Desmond Tutu’s hearty laughter matches his passion for improving the lives of people throughout South Africa and the world. Before he became a priest, Desmond Tutu, born on this day in 1931, was a teacher. Following the introduction of Bantu education, however, he decided to join the church.
Tutu was born of mixed Xhosa and Motswana heritage to a poor family in Klerksdorp, Union of South Africa. Entering adulthood, he trained as a teacher and married Nomalizo Leah Tutu, with whom he had several children. In 1960, he was ordained as an Anglican priest and in 1962 moved to the United Kingdom to study theology at King’s College London. In 1966 he returned to southern Africa, teaching at the Federal Theological Seminary and then the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. In 1972, he became the Theological Education Fund’s director for Africa, a position based in London but necessitating regular tours of the African continent. Back in southern Africa in 1975, he served first as dean of St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg and then as Bishop of Lesotho, taking an active role in opposition to South Africa’s apartheid system of racial segregation and white-minority rule. From 1978 to 1985 he was general-secretary of the South African Council of Churches, emerging as one of South Africa’s most prominent anti-apartheid activists. Although warning the National Party government that anger at apartheid would lead to racial violence, as an activist he stressed non-violent protest and foreign economic pressure to bring about universal suffrage.
In 1985, Tutu became Bishop of Johannesburg and in 1986 the Archbishop of Cape Town, the most senior position in southern Africa’s Anglican hierarchy. In this position, he emphasised a consensus-building model of leadership and oversaw the introduction of women priests. Also in 1986, he became president of the All Africa Conference of Churches, resulting in further tours of the continent. After President F. W. de Klerk released the anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990, and the pair led negotiations to end apartheid and introduce multi-racial democracy, Tutu assisted as a mediator between rival black factions.
After the 1994 general election resulted in a coalition government headed by Mandela, the latter selected Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights abuses committed by both pro and anti-apartheid groups. Since apartheid’s fall, Tutu has campaigned for gay rights and spoken out on a wide range of subjects, among them the Israel-Palestine conflict, his opposition to the Iraq War, and his criticism of South African presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. In 2010, he retired from public life.
Tutu acknowledged that bringing an end to apartheid was a collective effort. “In South Africa, we could not have achieved our freedom and just peace without the help of people around the world,” he wrote on Huffington Post, the American news site, “who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the apartheid regime.”
Among other accolades, Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1986, and the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2007.