Desmond Tutu, anti-apartheid icon, dies at 90 The Nobel Peace laureate and archbishop emeritus campaigned against a system he called evil and, after apartheid, helped the nation heal as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Desmond Tutu, an icon who helped end apartheid in South Africa, dies at 90

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/494373491/1068072096" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

Desmond Tutu has died. He was 90 years old. Tutu was an Anglican archbishop and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his tireless campaign against apartheid in South Africa. After Nelson Mandela became president, he called on Tutu to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission there, which investigated anti-apartheid crimes. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has this remembrance of Archbishop Tutu's life.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: No one who heard it will ever forget - Archbishop Desmond Tutu's chortle of delight and unbridled joy as millions of South Africans lined up in 1994 to vote for Nelson Mandela as their new president. These were South Africa's first democratic elections, and Tutu was voting for the first time at the age of 62.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DESMOND TUTU: I want to sing. I want to cry. I want to laugh - everything together - and jump and dance. And we just want to say to our friends out there, you've been fantastic in supporting us. And the day has arrived. Yippee (ph).

QUIST-ARCTON: It had been a long journey for Tutu and Mandela, who spent his first night of freedom after 27 years in jail at then-Anglican-Archbishop Tutu's residence in Cape Town. For Desmond Mpilo Tutu, the son of a high school principal, the church was not his initial vocation. He, too, started off as a teacher. But the champion of justice felt that the inferior education the white minority rulers were imposing on Black South Africans was an insult. Tutu turned to the priesthood and was ordained in 1960. Fifteen years later, he was the first Black dean of Johannesburg and committed himself publicly to the fight against apartheid.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

TUTU: We are going to be free.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: We are going to be free.

TUTU: All of us.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: All of us.

QUIST-ARCTON: The campaigning priest was arrested more than once but drew strength, he said, from his faith, his convictions and fellow South Africans. He condemned all forms of violence and confronted both the apartheid police and vengeful Black mobs necklacing alleged spies by throwing tires around their victims and setting them alight. By now, firmly on the international radar, Tutu warned the apartheid leaders that racism defied the will of God and that apartheid would not succeed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUTU: The system of this country, apartheid, is immoral. The system of this country is evil.

QUIST-ARCTON: But Desmond Tutu allowed himself this cry from the heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUTU: What must we say which we have not yet said? What must we do which we have not yet done to tell the world that all we want is a new South Africa where all, Black and white, will be able to live as equals?

QUIST-ARCTON: In 1984, Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, recognizing his work in the anti-apartheid struggle. The archbishop remarked with his characteristic humor that one day, no one was listening to him. And suddenly, after the prize, anything he said quotes "the oracle has spoken." After Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president, he asked Desmond Tutu to chair South Africa's gruelling Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look into the crimes of apartheid. For the archbishop, the harrowing testimony was traumatic, and he broke down and wept with the survivors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUTU: One has been deeply humbled by those we have often called the ordinary people - deeply humbled at their resilience, at the magnanimity of spirit that they have shown.

QUIST-ARCTON: Halfway through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had to fend off criticism from all sides, Desmond Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and received treatment. Resilience and his sense of humor helped. Tutu was later a visiting professor in Georgia. He disclosed a recurrence of prostate cancer in 2005, though it did not have a noticeable effect on his hectic schedule. After he retired, the emeritus archbishop criticized what he considered the inadequacies of South Africa's new leaders, especially their failure to alleviate poverty. He also continued his quest for global peace and social justice, joining the Elders, a seasoned group of world leaders along with Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan and others. Even during difficult times, Tutu said, overwhelmingly, faith remained his companion, and he simply operated on the principles of the Scriptures.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUTU: My freedom is God-given.

QUIST-ARCTON: Nelson Mandela described the archbishop as a blessing and an inspiration. Desmond Tutu married his wife, Leah Nomalizo, in 1955. They had four children. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATTI BYE'S "THOUGHTS")

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.