Shortcuts / 05 January 2022

The life and times of Desmond Tutu

When one of South Africa’s biggest characters – Archbishop Desmond Tutu – died on Boxing Day, he was remembered as a champion for freedom and equality who made things happen for the troubled nation. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we look back at Tutu’s early life, his role in the anti-Apartheid movement, and his legacy both at home and abroad.

Let’s start at the beginning…
Hello and Happy New Year to you too… But moving on – Desmond Tutu was born in 1931 in a small gold-mining town in South Africa’s northwest Transvaal region, about 130 kilometres outside the country’s biggest city of Johannesburg. And in fact, it was the first ‘Boer’ settlement in this part of South Africa.

So to explain, the Boers were of Dutch or German descent. And in more recent times, descendants of the Boers are called ‘Afrikaaners’. And it’s an understatement to say they had a fractious relationship with the black communities…

Weren’t the Afrikaaners were central to the apartheid movement?
They were, but we’ll get to that in a bit. Back to the young Desmond Tutu – he decided to follow his father’s professional lead and studied teaching at university.

So Tutu started out as a teacher?
Yep – after graduating from the University of South Africa, he worked for 3 years as a high school teacher. But in 1953, he abandoned that in protest against a raft of racist laws that introduced segregation in schools and universities.

And the mid-1950s were an important time for Tutu personally…
That’s right – in 1955 Tutu married Nomalizo Leah Shenxane, who also trained as a teacher and nurse. She was also an activist who represented domestic workers rights. The couple went on to have four children.

What happened after Tutu left teaching?
He studied theology. He was introduced to the church when he was a teenager through a friendship with a British Anglican priest named Father Trevor Huddleston. And after his studies, Tutu was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1960.

But he wasn’t done with the books…
Nope, he studied theology in the UK, and went back and forth from Africa to Britain to further his religious education. And in 1975, he was appointed to the coveted role of Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg.

Wasn’t that a big deal at the time?
It sure was. Tutu was the first black man to hold that position, and at the time it was one of the few racially-integrated churches in the city.

How did he then become Archbishop Desmond Tutu?
Well, to skip through a decade of history, he eventually rose through the ranks to ultimately become the Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996 – another position that had never been held by a black man. It meant he now had a substantial platform to campaign against apartheid.

Stepping back a bit – what is apartheid?
So apartheid is the Afrikaan word for ‘apartness’. Put simply, what it called for was the separate development of the different racial groups in South Africa.

And when was it implemented?
An apartheid policy was put in place by the country’s National Party-led government in 1948. At the time, proponents said the policy called for equal development and freedom of cultural expression.

But in reality, it was anything but equal…
Indeed. It was institutional racism on a scale that made South Africa an international pariah for decades.

What did it mean for South Africans?
Well, racial groups were made to live separately and inter-racial marriage was banned. Put simply, only white people were free – others had to carry papers to justify where they were and what they were doing there. Black people couldn’t vote. Public facilities and social events were segregated, and what employment and education opportunities you had open to you depended on your place in the racial pecking order.

And what was that order?
White citizens had the highest status, followed by Asians and Coloureds (who are a multiracial ethnic group native to Southern Africa), then black South Africans.

What was the local reaction?
Unsurprisingly, there were protests against the laws and the government responded with police brutality, which in turn increased local support for the resistance. And at the front of that resistance was the African National Congress – the ANC.

What did they stand for?
Right from the start, its leaders believed that white authority could only be overthrown through mass – and if necessary, violent – campaigns.

Enter anti-apartheid revolutionaries including Nelson Mandela…
You got it. And because of that, he was sentenced to life in prison in 1962. There were many more who were detained and killed in their fight against apartheid.

And then enter Desmond Tutu…
Indeed – he stepped into the role of his country’s most prominent opponent of apartheid because all those black political leaders were in jail.

But wasn’t he slow to start?
He was. He’d been rising fast through the Church ranks and had been preaching against apartheid, but he only became the face of the anti-apartheid campaign after the Soweto Uprising of 1976, which saw thousands of black students march in protest and the police opened fire, killing hundreds.

And what sort of practices did he preach?
He took a different tack to the leadership of the ANC – he wasn’t a fan of violent protests.
Rather, he backed economic boycotts and campaigns of civil disobedience as the best means of dismantling apartheid. But he never explicitly condemned the armed struggle, and there was some controversy about that.

So what did Tutu do then?
During the late 70s and 80s, he led huge protest marches and denounced apartheid in fiery speeches across the globe. And he was described by then-President PW Botha as “public enemy number one”.

But somehow he stayed out of jail…
He did, and that’s because of his international stature. He toured internationally calling on Western nations to impose sanctions on South Africa, and in 1984 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. And that profile and his anti-violence stance saw him safe from the fate met by other campaigners.

All of that was very political. And one thing we know about church and state is they don’t mix well…
True. But he was such a force, and remember much of the world had denounced South Africa for their policy of apartheid, so he had a lot of support.

From who?
For one example, at Tutu’s installation as the archbishop of Cape Town in 1986, the head of the Anglican Church – the Archbishop of Canterbury – was in attendance, and also spoke against apartheid and in support of Nelson Mandela. So it was quite a thing.

So when did apartheid come to an end?
Long story short, the policy was dismantled by new president FW de Klerk in 1990. Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the ban on the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups was lifted.

But that wasn’t the end of things…
Nope, and again Desmond Tutu was front and centre. Many people have often called him the ‘conscience of the nation’, not just in his campaigns against apartheid, but also in the period afterwards.

So what did he get up to after apartheid?
Most notably he was chairman of the pioneering Truth and Reconciliation Commission that urged South Africans, white and black, to repent the crimes they had committed during the apartheid era. It saw the victims of gross human rights violations give statements about their experiences, and the perpetrators also gave testimonies and requested amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.

Not all of those perpetrators were given amnesty, right?
No, they weren’t. And South African’s views on whether that commission was successful or not largely depended on your personal experience of the apartheid period.

What kind of impact did the commission have?
It was groundbreaking and its reconciliatory approach is now seen as a successful way of dealing with human rights violations after political change. And in those efforts, Tutu was in lockstep with Mandela – they believed that it was a way to unite and heal the nation. “Without forgiveness,” he said, “there is no future”.

That didn’t mean that he gave Mandela and those at the front of the ANC-led government a free pass…
Nope, he was quick to condemn their transgressions. The first election to include citizens of all races was held in 1994 – and it was won by the ANC with Mandela to go on to be president. The party was caught up in some early scandals and Tutu said the party’s leaders had “stopped the gravy train just long enough to get on themselves”.

Ouch… So what did Tutu do in his later life?
He continued his role as an activist for causes he cared deeply about. One of those was gay rights.

Yep. In 2013 he launched a gay rights campaign in South Africa, where the HIV-AIDS virus is rampant. He notably said, “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven” and said that he was as passionate about promoting gay rights as he was about bringing down apartheid. More recently, his daughter was forced to leave the clergy in order to marry her female partner in the Netherlands. Desmond Tutu was at the ceremony and gave the couple a “father’s blessing”.

What other campaigns did Tutu take on?
He was also an ardent critic of the Iraq War. He argued that the US and UK-led assault on Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 had brought about conditions that led to the Syrian civil war in 2011.

So he felt pretty strongly about it…
He did – so much so that he pulled out of an African peace summit that included the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. He wasn’t a fan of American President George W Bush either. He wrote op-eds accusing the pair of lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and he wanted the men to be tried for war crimes at the international court in The Hague.

He certainly had some zingers…
That he did. He died on Boxing Day – 26 December – at 90yo. Reports say he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the late 1990s and in recent years he was hospitalised for infections associated with his cancer treatment. But one thing that got a lot of attention was his request for his body to be acquamated.

I might regret asking this, but what does that involve?
So the body is immersed for 3 to 4 hours in a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide in a pressurised metal cylinder and heated to around 150 degrees Celsius. The process liquefies everything except for the bones, which are then dried in an oven, reduced to white dust and placed in an urn.

What a cheery way to end things…
Yep, sorry about that…

Squiz recommends:

Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – US 60 Minutes

Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela

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