October 7, 1931 – December 26, 2021
Notable: Religious leader & Activist
Nationality: South African
Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born in Klerksdorp, a farming town in the Transvaal province about 100 miles from Johannesburg to Xhosa and Tswana parents. His mother, Aletha, worked as a domestic servant while his father, Zachariah, earned a living as a primary school principal. When Tutu was 12, his family relocated to Johannesburg.
Growing up during apartheid would have a profound impact on Tutu. He was an intelligent child and an avid reader. From a young age, he was aware that he and other Black children were regarded and treated differently from White children. Tutu witnessed his father being disrespected by a White police officer who referred to him as “boy”. But he was also deeply affected by Rev. Trever Huddleston, a White priest, treating his mother respectfully.
As a teen, Tutu contracted tuberculosis and was hospitalized in a sanatorium for a year and a half. During that time, Rev. Huddleston frequently visited him in the hospital. Tutu’s experience with tuberculosis gave him aspirations to become a doctor, hoping he might find a cure for the disease.
Under apartheid, Black children were mostly relegated to Bantu schools which received limited funds, had limited resources, and often provided an inadequate education. Despite these limitations, Tutu performed well academically and qualified for admission to medical school. The teachers and staff at the Bantu school were passionate about their professions. They pushed the students to ignore the obstacles that were placed in their way. And they encouraged students to dream big and beyond the limitations that society was attempting to place on them.
In 1950, Tutu graduated from high school and was granted admission to medical school. Unfortunately, his family couldn’t afford to pay his tuition and Tutu had to give up his dream of becoming a doctor. A silver lining was that Pretoria Bantu Normal College offered him a scholarship which he accepted. Tutu studied education and obtained a teaching certificate before completing a bachelor’s degree at the University of South Africa. Following in the footsteps of the teachers who had inspired him to aspire to more, Tutu attempted to do the same for his students.
While Tutu was attending college, South Africa’s system of apartheid was made even more restrictive. In an attempt to further limit the aspirations and options for Black South Africans, a law was passed to lower curriculum requirements. Decreased educational spending for Black students resulted in overcrowded classrooms. Discouraged and unwilling to contribute to the farcical educational system, Tutu gave up teaching.
During his childhood, Tutu’s family had been members of the Methodist church but they later became Anglican. Hoping to still be of service but in a different way, Tutu began studying theology at St. Peter’s Theological College. He was ordained in the Anglican church as a priest and later relocated to London, England to pursue a master’s degree in theology from King’s College.
By the 1970s Tutu was back in Africa working in various positions of church leadership in South Africa and Lesotho. Tutu’s work and studies provided opportunities for him to travel throughout Africa and Asia. He used his growing national and international profile to campaign against apartheid. Tutu used his position as the first Black general secretary of the South African Council of Churches to combat apartheid and champion the rights of Black South Africans.
Tutu played a key role in promoting nonviolent resistance and the economic boycott of South Africa as a means of fighting apartheid. For his efforts, Tutu received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1984. As the fight against apartheid continued, Tutu became the first Black Anglican bishop for Johannesburg and the first Black archbishop of Cape Town.
As South Africa restructured itself in preparation for the move from apartheid to democracy Tutu offered ideas for how the country of various ethnic groups might move forward. He was appointed as the leader of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by the country’s new president Nelson Mandela. It was an important role in South Africa’s quest to eradicate and move beyond the effects of apartheid.
While there was mutual respect between Tutu and Mandela, Tutu kept his distance from the African National Congress (ANC). He didn’t hesitate to criticize the ANC or other political groups. This created some tension which resulted in Tutu at times feeling harassed and hurt by the ANC government.
Tutu retired in the 1990s but continued using his platform to protest inequality and social injustices. He joined other prominent leaders in confounding the Elders. In the coming years, Tutu balanced those causes with spending more time with his wife, four children, and grandchildren.
Desmond Tutu died from cancer on December 26, 2021. He was survived by his wife of 66 years, their four children, and grandchildren. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Tutu also received several other awards including a US Presidential Medal of Freedom.
- “Archbishop Desmond Tutu.” 2022. Academy of Achievement. March 4, 2022.https://achievement.org/achiever/desmond-tutu/.
- Berger, Marilyn. 2021. “Desmond Tutu, Whose Voice Helped Slay Apartheid, Dies at 90.” The New York Times. The New York Times. December 28, 2021.https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/26/world/africa/desmond-tutu-dead.html.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “Desmond Tutu Biography.” Biography.com. A&E Television Networks. December 26, 2021.https://www.biography.com/political-figure/desmond-tutu.
- Burke, Jason. 2021. “Anti-Apartheid Hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu Dies Aged 90.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. December 26, 2021.https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/26/archbishop-desmond-tutu-giant-in-fight-against-apartheid-south-africa-dies-at-90.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2022. “Desmond Tutu.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. December 22, 2022.https://www.britannica.com/biography/Desmond-Tutu.
- Leopold, Todd, Larry Madowo, and Jessie Yeung. 2021. “Desmond Tutu, Anti-Apartheid Leader and Voice of Justice, Dead at 90.” CNN. Cable News Network. December 27, 2021.https://www.cnn.com/2021/12/26/africa/desmond-tutu-death-intl-hnk/index.html.
- Meldrum, Andrew. 2021. “Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s Moral Conscience, Dies at 90.” AP NEWS. Associated Press. December 26, 2021.https://apnews.com/article/desmond-tutu-dead-a0cec6cddaa5cf2a996df8550a72479c.
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