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Obituary: The Most Revd Desmond Tutu

31 December 2021

Brian Snyder/Alamy

Dr Desmond Tutu in Boston, Massachusetts in 2007

Dr Desmond Tutu in Boston, Massachusetts in 2007

Correspondents write:

OF ANGLICAN clerics in the past 50 years, only two have become world figures: Trevor Huddleston in the 1950s, and in the 1980s and early 1990s his one-time protégé and long-term friend Desmond Tutu, who died on St Stephen’s Day, aged 90.

For both, their fame rested on the part played by each in the struggle for freedom in South Africa. This was no accident. At one level, the 40-year civil war between Afrikaners and black South Africans was a struggle between Christians: between a distorted Calvinism and the Christian faith of European missionaries who brought with them that most “revolutionary” of books, the Bible — as Tutu was over and over again to insist.

Born in 1931 to a mission-educated teacher and his wife, a domestic servant of strong but gentle character, Desmond spent his childhood and had his early education in two ghettos of that Afrikaner stronghold, the Western Transvaal. At the age of 14, however, he entered Western Native High School, boarding at the boys’ hostel run by the Community of the Resurrection (CR) Fathers in Sophiatown near by. Contracting tuberculosis, he was out of school for nearly two years, visited every week by Fr Huddleston, the Sophiatown Prior. He brought him books to read, but even more importantly his friendship, and the impact of his passionate Christian faith. From the time of his discharge from hospital, Tutu began to Iead a disciplined spiritual life.

Wanting to become a doctor, but failing to obtain a bursary, Tutu trained as a teacher, and for a year taught at his old school. In 1955, he obtained his BA from the University of South Africa, helped in his studies by Robert Sobukwe, whose character he intensely admired. In the same year, he married Leah Shexane — “the best decision I ever made”. That remark, so common on the lips of the good and the great, was here heartfelt and true. Without Leah’s strong, intelligent, and not uncritical love, Desmond could not have achieved what he did: the cost to her, as, in a different and more painful way, to their oldest child and only son, was great.

The passing of the Bantu Education Act that same year, the single most evil piece of legislation perpetrated by the Nationalists, led a man of his convictions to resign from teaching, and to offer himself to the Bishop of Johannesburg to train for the priesthood. He was accepted, and, in 1958, entered St Peter’s College, Rosettenville, again coming under the care of CR, from whom, as he himself frequently testified, he learned the standards of prayer and devotion which became the foundation of his apostolic and prophetic ministry.

Obtaining the L.Th. of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa (CPSA) with two distinctions, he was ordained deacon in 1960, and was sent to serve under a priest of the old school in Benoni. Here, he and his family (now including three children, the youngest only a few months old) had to live in an old garage, divided into two rooms and adjacent to a stable. It was intolerably hot and fly-ridden in the summer, draughty and freezing in high-veld winter — and Tutu was still having to have his lungs X-rayed every six months.

Brian Harris/AlamyDr Tutu shares a joke with Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, Sir Sheridath Ramphal, and Julius Nyerere in June 1993

Such a brilliant student as Tutu, however, was needed by the Church in a more influential position. Arrangements were made for him to be awarded a bursary to King’s College, London, by the Theological Education Fund (TEF), on the understanding that on the completion of his studies he would return to the staff of the Federal Theological Seminary (FTS), which was the flagship of the same fund’s worldwide ecumenical projects, and was about to be launched at Alice, next-door to the famous missionary-founded University College of Fort Hare — from 1959 under the Department of Bantu Education, and a travesty of its former self.

Tutu returned to South Africa at the end of 1966, having gained the London degrees of BD and M.Th., and having greatly enriched his pastoral experience by assisting in parishes as widely differing as St Alban’s, Golders Green, and St Mary’s, Bletchingley, in Surrey. More lasting was the influence of the apartheid-free society of the UK, confirming his determination that ideology must serve persons and not vice versa.

Tutu’s time at the FTS coincided with the birth of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) under the leadership of Steve Biko. In 1968, his identification with the Fort Hare students at the time of their strike made a profound impression, not least on Barney Pityana, an Anglican student: “That was the first real experience of my feeling of what it means to be a priest.”

Nevertheless, the moment for his active commitment to the political struggle had not yet arrived; nor can Tutu be described as a child of Black Consciousness. At this time, his dominant concern was the education of his children outside the hated Bantu Education structure. Few of his black contemporaries were in a position to exercise such a choice, which in practice meant educating them outside South Africa.

So, at the end of 1969, he accepted an invitation to a lectureship at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, at Roma, in Lesotho. There he assimilated the “black theology” which was beginning to emerge in South Africa, finding no difficulty in identifying it with the traditional theology of the incarnation which he had learned at Rosettenville, deepened in London, and taught at Alice.

After 18 months at Roma, however, Tutu was appointed associate director of the TEF, responsible for Africa. So, in January 1972, the family moved to London. What he received, during his short tenure of the post, was both an initiation into office administration and the handling of large sums of money, and the chance to travel widely, particularly in Africa, his “constituency”.

AlamyDr Tutu on the podium in Villa Park Football Stadium, Birmingham, on Sunday 23 April 1989, during the closing event of his six-day mission to the city

In 1974, the see of Johannesburg fell vacant. Tutu’s name was put forward by two members of CR. Although he just failed to secure the necessary number of votes, the ultimately successful candidate, the Dean, immediately invited him to return to South Africa as Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral. So Tutu returned to his native land, to a prestigious position, until now held only by whites. And he returned at the moment when it was vital to have quality black leadership in the Church. The pivotal date of 16 June 1976, the revolt and massacre of Soweto students, was less than two years distant.

Tutu immediately became engaged, not only in welding together a multi-racial congregation, with an insistence that more disadvantaged blacks had as much (if not more) to contribute to parish meetings as the more articulate whites. He also quickly made contact with the leadership of the BCM, and he himself, in an open letter to the then Prime Minister, John Vorster, on 16 May 1976, took his first public political initiative. Vorster took three weeks to make reply, which he refused to let Tutu publish. A fortnight later came the Soweto tragedy of 16 June.

By this time, however, Tutu had already accepted nomination and election as Bishop of Lesotho — perhaps the most painfully difficult decision of his life. He was the first black man to hold the post and become a diocesan in the CPSA. Although he occupied the see for less than two years, he was an effective bridge between the paternalism of his white predecessor — the first incumbent of the see — and his successor, the Lesotho-born Philip Mokuku, whom Tutu had made Dean, and whom he enabled to see something of the wider Church.

More importantly, perhaps, by becoming a diocesan bishop he was summoned to attend meetings of the episcopal synod of the Province, the only black diocesan bishop apart from the Bishop of Zululand. His was a voice his colleagues could not ignore.

But he was needed by the Church now in South Africa itself, and, with his episcopal colleagues’ unanimous encouragement, he accepted the invitation to become general secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) early in 1978, the hottest ecclesiastical seat in the country. John Rees, a white Methodist layman, had prepared the ground for Desmond during his seven-year tenure of the post, especially in fund-raising from overseas and in eliminating any trace of apartheid from life in the office.

It was now that Tutu’s administrative and financial experience with the TEF stood him in good stead. But, at a deeper level, it was his steadfast prayer life that made possible his increasing political interventions without in any way losing the spiritual passion behind his words and actions.

PA/AlamyDr Tutu with the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, at the University of Kent as the Lambeth Conference delegates mass for the official group photograph in 1988

It was during his six years in this post that Tutu became the international figure he remained for the next two years, unquestionably the outstanding Christian leader of his country. This meant that he had to endure the hatred of many white Christians. Yet his consistent message was one of reconciliation, though never at the expense of justice. At the funeral of Robert Sobukwe, he intervened to secure the rescue of Chief Buthelezi from the anger of young blacks present — an act of heroism which the Chief found hard to forgive. At subsequent funerals on the Reef, he similarly risked his life to stop alleged “sell-outs” from being “necklaced”.

This unwavering pursuit of justice, peace, and reconciliation made him an obvious candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was awarded in 1984, the year in which he left the SACC post to become the Bishop of Johannesburg. Here, he continued to preach the gospel of reconciliation, symbolically by appointing black priests to take charge of white parishes, and vice versa.

In 1986, he was duly elected Archbishop of Cape Town, installed in St George’s Cathedral, in the presence of, among others, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie; Winnie Mandela; and Coretta King, widow of Tutu’s most admired black churchman, Martin Luther King.

Until the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990, and particularly after the banning of the United Democratic Front early in 1988, the Archbishop was the only person left with the stature to speak on behalf of the oppressed black majority. But, with Mandela’s release, Tutu immediately bowed out as a political spokesman. Four years later, he attacked the high salaries that the (ANC) government officials were awarding themselves, thus showing (as Huddleston had shown 30 years earlier in Tanzania) that his support of a democratically elected black government was not going to be uncritical.

By the time that he came to Cape Town, Tutu had for some time appreciated that freedom in South Africa meant not only freedom for blacks, but also freedom for women. He, therefore, took the lead in persuading his fellow Anglicans, of whatever colour, of the justice of giving women an equal opportunity with men of testing their vocation to the priesthood. Although the motion failed at its first proposal in provincial synod, to his unconcealed distress, four years later, it was passed by a very considerable majority.

Recognising the importance of the issue of homosexuality, he initiated the discussion among the bishops about this even more controversial matter, ensuring its handling at an intimate and personal level, which gave it a depth, and so a content, that helped a more creative way forward, though he was unable by the end of his time to bring this question to a conclusion.

PAEgil Aaavik, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel committee, presents the Peace Price to Dr Tutu in Oslo in December 1984

He was not always so successful in his endeavours. Announcing his planned retirement from the see of Cape Town two years before it was due to take effect, he tried to pilot through the diocesan synod a scheme for the division of the diocese, leaving the Metropolitan of the Province with the title Archbishop of Cape Town, but without a geographical flock to pastor. The proposal was resoundingly defeated, and his successor, Njongonkulu Ndungane, an alumnus of Robben Island and early adherent of Black Consciousness, inherited the diocese intact.

More controversial was his forbidding any priest of the Province to be a member of any political organisation. While there was pastoral wisdom in such an edict at such a moment — and it applied as much to lnkata in KwaZulu/Natal as to the ANC or PAC — the authoritarian manner in which it was handed down aroused deep anger, not least in such a long-time supporter and friend as Dr Pityana.

As Archbishop of Cape Town, Tutu was ex-officio Metropolitan of the CPSA. The fact that he was the first black man to hold this position was not without significance, considering that the Province includes such overwhelmingly African countries as Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Namibia.

The fact that he took liberation as the theme and focus for his archiepiscopate made of him a visible symbol of the struggle for freedom from white domination in Southern Africa, resonating with the peoples of nations such as Mozambique and Namibia, as it did more obviously with his fellow South Africans. It was appropriate, therefore, that, in 1987, he was elected President of the All Africa Conference of Churches.

As Archbishop, he also presided over the House of Bishops. His leadership was both prophetic and pastoral, as evidenced particularly in his handling of the potentially divisive issue of the ordination of women. That the CPSA held together quite remarkably over this crisis was due in no small measure to Tutu’s work behind the scenes to ensure the unity in diversity of all the bishops. One close episcopal colleague has written of “the pastor and the prophet in close integration, undergirded and sustained by a remarkable ministry of intercessory prayer”.

Perhaps his national and international status made it difficult for colleagues to disagree with him. Perhaps his very personal style and emotional temperament had its limitations. There were those who disliked an extravagant flamboyance that recalled his even more controversial predecessor of 30 years before, Joost de Blank. The same colleague already quoted also wrote: “There is an authoritarian streak of the patriarch in Desmond which can sometimes overtake the authentic authority which is the fruit of his humble and saintly life.”

AlamyThe new President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, and Dr Tutu attend a service to thank God for the outcome of the election and the establishment of peace in the country, at a stadium in Soweto on 1 January 1994

On Tutu’s retirement, he was appointed Archbishop Emeritus, a distinction that he himself had conferred on a deeply loved predecessor, Robert Selby Taylor.

ln July 1995, the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, which gave birth to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), was passed by the South African parliament. Brainchild of the living embodiment of reconciliation, President Nelson Mandela, it was an attempt to heal the wounds of the past without allowing the guilty to escape punishment without full disclosure of their actions.

The nomination of Tutu as chair of the commission in December 1995, made with the full approval of the synod of bishops, forced Tutu to relinquish many of his duties as Bishop of Cape Town and Metropolitan of the CPSA in the months pending his retirement in June 1996. It was, nevertheless, the crown of his lifelong quest for truth, justice, and reconciliation in his country, and was recognised as such by the President’s award to him of the highest decoration the country can give, the order of Meritorious Service. He was its first recipient.

It was a costly crown, won by sharing the anguish of his people as they told the commission of the atrocities inflicted on their loved ones; and won, too, by the obloquy that he and his white colleague Dr Alex Boraine had to bear from the political Right, who persisted in seeing the TRC as a witch-hunt against them and their security forces.

Moreover, a distinction had to be maintained by the commission (not all of whose members, in any case, were Christians) between, on the one hand, ethical and political views of what constituted “truth and reconciliation” and, on the other hand, the Christian gospel of repentance and forgiveness. Tutu was criticised sometimes for trying to ensure the latter when his job was, rather, to elicit disclosure of the full truth.

Nevertheless, a palpable difference in the impact of the TRC was remarked when Tutu was in the chair and when he was absent through illness. His moral stature could not be gainsaid. It may be that the establishment and work of the TRC will be regarded by historians in time to come as the greatest single factor in the healing and well-being of South African society; or it may be viewed as an attempt to “heal the hurt of my people too lightly”, at the expense of truth and justice. It is too early to tell at the time this obituary is written.

Tutu had been diagnosed with prostate cancer by the time his work on the TRC ended. This was initially thought to make the end of his active ministry imminent. Though a “farewell” visit to the UK convinced many in the Church of England that the trumpets would soon be sounding on the other side, in fact there was to be a new beginning, and it was not one of quiet withdrawal.

AlamyThe Duchess of Sussex presents her son, Archie, to Dr Tutu at the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation in Cape Town, South Africa, in September 2019

Tutu began to exercise a new ministry as a voice of Christian conscience on a wider stage. He became the chair of a group of global leaders, the Elders, who worked for peace and human rights, and was outspoken on these and other issues far beyond the borders of South Africa.

His numerous interventions included calling on Aug San Suu Kyi to end the persecution of minorities in Burma; his denunciation of George W. Bush and Tony Blair over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, suggesting that Mr Blair should be tried at The Hague; his pleading for the lives of Saudi prisoners; his criticising the South African government for refusing admission to the Dalai Lama out of a desire to please China; his calling for an anti-apartheid-style disinvestment campaign against the fossil-fuel industries; and his condemnation of President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel. President Obama, in whom he placed high hopes, had visited his HIV Youth Centre in Cape Town.

In South Africa, Tutu was sharply critical of President Mandela’s successors, and the ANC’s failure to embody, once in a position of power, the vision of the new South Africa for which he had striven. Such was the level of corruption that, in 2013, he publicly withdrew his support from the ANC at the ballot box.

His support for what by now were known as LGBTQ rights and committed homosexual partnerships represented a dissenting voice in striking and costly contrast with the overall tone of African Anglicanism. On this issue, he was influential in South Africa, though he failed to sway opinion in other African Provinces. In 2007, he spoke of being ashamed that “on the long journey from Calvary to Lambeth”, the Church had become homophobic. His plea to the Communion’s bishops to work together in unity in spite of their differences was, therefore, strong but not complete backing for the more cautious policy being followed in Lambeth Palace.

In his final years, in 2016, he joined a small minority (including Lord Carey) in the Anglican episcopate who supported the legalisation of assisted dying. “I believe in the sanctity of life. I know that we will all die and that death is a part of life. Terminally ill people have control over their lives; so why should they be refused control over their deaths? Why are so many instead forced to endure terrible pain and suffering against their wishes?”

Church TimesDr Tutu keeping himself informed of the progress towards women priests with the Church Times in the autumn of 1985

Despite announcing his retirement from public life in 2010, he had found it impossible not to continue speaking out about matters on which he felt strongly; and his views were always widely reported. In 2013, he won the Templeton Prize; and in 2015 he was appointed a Companion of Honour. He had become an international figure in Huddleston’s footsteps, but in the end far exceeded Huddleston in breadth of engagement and reputation.

He will be remembered, above all, as “the voice of the voiceless” during the darkest days preceding the release of Mandela in 1990: as one who was always able to weep with those who wept and to rejoice with those who rejoiced. He will be remembered as a man of prayer, which, from the age of 16, held the first place in his life. He will be remembered for his courage in adversity and for his generosity in victory. He will be remembered for his message of warm-hearted acceptance to those who were otherwise in danger of rejection by others within the Church itself.

But, above all, he will be remembered for his sense of fun, for the irrepressible gaiety that kept bubbling up from the inexhaustible wellspring of the Spirit within. Never had the Lord Christ a less solemn witness to the gospel of the resurrection.

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