where he was once again deeply immersed in both ecumenical and secular affairs. As early as 1982, he wrote to the Prime Minster of Israel appealing to him to stop bombing Beirut while at the same time he wrote to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat calling on him to exercise ‘a greater realism regarding Israel’s existence’.
He wrote to the Prime Ministers of Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland and the Presidents of Botswana and Mozambique thanking them for hosting South African refugees and appealing to them not to return any refugee back to the South Africa. In 1981, Tutu became the Rector of St Augustine’s Church in Orlando West, Soweto.
All of this brought critical and angry responses from Whites and at times even the mainstream media, yet at no occasion did he forget his calling as a priest. Whilst at the SACC, he asked Sheena Duncan, President of the Black Sash to start advice offices. He also began the Education Opportunities council to encourage South Africans to be educated overseas. He continued to severely criticise the Government’s policy of forced removals of Blacks and the homelands system.
In 1983, when the people of Mogopa, a small village in the then Western Transvaal were to be removed from their ancestral lands to the homeland of Bophuthatswana and their homes destroyed, he phoned church leaders and arranged an all night vigil at which Dr Allan Boesak and priests participated.
At times, he was criticised for time he spent travelling overseas. These trips were necessary to raise funds for SACC projects. Yet everyone who worked with him whilst he was at the SACC vouches for his qualities as a leader. Whilst he was critical and vociferous of the Government, he was equally magnanimous by praising or showing gratitude, for example, he congratulated the Minister of Police, Louis le Grange, for allowing political prisoners to do post matriculation studies. On the other hand, he was equally principled. He refused to join the Buthelezi Commission on constitutional and economic relations between Natal and KwaZulu-Natal because of his abhorrence of the homeland system.
In 1980, he earned the wrath of White South Africa when he said that there would be a Black Prime Minister within the next five to ten years. He also called on parents to support a school boycott and warned the Government that there would be a repetition of the 1976 riots if it continued to detain protestors. Tutu condemned the President’s Council where a proposal for an electoral college of Whites, Coloureds and Indians was going to be established. On the other hand, at a conference at the University of Witwatersrand in 1985, convened by the Soweto Parents Crisis Committee, Tutu warned against an uneducated generation who would not have the requisite skills to occupy positions in a post Apartheid South Africa.
On 7 August 1980, Bishop Tutu and a delegation of church leaders and the SACC met with Prime Minister PW Botha and his Cabinet delegation. It was a historic meeting in that it was the first time a Black leader, outside the system, talked with a White Government leader. However, nothing came of this meeting as the Government maintained its intransigent position. On another occasion, in Ciskei, he risked his life to save the life of a Black Security policeman being stoned by an angry crowd.
In 1980, he took part in a march, with other church leaders in Johannesburg calling for the release of John Thorne, a church Minister who was detained. The Clergy were arrested under the riotous Assemblies Act and Tutu spent his first night in detention. As a result, he was often subjected to vile rumours, death threats, bomb scares among other threats. He was constantly vilified by the Government. Furthermore, the Government sponsored organisations such as the Christian League which accepted money to conduct anti SACC campaigns and thus work against Bishop Tutu.
During his overseas trips, Tutu spoke out harshly against Apartheid, the migrant labour system and other social and political ills. In March 1980, the Government withdrew Tutu’s passport. This prevented him from travelling overseas to accept awards that were being bestowed upon him. He was the first person to be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Ruhr, West Germany but was unable to travel, being denied a passport. Later in the year the Government returned his passport in January 1981. Consequently, he was able to travel extensively to Europe and America on SACC business. He met the Pope for the first time and later in 1983 had a private audience with the Pope where he discussed the situation in South Africa.
The Government continued its persecution of Tutu, in 1981; the Prime Minister accused the SACC of receiving millions of rands from overseas to foment unrest. Tutu challenged him to charge the SACC in an open court, instead the Government appointed the Eloff Commission of Enquiry to investigate the SACC. Eventually the Commission found no evidence of the SACC being manipulated from overseas.
In September 1982, after eighteen months without a passport, he was issued with a limited ‘travel document’. Again, he and his wife travelled to America. At the same time, many people worked to get Tutu his passport, including George Bush, then Vice President of the United States of America. He was able to educate Americans about Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, whom most Americans were ignorant. At the same time, he was able to raise funds for numerous projects in which he was involved. During his visit to the States, Tutu addressed the United Nations Security Council on the situation in South Africa.
In 1983, he attended the launch of the National Forum, an umbrella body of Black Consciousness groups and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). In August 1983, he was elected Patron of the United Democratic Front (UDF). Tutu’s antiapartheid and community activism was complemented by that of his wife Leah. She championed the cause for better working conditions for domestic workers in South Africa. In 1983, she helped found the South African Domestic Workers Association.
On 18 October 1984, whilst in America, Tutu learnt that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize award for his untiring effort in calling for an end to White minority rule in South Africa, the unbanning of liberation organisations and the release of political prisoners. The actual award took place at the University of Oslo, Norway on 10 December 1984.
While several Black South Africans celebrated this prestigious award, the Government was silent, not even congratulating Tutu on his achievement. There was mixed reaction from the public with some showering him with praise and others denigrating him.
On November 1984, Tutu learnt that was elected as the Bishop of Johannesburg. At the same time his detractors, mainly Whites (and a few Blacks e.g. Lennox Sebe, leader of the Ciskei) and were not happy at his election. He spent eighteen months in this post before being finally enthroned as Bishop in 1985.
In another visit to America in 1984, Tutu and Dr Allan Boesak met with Senator Edward Kennedy and invited him to visit South Africa. Kennedy visited South Africa in 1985. He visited Winnie Mandela in Brandfort, Orange Free State where she was banished to and spent the night with the Tutu family in defiance of the Group Areas Act. However, the visit was mired in controversy. The Azanian Peoples Organisation (AZAPO) mounted demonstrations against the Kennedy visit.
In Duduza, on the East Rand, in 1985, Tutu with the assistance of Bishops Simeon Nkoane and Kenneth Oram intervened to save the life of yet another Black police officer, accused of being a police spy from a crowd who wanted to execute him. A few days later, at a funeral in KwaThema, East Rand, Tutu denounced violence and brutality whether it came from the Government or from Black people.
In 1985, the Government imposed a State of Emergency in 36 magisterial districts. Severe restrictions were placed on ‘political’ funerals. Tutu called on the Minister of Police to reconsider these regulations and stated that he would defy them. Tutu then sent a telegram to Prime Minister Botha requesting an urgent meeting to discuss the situation. He received a telephone call informing him that Botha had refused to see him. Nearly a year later, he met with Botha but nothing came of this meeting.
Tutu had a fruitless meeting with British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was a supporter of the South African Government and later refused to meet with British Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, on his visit to South Africa.
His 1986 fund raising tour to America was widely reported by the South African press, often out of context, especially his call on Western Government to support the banned African National Congress (ANC), a dangerous thing to do in those times.
In February 1986, Alexandra Township, Johannesburg went up in flames. Tutu together with Reverend Beyers Naude, Dr Boesak and other church leaders went to Alexandra Township and helped to defuse the situation there. He then travelled to Cape Town to see Botha but he was snubbed. Instead, he met Adriaan Vlok, the Deputy Minister of Law, Order and Defence. He reported to the residents of Alexandra that none of their demands were met and that the Government said it was going to look into their requests. However, the crowd was not convinced and some became angry while some young people booed him forcing him to leave.
On 7 September 1986, Tutu was ordained as the Archbishop of Cape Town becoming the first Black person to lead the Anglican Church of the Province of Southern Africa. Again, there was great jubilation at him being chosen as the Archbishop while detractors were critical. At the Goodwood Stadium over 10,000 people gathered in his honour for the Eucharist. The exiled ANC President, Oliver Tambo, and 45 Heads of State sent their congratulations to him.
After the first democratic elections which saw the end White minority rule in 1994, Tutu was appointed Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1995, to deal with the atrocities of the past. Tutu retired as the Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996 to devote all his time to the work of the TRC. He was later named as the Archbishop Emeritus. In 1997, Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent successful treatment in America. Despite his ailment, he continued to work with the commission. He subsequently became patron of the South African Prostate Cancer Foundation, which was established in 2007. In 1998 the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre (DTPC), co-founded by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mrs. Leah Tutu in 1998, plays a unique role in building and leveraging the legacy of Archbishop Tutu to enable peace in the world
Tutu returned to United Kingdom in 2004 to serve as a visiting professor at King’s College. He also spent two years, as Visiting Professor of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He still travels extensively across different places and works for fair causes, in and out of his country. Within South Africa, one of his focal areas where he has devoted his time is on health issues particularly HIV/AIDS and TB. In January 2004 the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation was formally established under the directorship of Professor Robin Wood and Associate Professor Linda-Gail Bekker.
The Foundation had its beginnings as the HIV Research Unit based at New Somerset Hospital in the early 1990's and is well known as one of the first public clinics to offer antiretroviral therapy to those living with HIV. More recently, the Foundation, supported by Emeritus Archbishop Desmond and Leah Tutu, has extended its activities to include HIV treatment, prevention, training and tuberculosis treatment monitoring in the hardest hit communities of the Western Cape.
Tutu continues to speak out on moral and political issues affecting the South Africa and other countries. He has criticised the Government and the ruling party when he felt that it had fallen short of the democratic ideals which many people fought for. He has repeatedly appealed for peace in Zimbabwe and compared the actions of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's government to those of the South African apartheid regime. He is also a supporter of the Palestinian cause, and the people of East Timor. He is an outspoken critic of the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and has spoken out against human rights abuses in Burma and called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the house arrested leader of Burma’s opposition and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner.
In 2007, Tutu joined former President Nelson Mandela, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, retired U.N Secretary General Kofi Annan, and former Irish President Mary Robinson to form The Elders, a private initiative mobilizing the experience of senior world leaders outside of the conventional diplomatic process. Tutu was named to chair the group. Subsequent to this, Carter and Tutu travelled together to Darfur, Gaza and Cyprus in an effort to resolve long-standing conflicts. Desmond Tutu's historic accomplishments -- and his continuing efforts to promote peace in the world -- were formally recognized by the United States in 2009, when President Barack Obama named him to receive the nation's highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Tutu officially retired from public life on 7 October 2010. However, he continues with his involvement with the Elders and Nobel Laureate Group and his support of the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre. He stepped down from his positions as Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape and as a representative on the UN's advisory committee on the prevention of genocide.
In the week leading to his 80th birthday, Tutu was cast into the spot light. The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who went into exile in 1959 after leading an uprising against Chinese rule, was invited by Tutu to deliver the inaugural Desmond Tutu International Peace lecture during the three-day celebration of Tutu's October 7 birthday in Cape Town. The South African Government procrastinated in issuing the Dalai Lama with a visa thus encroaching on the days of his scheduled travel. On 4 October 2011, the Dalai Lama cancelled his trip, saying that he was not going to come to South Africa as the government [South African] found it "inconvenient" and he did not want to place any individual or the Government in an untenable position.
The Government caught on its back foot tried to defend its tardiness. South Africans from across the socio-political spectrum, religious leaders, academics and civil society, united in condemning the Governments actions. Tutu, in a rare show of fury, launched a blistering attack on the ANC and President Jacob Zuma, venting his anger at the Government’s position regarding the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama was previously refused a visa to visit South Africa in 2009.
Tutu is highly revered for his knowledge, views and experience, especially in reconciliation. Tutu coined the phrase 'Rainbow Nation' to promote harmony among all the peoples of South Africa.
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