February 27, 2024
Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu : The human rights activist

Desmond Tutu was a South African reverend who served as the archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 until his retirement in 2007.

After joining the Anglican Church as a youth, he became involved in politics when he and other religious leaders were arrested for their role in the peaceful protest against the Civilian Disarmament Act of 1977. Two years later, he was ordained an Anglican priest and appointed vicar of Johannesburg’s Holy Trinity Cathedral. As a campaigner against apartheid, Tutu became an increasingly public figure and achieved worldwide renown.

About Desmond Tutu

Tutu was born in Klerksdorp, Transvaal (now Gauteng) on October 7, 1931. He is the youngest of three boys born to Zacheriah Zililo Tutu and his wife, Aletta Tutu (née Tester).

Tutu’s father was a teacher and a lay preacher who “consistently reminded his children that they were black.” His grandfather Seipei Tutu was also a preacher of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In 1950, following the Native Registration Act passed by the Apartheid government that required blacks to carry an identity card at all times, Desmond left South Africa with his family for London where he studied theology at King’s College London.

Life of Tutu

His birth

Desmond Tutu was born to a working-class farming family on 7 October 1931 in the farming town of Klerksdorp, Transvaal (now Gauteng) in South Africa. “I was not particularly handsome,” he has said, “but I was brought up to be a good boy. A very conventional kind of child.” Tutu spent his early childhood in Ventersdorp and then Johannesburg, where his father taught scripture at the King James Bible Institute. His mother Aletta Tutu (née Tester), who had been a music teacher, tutored her children privately.

His studies

His father’s death in 1948 made it impossible for Tutu to continue school and his mother sent him to boarding school, first at the University of Natal’s High School and then at the prestigious former missionary boarding school Wynberg Boys’ Reformatory. He later credited Wynberg as one of the factors that later helped shape his thinking.

He was ordained a deacon in 1964 and a priest in 1965 by Bishop Trevor Huddleston at a church service conducted by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston. It was during this period that Tutu became interested in social justice issues, an interest that would become an important part of his later life activities as well as being evident in his writing.

His Personal Life

Desmond Tutu married Nomalizo Leah Shenxane in Johannesburg on 17 October 1958 and the couple have five children, including one daughter and four sons. He is also a grandfather to 33 grandchildren.

In what is described as a “tragic accident,” his youngest daughter, Thandeka Tutu, died at two weeks of age in 1962. Following the death of his wife’s brother in 1966, the family moved to the United Kingdom where they lived for two years before returning to South Africa in 1968.

His career

Tutu became a noted voice in the anti-apartheid movement in 1975 when he took part in a march to present the United Nations with a petition against apartheid. His ensuing arrest and imprisonment marked him as a prominent dissident against apartheid. He was appointed Dean of Johannesburg in 1982 and two years later was enthroned as the first black archbishop of Cape Town. Under his leadership, the Anglican Church became increasingly political and opposed South Africa’s apartheid regime. In 1985, Tutu led an ecumenical service for 3,000 people outside Victoria Falls which called for economic sanctions against South Africa.

Teaching career

Tutu retired as Archbishop of Cape Town in September 1996 to devote more time to teaching and writing. He became the first black man to join the House of Lords as a baron in April 1987, a position he held until October 1995. He was also Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape from 1994 until 2007. Describing himself as a “painfully slow learner,” Tutu considered becoming an engineer so as not to copy other students but decided instead on studying for ordination after hearing a lecture by Reverend Huddleston.

Joining the clergy

In 1948, following the death of his father, Tutu left South Africa to study theology in Britain. Having considered becoming a teacher at a British university, he met Archibald Rowan and was inspired to pursue studies for ordination. He began his training with the English Martyrs’ Society and St. Thomas’ Anglican Cathedral in Oxford before being ordained as a deacon in 1964 and as a priest in 1965.

The Archbishop’s role

In the late 1960s Tutu became involved with many political activists who needed safe houses; he helped found the Abahlali baseMjondolo (Shacks of Happiness) shack dwellers’ movement and became an active member of the African National Congress (ANC).

He was a signatory to the 1976 protest memorandum, which was in effect an ultimatum to the National Party government to desist from its racist policies. He has been described as the “principal anti-apartheid campaigner.”

Tutu supported the anti-apartheid movement and took an active role in it. He was arrested several times for this, including when he and other South African clergy were detained in 1977 after he called on his congregation to join a peaceful protest against the apartheid regime’s ban on non-whites marching.

TEF Africa director

At the National Peace Council, Tutu was director of its South Africa section, which lobbied for peace. Tutu also worked with the World Council of Churches and contributed to a joint report on human rights abuses in South Africa.

In 1985, he became president of the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement and soon thereafter resigned his position as archbishop. He was arrested in 1986 after taking part in a nuclear weapons protest with other Anglican clergy and spent two months in prison until he was released without charge. In 1987, he was appointed a life peer as Baron as well as being appointed as Chancellor of his former University of the Western Cape college.

Awards and Honours

In 1981, Tutu was given the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in ending apartheid. He received honorary doctorates from several American universities, including Harvard University (1994), Stanford University (1996), Duke University (1997) and Loyola Marymount University (1999).

Tutu was appointed commonwealth observer to the People’s Republic of China in October 1998 as well as Commonwealth Goodwill Ambassador to South Africa by Queen Elizabeth II.

He has received many other awards and honours including the Gandhi International Peace Award, Amnesty International Human Rights Award, Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Service Award and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 1997 Human Rights Award.

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