South Africa


He was the very best of us: ‘The Arch’ left a legacy of love, compassion, vulnerability and intolerance of injustice

He was the very best of us: ‘The Arch’ left a legacy of love, compassion, vulnerability and intolerance of injustice
Archbishop Desmond Tutu on 6 May 2010. (Photo: Gallo Images / The Times / Shelley Christians)

Desmond Tutu, described as the moral compass of South Africa, has died and people from all walks of life and across the political divide have begun to reflect on his life and the impact that it had on the country’s trajectory.

Announcing the death of Tutu, Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba released the following video:

In it he says; “Desmond Tutu’s legacy is moral strength, moral courage and clarity. He felt with the people. In public and alone, he cried because he felt people’s pain. And he laughed – no, not just laughed, he cackled with delight when he shared their joy.”

Tutu died on Sunday, 26 December in Cape Town. He had been ill for quite some time but the statements confirming his passing did not give details to the cause of death.

On hearing of his death, fellow Nobel Peace Laureate and close friend, with whom Tutu co-authored The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama wrote to the Archbishop’s daughter, Reverend Mpho Tutu.

“Please accept my heartfelt condolences,” he wrote, “and convey the same to your mother and other members of your family. I pray for him”.

“As you know, over the years, your father and I enjoyed an enduring friendship. I remember the many occasions we spent time together, including the week here at Dharamsala in 2015 when we were able to share our thoughts on how to increase peace and joy in the world. The friendship and the spiritual bond between us was something we cherished.

Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama speaks to Archbishop Desmond Tutu during a visit at the Concert Noble Building on 1 June 2006 in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo: Mark Renders / Getty Images)

“Archbishop Desmond Tutu was entirely dedicated to serving his brothers and sisters for the greater common good. He was a true humanitarian and a committed advocate of human rights. His work for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an inspiration for others around the world.

“With his passing away, we have lost a great man, who lived a truly meaningful life. He was devoted to the service of others, especially those who are least fortunate. I am convinced the best tribute we can pay him and keep his spirit alive is to do as he did and constantly look to see how we too can be of help to others.”

In a statement, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “The passing of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa.

“Desmond Tutu was a patriot without equal; a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead.”

Ramaphosa described Tutu as a man “extraordinary intellect, integrity and invincibility against the forces of apartheid” but “tender and vulnerable in his compassion for those who had suffered oppression, injustice and violence under apartheid, and oppressed and downtrodden people around the world”.

14 December 2003. Nobel Peace Prize winners Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
(Photo: Ebrahim Pregnolato/Gallo Images)

“From the pavements of resistance in South Africa to the pulpits of the world’s great cathedrals and places of worship, and the prestigious setting of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, the Arch distinguished himself as a non-sectarian, inclusive champion of universal human rights…

“He remained true to his convictions during our democratic dispensation and maintained his vigour and vigilance as he held leadership and the burgeoning institutions of our democracy to account in his inimitable, inescapable and always fortifying way.

“We pray that Archbishop Tutu’s soul will rest in peace but that his spirit will stand sentry over the future of our nation,” Ramaphosa said.

In paying tribute, the Nelson Mandela Foundation said: “His contributions to struggles against injustice, locally and globally, are matched only by the depth of his thinking about the making of liberatory futures for human societies. He was an extraordinary human being. A thinker. A leader. A shepherd.”

Zachie Achmat, an activist and friend, described Tutu as a man who loved life. “Archbishop Tutu helped save the lives of countless people, provided succour, comfort and care to the oppressed in our country and globally. We celebrate a life lived with joy and dignity.

“His commitment to equality and rights for all served as a much needed moral compass during the turbulent apartheid era. Even after South Africa obtained freedom in 1994, the Archbishop continued to be an outspoken, passionate human rights activist” Amnesty International South Africa executive director Shenilla Mohamed said.

“He was never afraid to call out human rights violators no matter who they were and his legacy must be honoured by continuing his work to ensure equality for all.”

The ANC in statement said: “The Arch dedicated his life to the service of the people of South Africa, leading tirelessly from the front for the liberation of our country and the arduous process of building a common nationhood.

“Indeed the big baobab tree has fallen. South Africa and the mass democratic movement has lost a tower of moral conscience and an epitome of wisdom,” ANC spokesman Pule Mabe said.

Democratic Alliance leader, John Steenhuisen said Tutu was a “true South African giant” who has left an indelible mark on the fabric of South African society.

“For almost three decades since, he has been a voice of reason and compassion against poverty, racism, xenophobia and corruption, and for human development. When we lost our way, he was the moral compass that brought us back,” he said.

In relation to the HIV epidemic, Tutu took a stand for compassion and HIV prevention and treatment. He worked towards ending stigma of all kinds, speaking out against the infringement of LGBTIQ+ rights across Africa.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. (Photo: TAC)

“He was a most wonderful individual, possessing both great kindness and great courage. A true father of our nation, and a role model for all, who never shied from speaking truth to power,” Steenhuisen said.

The Arch lived out his last years in the Western Cape and the province’s premier Alan Winde paid tribute to him saying “Our ‘Arch’ has throughout his life been a shining light for justice, compassion and for kindness, and through his actions inspired me and many others worldwide to have hope that right will prevail over wrong. While he may have left us now, his light still shines brightly. It is up to each and every one of us to ensure it does so, by being the warriors for justice, for peace and for kindness that he was throughout his life.”

The South African Council of Churches (SACC) said it was “mobilised to support the Tutu family, the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, and indeed the Anglican Church at this time, and commit to honouring the works and memory of our beloved ‘Arch’, even as we call on all to celebrate the life and ministry of such a powerful witness for the justice that God demands of all of us.

The Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation said Tutu was a “living embodiment of faith in action, speaking boldly against racism, injustice, corruption, and  oppression, not just in apartheid SA but wherever in the world he saw wrongdoing, especially when it  impacted the most vulnerable and voiceless in society”. 

The foundation said with political leaders in prison and exile, Tutu, as general secretary of the SA Council of Churches and later Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, became the nation’s most outspoken prophet for justice.

“In spite of consistent smears and vicious intimidation by the apartheid regime, he refused to be cowed. Whether from  the pulpit or in the streets, on trial or confronting cabinet ministers in the Union Buildings, he spoke with a fierce  moral and spiritual authority that faced down his adversaries and slowly won their grudging respect.”

Date and location unknown. Anti-apartheid activists including Winnie Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, march with a crowd, waving posters and banners calling for the release of Nelson Mandela. Mosiuoa Terror Lekota is to the left of Winnie Mandela and Trevor Manuel can be seen behind her. Image: Supplied

The June and Andrew Mlangeni Foundation said it was greatly saddened by the news of Tutu’s passing. Tutu was the last surviving South African Peace Laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize. “He was the giant of our Struggle and a very humble man. We have lost a moral campus giant who spoke truth to power and led this country during a very difficult time and an advocate of Truth and Reconciliation.”

The Treatment Action Campaign said it will remember him fondly for his passionate advocacy for health. Anele Yawa, the TAC general secretary said of the Arch, “he was an activist who fought against the evil system of apartheid when it was dangerous to speak out against it. Bishop Tutu’s work supporting the fight against Aids denialism is also a reflection of the principled stance he had, no matter the personal cost.”

Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis mourned the passing of the greatest Capetonian, and one of the last giants of our time. “The Arch and Madiba were a formidable pair who together served as South Africa’s moral compass and vocal and critical conscience. Their unforgettable partnership will leave a lasting legacy in helping to heal the wounds of our country. While we mourn the passing of the Arch, we also celebrate the powerful and uplifting impact that he had on our country, our world, and on all of our lives.”

Good secretary general, Brett Heron said Tutu “was a role model who embodied the ancient wisdoms of the golden rule of human reciprocity [do unto others…] and ubuntu [I am a person through other people] but nonetheless strode the Earth ahead of his time. He dared to paint a picture of inclusivity, tolerance, dignity and justice – in an era in which humanity was careening towards social and environmental injustice on tidal waves of greed, inequality and division.”

9 September 2006. Cape Town, South Africa. An interview with South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
(Photo: Esa Alexander/Gallo Images)

Tributes have come in from across the globe as well.

Norway’s minister of foreign affairs Anniken Huitfeldt said Tutu “combined the Struggle against apartheid with an important contribution to reconciliation between people. He contributed to a better world with his work against racial segregation policy, and in his later days he became a leading figure in the fight for gay rights.”

Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr said she was “saddened to learn of the death of a global sage, human rights leader, and powerful pilgrim on Earth … we are better because he was here”.

Basim Naeem, a senior official of Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas said: “Our Palestinian people lost a strong supporter of their march towards freedom and independence. Father Desmond Tutu spent his entire life struggling against racism and defending human rights and especially on the Palestinian land.”

Wasel Abu Youssef, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation said: “Father Desmond Tutu was one of the biggest supporters of the Palestinian cause. He had always advocated the rights of the Palestinians to gain their freedom and rejected Israeli occupation and apartheid.”

Zimbabwe-born David Pocock, a former Brumbies rugby player, described Tutu as an “amazing example of the best of humanity” saying he “spoke truth to power often at great personal cost”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby tweeted: “In Desmond Tutu’s eyes, we saw Jesus’ love. In his voice, we heard Jesus’ compassion. In his laughter, we heard Jesus’ joy. It was beautiful and brave. His greatest love is now realised as he meets his Lord face to face.” DM

Additional reporting by Reuters



Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.8% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.2% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.2% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.2%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options