Born in Klerksdorp in 1931, Desmond Tutu’s father was a teacher and his mother a domestic worker. He received his elementary education in the mission school system in which his father taught. Unable to afford medical school, he trained as a teacher, as did his wife-to-be, Nomalizo Leah Shenxane.
After the apartheid government intensified its policies of segregation by introducing a deliberately inferior education system for Blacks, to keep them in perpetual servitude, he and Leah both left the profession. Desmond entered St Peter’s Theological Seminary in Rosettenville and Leah trained to become a nurse.
In 1960 he was ordained deacon and later that year ordained priest in St Mary’s Cathedral, in Johannesburg. He was assigned to St Alban’s parish in Benoni township. In 1962 he was given the opportunity to further his studies at King’s College, London. The family returned to South Africa in 1967 when Desmond took up a position to teach at the Federal Seminary (FEDSEM) in Alice, Eastern Cape.
Three years later he moved to Roma University in Lesotho, and in 1972 he returned to London to take up the position of secretary of a theological education fund associated with the World Council of Churches. He travelled extensively in Africa.
Returning to South Africa in 1975, he rose rapidly in the church hierarchy, quickly becoming the first Black priest to be Anglican Dean of Johannesburg, Bishop of Lesotho, General-Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), Bishop of Johannesburg, and in 1986, Archbishop of Cape Town and head of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.
In 1992 he ordained two of the first women to become Anglican priests in South Africa. By then, his work in peaceful opposition to apartheid had already garnered international recognition with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1984.
In the 1980s, he led a number of illegal but peaceful marches against apartheid. After the government unbanned Black-led political organisations and released political prisoners in 1990, Tutu left the political stage to Nelson Mandela and others, while reserving – and exercising – the right to criticise politicians of any stripe, including Mandela, for their failures to live up to his and their ideals. He acted as a mediator during the violence that preceded South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994, then focused on reconciling South Africa.
In 1996 President Mandela appointed him to chair South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (the TRC). After the TRC, he embarked on a new phase in his life as a global activist for love, justice and human rights. His became a leading voice in the struggles for climate justice, peace in Palestine and Israel, equal rights for the LGBTI community – and for morality, equality, fairness and justice across the world.
In 2007, he joined former President Mandela, former US President Jimmy Carter, retired UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and former Irish President Mary Robinson to form The Elders, a global group of influential leaders. He was the first chairperson of the group.
He is synonymous with the core African philosophy of Ubuntu, that God’s creation is interconnected and inter-dependent. The human family is one and all people should honour one another regardless of colour, class, geographic location, religious belief, sexual orientation...
He received honorary degrees from scores of top universities, and among many national and
international honours, received the Gandhi Peace Prize, the highest civilian honours in South Africa and the United States, was appointed a Grand Officier of the Légion d’Honneur (France), and became an honorary member of The Order of the Companions of Honour (UK).
He leaves his wife, Nomalizo Leah, who has been his strength and support throughout their lives, four children Trevor Thamsanqa Tutu, Teresa Thandeka Tutu-Gxashe, Nontombi Naomi Tutu and Mpho Andrea Tutu van Furth, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
A memorial will be held at Westminster Abbey in London in the next three months, at a date to be confirmed by the Abbey and Buckingham Palace. Plans are underway for memorial services at the University of the Western Cape, several religious and academic institutions across Southern Africa and in the UK, USA and other parts of the world.