by Nelson Nkosi

Who was Desmond Tutu, father of the “rainbow nation” of South Africa?

Qui était Desmond Tutu, père de la « nation arc-en-ciel » d’Afrique du Sud ?

Died on December 26, 2021, Archbishop Desmond Tutu did not stop fighting for human rights after the end of apartheid in 1994, continuing to fight for the oppressed throughout his life.

Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu has died aged 90.

The man, affectionately nicknamed “the Arch” (in reference to his office as prelate) by his compatriots, earned the respect and love of millions of South Africans and around the world, carving out a permanent place in the hearts of and spirits.

When South Africans took to the streets on April 7, 2017, to protest against the impeachment of the respected Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, by President Jacob Zuma, Archbishop Tutu joined the protests, leaving his retirement home for the occasion. Aged 86 at the time, his health was fragile. But he had protest in his blood. According to him, no government is legitimate if it does not represent its entire population well. He rightly recalled it the same day:

We will pray for the fall of a government that represents us poorly.

These words echoed his commitments to ethical and moral integrity and human dignity. It was on the basis of these principles that he fought valiantly against the apartheid system and became, as affirms it rightly the Desmond Tutu Foundation, “a staunch defender of human rights and an activist for the oppressed”.

But Archbishop Tutu did not stop fighting for human rights after the official end of apartheid in 1994.

Likewise, his fight for human rights was not limited to South Africa. He not only continued to criticize politicians who abused their power but also supported various causes in different parts of the world, strongly supporting the Dalai Lama facing Chinese repression where the Palestinian people. He was also very involved in the fight against AIDS, poverty, racism, homophobia and transphobia.

He had also become an important supporter of the Dalai Lama, whom he considers his best friend, and had sharply criticized the South African government which had refused a visa to the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile who was to come and pronounce the “Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture” in 2011.


Desmond Tutu comes from a modest background. He was born on October 7, 1931, in Klerksdorp, in the North West Province of South Africa, where his father, Zachariah, was a secondary school principal. Her mother, Aletha Matlare, was a domestic worker.

One of the most influential figures of his early years was the father Trevor Huddleston, a fierce anti-apartheid activist. It was their friendship that led young Tutu to be introduced into the Anglican Church.

After completing his studies, he briefly taught English and history at Madibane High School in Soweto, and then at Krugersdorp High School, west of Johannesburg, where his father was principal. It was there that he met his future wife, Nomalizo Leah Shenxane.

Although Anglican, he agreed to marry according to the Roman Catholic ceremony. This ecumenical act, at a very early stage in his life, gives us a glimpse of his commitment in the following years.

Desmond Tutu leaves teaching following the introduction of the Bantu education, in 1953. This new law stipulates that the education of the indigenous African population must be limited to making them a reservoir of unskilled labor.

Two years after these changes, he entered the service of the church as a subdeacon, then enrolled in theological training in 1958. He was ordained deacon of Saint Mary's Cathedral in Johannesburg in 1960, and became its first black dean in 1975.

In 1962 he went to London to continue his theological training with funding from the World Council of Churches. There he obtained a master's degree in theology and, after serving in various parishes in London, he returned to South Africa in 1966 to teach at the Federal Theological Seminary in Alice, Eastern Cape Province.

Also particularly interested in the study of Islam, he wanted to concentrate on it as part of his doctoral studies, but his life took a turn that prevented him from doing so.

His activities in the early 1970s, during which he toured Africa, teaching in Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland before visiting many countries on the continent as associate director for Africa At Theological Education Fund, led him to discover the black theology (a current of theological thought that articulates Christianity and civil rights issues) and laid the foundations for his political commitment against apartheid. He eventually returned to Johannesburg as city dean and rector of St Mary's Anglican parish in 1976.

Political activism

It was during this period that Tutu first came into conflict with the then apartheid prime minister, John Vorster, by writing him a letter in 1976, to denounce the deplorable state in which black people had to live.

On June 16 of the same year, Soweto is on fire. Black high school students protest against the forced use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction and are massacred by apartheid police.

Bishop Tutu finds himself increasingly involved in the struggle and delivers one of his most passionate and fiery speeches after death in custody of the black activist leader, Steve Biko, in 1977.

Inasmuch as general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, and then as rector of St. Augustine's Church in Soweto, he became a staunch critic of the most scandalous aspects of apartheid, including the forced expulsions of black people from urban areas considered white areas.

A target

As a result of his growing political activism, "the Arch" became the target of large-scale repression by the apartheid government and was the subject of death threats and bomb threats in the 1980s. His passport He is took of in March 1980 although a “limited travel document” was granted to him two years later following numerous protests and international pressure, allowing him to travel abroad.

Recognized throughout the world, his commitment earned him the Nobel Peace Prize 1984 and he became the bishop of Johannesburg in 1984, then the archbishop of Cape Town in 1986.

In the four years leading up to Nelson Mandela's release after 27 years in prison, "the Arch" had a lot to do. He campaigned tirelessly for international pressure to be brought to bear on apartheid and for the regime to be subject to sanctions.

Extension of its commitment under democracy

After 1994, he headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose main objective is to give those – for or against apartheid – who committed human rights violations the opportunity to confess their guilt, to offer legal amnesty to those who deserve it and to allow the guilty to make amends with their victims.

Two of the greatest moments of his personal life took Desmond Tutu's theological vision beyond the confines of the Church. One of them came when his daughter Mpho came out as gay and the Church refused her marriage. “The Arch” then proclaimed his disagreement:

If, as they say, God were homophobic, I wouldn't worship him.

The second was when he declared his preference for assisted death.

South Africa is blessed to have had such a brave and courageous man as “the Arch” who so embodied the idea that the country is a " Rainbow nation ". South Africa will feel the loss of its moral compass for generations to come. Hamba kahle (be well) Arch.

P. Pratap Kumar, Emeritus Professor, School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license.