Desmond Tutu, who died at the age of 90, relished his role as South Africa’s troublesome priest.
He rejected criticism of his high political visibility during the black liberation struggle on the grounds that apartheid was “by its nature evil, immoral and absolutely irreconcilable with the word of God”.
His steady rise in the church hierarchy to Archbishop of Cape Town, leader of 2.5 million Anglicans in southern Africa, has not changed his playful sense of humor or his preference for plain language. .
“Call me Arch,” read a T-shirt he wore during the end of apartheid for a protest jog along the beach. His sermons and interviews were also spiced with disrespect.
Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born on October 7, 1931 in Klerksdorp west of Johannesburg, the son of the principal of a Methodist school. A child plagued by illness in his early years, he was given the name Mpilo, which means “life”.
He didn’t have the money to study medicine the way he wanted, so he became a teacher instead, soon turning to theology.
At the age of 30, he became a priest in the Anglican Church and went to King’s College London to continue his studies. In 1975 he was back in troubled South Africa as Dean of Johannesburg.
He quickly gained a reputation for his strong condemnation of apartheid, but his growing international fame made him a difficult target for the increasingly repressive government.
Nonetheless, his passport was withdrawn in 1980 and 1981 for his advocacy for economic sanctions as the only peaceful means of pushing for change.
In 1976, Tutu became bishop of the small mountain kingdom of Lesotho, returning in 1978 to Johannesburg to lead the South African Council of Churches in its anti-apartheid campaign. His tireless efforts for change through peaceful means won him the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize.
After two years as Bishop of Johannesburg, Tutu was elected Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986 as the violence peaked. “Friends, like you, I hate violence,” he told thousands of people gathered in Cape Town to celebrate his induction.
During the last few years of white minority rule, Tutu has repeatedly called for sanctions, led protest marches, and used his pulpit to challenge escalating state repression.
After the release of black leaders and the election of Nelson Mandela as the first Democratic president, Tutu assumed a new role as chairman of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The TRC investigated the apartheid atrocities, and Tutu begged South Africans – black and white – to reconcile, often bursting into tears when the victims testified.
He went on to become a thorn in the side of the black-led government, criticizing it for corruption, elite privilege and failure to eradicate poverty.
In May 2013, Tutu withdrew its support for the ruling African National Congress – Mandela’s party – describing South Africa as “the most unequal society in the world”.
He was a vocal critic of former President Jacob Zuma, who was forced to resign in 2018 following numerous corruption scandals and is still on trial.
He has also worked to raise awareness of poverty, AIDS and the lack of democracy in developing countries.
On social issues, Tutu has taken liberal positions, declaring that he will not worship a “homophobic God” and encouraging men to stand up for women’s rights.
From 2007 to 2013, Tutu chaired The Elders, an independent group of world leaders working together for peace and human rights.
He was a critic of former US President Donald Trump, as well as a staunch supporter of the Palestinian people.
In 2019, l’Arche met Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and their grandson Archie during the royal family’s visit to South Africa.
Later that year, the ardent rugby fan met the national rugby team to celebrate their World Cup victory held in Japan, wearing a green Springbok T-shirt.
More recently, it has indirectly influenced international vaccine policies during the coronavirus pandemic.
Its foundation said earlier this year that more needs to be done “immediately” to ensure low-income countries have faster access to Covid-19 vaccines, diagnostic tools and treatments.
After battling prostate cancer for years, his health has deteriorated again recently, with a spate of hospitalizations for conditions described as infections or inflammation.
Tutu is survived by his wife Leah, four children and seven grandchildren.