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Archbishop Desmond Tutu with the then French President Jacques Chirac at a ceremony (File) Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Desmond Tutu, the cleric who used his pulpit and spirited oratory to help bring down apartheid in South Africa and then became the leading advocate of peaceful reconciliation under Black majority rule, died Sunday in Cape Town. He was 90.

As leader of the South African Council of Churches and later as Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Tutu led the church to the forefront of Black South Africans’ decades-long struggle for freedom. His voice was a powerful force for non-violence in the anti-apartheid movement, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

When that movement triumphed in the early 1990s, he prodded the country toward a new relationship between its white and Black citizens, and, as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he gathered testimony documenting the viciousness of apartheid.

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His credibility was crucial to the commission’s efforts to get former members of the South African security forces and former guerrilla fighters to cooperate with the inquiry.

Tutu preached that the policy of apartheid was as dehumanising to the oppressors as it was to the oppressed. At home, he stood against looming violence and sought to bridge the chasm between Black and white; abroad, he urged economic sanctions against the South African government to force a change of policy.

But as much as he had inveighed against the apartheid-era leadership, he displayed equal disapproval of leading figures in the dominant African National Congress, which came to power under Nelson Mandela in the first fully democratic elections in 1994.

A spellbinding preacher

For much of his life, Tutu was a spellbinding preacher, his voice by turns sonorous and high-pitched. He often descended from the pulpit to embrace his parishioners.

Occasionally he would break into a pixielike dance in the aisles, punctuating his message with the wit and the chuckling that became his hallmark, inviting his audience into a jubilant bond of fellowship. While assuring his parishioners of God’s love, he exhorted them to follow the path of non-violence in their struggle.

His moral leadership, combined with his winning effervescence, made him something of a global celebrity. He was photographed at glittering social functions, appeared in documentaries and chatted with talk-show hosts. Even in late 2015, when his health seemed poor, he met with Prince Harry of Britain, who presented him with an honour on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II.

A compact, restless man — for many years he kept fit by jogging at 4:30 every morning — Tutu had piercing eyes that were barely concealed by rimless glasses. When he travelled abroad, he cut a handsome figure in his well-tailored grey suit over a magenta shirt with a white clerical collar.

Apparently convinced of the virtues of modesty, he never seemed to accustom himself to the perquisites of fame and high office. He was unfailingly on time, always expressed appreciation to the bellhops and maids sent to wait on him, and was uncomfortable with limousines and police escorts.

“You know, back home, when you hear a police siren, you figure that they are coming to get you,” he once told a reporter from The Washington Post. “It still makes me a bit nervous riding with them.”

Although Tutu, like other Black South Africans of his era, had suffered through the horrors and indignities of apartheid, he did not allow himself to hate his enemies.

When he was young, he said, he was fortunate in the white priests that he knew, and throughout the long struggle against apartheid he remained an optimist. “Justice, goodness, love, compassion must prevail,” he said during a visit to New York in 1990. “Freedom is breaking out. Freedom is coming.”

'Rainbow nation'

He coined the phrase “rainbow nation” to describe the new South Africa emerging into democracy, and called for vigorous debate among all races.

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born Oct. 7, 1931, in Klerksdorp, on the Witwatersrand in what is now the North West Province of South Africa. His mother, Aletha, was a domestic worker; his father, Zechariah, taught at a Methodist school. The young Desmond was baptised a Methodist, but the entire family later joined the Anglican Church. When he was 12 the family moved to Johannesburg, where his mother found work as a cook in a school for the blind.

By then he was married to Nomalizo Leah Shenxane, a major influence in his life; the couple celebrated 60 years of marriage by publicly renewing their wedding vows in July 2015. She survives him, as do their four children.

Tutu turned to the ministry, he said, because he thought it could provide “a likely means of service.” He studied at St. Peter’s Theological College in Johannesburg and was ordained an Anglican priest at St. Mary’s Cathedral in December 1961, less than two years after protests convulsed the town of Sharpeville, 40 miles from Johannesburg.

As bishop, he spoke out against the establishment of tribal “homelands” and used the council as a platform from which to urge foreign investors to pull out of South Africa.

A month after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, Tutu became the first Anglican bishop of Johannesburg when the national church hierarchy intervened to break a deadlock between Black and white electors. He was named archbishop of Cape Town in 1986, becoming spiritual head of the country’s 1.5 million Anglicans, 80% of whom were Black.

A fearless warrior

On his frequent trips abroad during the apartheid era, Tutu never stopped pressing the case for sanctions against South Africa. The government struck back and twice revoked his passport, forcing him to travel with a document that described his citizenship as “undetermined.”

But as the author of a 1999 book titled “No Future Without Forgiveness,” he was generous in forgiving his enemies, and when the de Klerk government took steps in 1989 toward ending apartheid, Tutu was among the first to welcome the prospect of change.

Tutu officially retired from public duties in 2010. One of his last major appearances came that year, when South Africa hosted the World Cup.

But he did not retreat from the public eye entirely. In June 2011, he joined Michelle Obama at the new Cape Town Stadium, built for the tournament, where she was promoting physical fitness during a tour of southern Africa.

Inside the stadium, Obama got down on the floor to perform a few push-ups, and Tutu, seeming keen to join in, dropped to the floor and did the same. Rising to their feet, a bit winded, they congratulated each other with a fist bump.

Tutu continued to make occasional forays into the limelight, even as he grew more infirm.

In 2021, as he approached his 90th birthday, he pitched into a fraught debate as disinformation about coronavirus vaccines swirled.

“There is nothing to fear,” he said. “Don’t let COVID-19 continue to ravage our country, or our world. Vaccinate.”

Marilyn Berger is a prominent American broadcast, journalist and author

The New York Times