The World Pays Tribute To The Arch, Desmond Tutu
Photo: The Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation

The World Pays Tribute To The Arch, Desmond Tutu

South African Nobel Laureate, Desmond Tutu, the anti-apartheid leader and 'moral giant', who died this past weekend at the age of 90, will be memorialized this week.

There was a moment during the World Cup Kick-off Concert, held just before the event sent South Africa into an international soccer frenzy in the summer of 2010, when Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu took to the stage of Soweto’s Orlando Stadium. A Bafana Bafana beanie and scarf draped over his five-feet-five-inches-frame, he addressed the crowd: “Friends, before I tell you who is going to be in the final,” he teased, adding his trademark high-pitched ‘ha-ha-ha’ giggle, “I think we’ve got to pay a wonderful tribute to the man to whom we owe all of this.”

Tutu then led the crowd in cheers to Nelson Mandela, who was at his Houghton home, about 12 miles miles away. “Halala Rolihlahla Mandela!” he cried out, eliciting cheers louder than those received by Shakira, John Legend or Alicia Keys, who had performed that night. As Tutu’s voice filled the sky of the open-air stadium, rousing every single person in the stadium to join him, there was no doubt that, although a notoriously early-sleeper, the late former president heard the joyful noise.

It’s one of the many endearing moments in the long life of The Arch, as he was fondly known. Moments that will now, in the wake of his passing, become treasured memories and reminders of his unwavering appreciation for life itself. In tributes that have been paid to the late Nobel Laureate, all have mentioned his winning effervescence alongside his long-standing commitment to South Africa’s fight for liberation.

Tutu is said to have died peacefully at the Oasis Frail Care Center in Cape Town, after a long battle with cancer. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the late 1990s and was hospitalized several times to treat infections associated with treating it.

Born on October 7th, 1931, in Klerksdorp, a town in South Africa's then-Transvaal province, Desmond Mpilo Tutu had plans to become a doctor. A childhood bout of tuberculosis saw him stay in hospital for more than a year, dashing those dreams. Instead, he went on to become a teacher, like his father, but resigned in protest when the Bantu Education Act was passed in 1953, racially segregating the country’s education system.

Not long after, Tutu took up a new vocation in the priesthood. It was in this role, as leader of the South African Council of Churches and later as Anglican archbishop of Cape Town -- the first Black man to hold this position -- that Tutu led the church to the forefront of the struggle for freedom. In the anti-apartheid movement, he was a powerful voice, calling for nonviolence and maintaining spiritual fortitude. He earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, some 20 years after inagurual ANC president Albert Luthuli became the first South African to do so.

Throughout the 1980s, Tutu travelled tirelessly in support of the anti-apartheid movement abroad, while many of the leaders of the ANC, including Mandela, were behind bars. At the advent of democracy, as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he gathered testimony documenting atrocities of apartheid, and while he admitted the work had its limitations, he had always urged that it be seen as a beginning and not an end. In his final years, Tutu often called out leaders for failing to address the poverty and inequalities that they promised to eradicate.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa described Tutu in a televised address as "one of our nation's finest patriots" adding, "our nation's loss is indeed a global bereavement."

Tutu's passing is not just a loss for South Africans; he was also celebrated for lending his voice to other injustices and oppression globally, opposing gender discrimination and supporting the LGBTQ community and Palestinian rights.

"A universal spirit, Archbishop Tutu was grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but also concerned with injustice everywhere," former US President Barack Obama wrote in tribute. To America’s first Black president, Tutu was “a mentor, a friend and a moral compass for me and so many others.”

US President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden also issued a joint statement in Tutu's memory. "We are heartbroken to learn of the passing of a true servant of God and of the people, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa," their statement said. Tributes have also been paid by Queen Elizabeth, the Dalai Lama, Malala Yousafzai and Ava DuVernay, among many others.

Several events are being planned in South Africa to honor the life of the anti-apartheid icon. Bells rang at midday on Monday from the city’s St George’s Anglican Cathedral, where he served as South Africa’s first Black archbishop. They will continue to toll for 10 minutes at noon for each day this week.

On Wednesday, the Diocese of Pretoria and the South African Council of Churches will hold a memorial service in the capital city, Pretoria, while Cape Town is set to host an interfaith ceremony the same day. On Friday, Tutu’s body will lie in state at St George’s before a requiem mass is held there on Saturday morning. Tutu’s ashes will be buried in a mausoleum in the cathedral. A special pop-up channel will air on DStv on channel 199 and run for the week, showing a four-part series based on interviews with The Arch and others, detailing his legacy.

Commemorative events are also being planned in the neighboring countries of Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.

Tutu is survived by his wife, Nomalizo Leah Tutu, and children Trevor Thamsanqa Tutu, Naomi Nontombi Tutu, Theresa Thandeka Tutu and Mpho Tutu van Furth.