/ 26 December 2021

Desmond Tutu passes at 90: A man of justice and faith

South African anti-apartheid icon Desmond Tutu, described as the country's moral compass, died on December 26, 2021, aged 90. (Photo by Jennifer Bruce/AFP)

Anti-apartheid activist and international icon for human rights Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu passed away at the age of 90 on Sunday, 26 December, in Cape Town, South Africa. 

The Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation confirmed the archbishop’s passing, saying: “We mourn his passing and extend deep sympathy to Mrs Nomalizo Leah Tutu [his wife] … siblings and their families. We commit ourselves to continue telling the story and emulating the example of this son of Africa who became an inspiring sign of peace, hope and justice across the world.” 

The exact cause of the cleric’s death is not yet known, however, Tutu suffered several illnesses, including prostate cancer, since retiring at the age of 79

“Tutu spent the closing years of his life increasingly devoted to prayer and contemplation, in the Milnerton home he and his wife shared,” said the foundation. 

Expressing his heartfelt condolences in a statement, President Cyril Ramaphosa said “the passing of … Tutu is another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa”.

“Desmond Tutu was a patriot without equal; a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead”. 

In 1995, Tutu was appointed chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

In a statement, Niclas Kjellström-Matseke, the chairperson of the Tutu foundation, and its chief executive, Piyushi Kotecha, said the TRC meant confronting the truth of the painful atrocities that had happened during apartheid, leading to a process of national healing.

They recalled Tutu telling the BBC that: “The raison d’être for this commission is opening wounds and cleansing them so that they do not fester. And saying: we have dealt with our past as effectively as we could. We have not denied it. We have looked the beast in the eye.”

Tutu wept openly during the first day of the TRC hearings, in a moment that for many South Africans brought home the reality of the trauma the country would have to work through. He later said that he regretted the moment.

“I broke down on the very first day, but I then said it wasn’t fair because the media then concentrated on me instead of the people who were the rightful victims. After that if I wanted to cry, I cried at home or in church.”

“The central concern [of the TRC] is not retribution or punishment,” Tutu said, “but in the spirit of ubuntu, the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships”. The TRC eventually granted amnesty to those prepared to confess their crimes, and recommended reparations for survivors of apartheid-era human rights abuses.

Kjellström-Matseke and Kotecha said that more than a decade later Tutu called the work of the TRC as “scandalously unfinished” after he and his fellow TRC leaders recommended some 300 investigations into possible prosecutions coming from evidence led at the TRC, which did not happen. It transpired that a secret deal had been made for an informal blanket-amnesty for perpetrators on both sides of the struggle against apartheid.

Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

“In his richly inspiring yet challenging life, Desmond Tutu overcame tuberculosis, the brutality of the apartheid security forces and the intransigence of successive apartheid regimes. Neither Casspirs, teargas nor security agents could intimidate him or deter him from his steadfast belief in our liberation,” said Ramaphosa.