Look back at the life of Desmond Tutu after he died at 90

The showman bishop who defied assassination attempts to help end the evil of apartheid: A look back at the life of South African campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu after he died at 90

  • Desmond Tutu died in hospital at the age of 90 in Cape Town on Sunday morning
  • He won Nobel Prize for non-violent struggle against apartheid in South Africa 
  • Named first Black Archbishop of Cape Town becoming head of Anglican Church 
  • He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and was in and out of treatment several times throughout the years; his cause of death was not revealed 
  • The Queen and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa paid tribute to Tutu 

During a tense meeting with the mulish racial ideologue President P. W. Botha in 1988, Archbishop Desmond Tutu watched as the head of state began to lose his temper.

Then the president began to wag his finger at South Africa’s most senior churchman. Tutu, never one to dodge a confrontation and ever conscious that he was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, reared up in his chair. 

‘Don’t think you’re talking to a small boy!’ he spat out at Botha, abandoning all restraint.

Later he reflected ruefully to his biographer John Allen: ‘I don’t know whether that is how Jesus would have handled it, but our people have suffered for so long and I might never get this chance again.’ 

Tutu’s natural habitat in the 1980s was in the midst of the great stand-off between an increasingly angry young black population and the brutal white-led security forces

At night, Tutu spoke to international television anchors about the shocking events in South Africa and why their governments must impose sanctions to force Nelson Mandela’s release from prison

In 1984 Tutu posed with his wife Leah (right) after he was announced as Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

After his death in Cape Town aged 90, the Queen led tributes, describing him as a ‘tireless champion’ for human rights

Tutu’s natural habitat in the 1980s was in the midst of the great stand-off between an increasingly angry young black population and the brutal white-led security forces. 

By day he would be on the frontline of township political tumult, surrounded by broken glass, rubber bullets and live ammunition.

At night he would be in a studio, talking to international television anchors about the shocking events in South Africa and why their governments must impose sanctions to force Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.

Thus he became a truly pivotal figure in the dismantling of apartheid. And goodness, did he enjoy that starring role! 

But to say that Pretoria’s most turbulent priest was a showman, or indeed a show-off, is not to diminish the vital part he played in effecting South Africa’s relatively peaceful transition from white domination to black majority rule. 

Yesterday, after his death in Cape Town aged 90, the Queen led tributes, describing him as a ‘tireless champion’ for human rights.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation, which highlighted the friendship between the two men, said the loss was ‘immeasurable’.

Prince Harry and wife Meghan issued a statement saying: ‘He was an icon for racial justice and beloved across the world.’

Boris Johnson declared him a ‘critical figure in the struggle to create a new South Africa’.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela – after his released from Robben Island Prison in 1990, walks hand-in-hand with Desmond Tutu

During that struggle, Tutu enraged the government so much that it twice suspended his passport, yet ministers never had the nerve to lock up the most famous churchman after the Pope.

Tutu was simultaneously a provocateur and a conciliator. Back in those last years of apartheid when I was based in South Africa, I lost count of how many potentially calamitous protest rallies and marches I covered.

He would almost always be the keynote speaker — the rest of the leadership were imprisoned or banned from public speaking and he was de facto leader of the black opposition. He would begin by whipping the angry youths into a frenzy of rage about the latest apartheid atrocity.

Then he would perform a rhetorical somersault and order the crowd to disperse and go home peacefully, and not bring shame to the reputation of ‘The Struggle’ by resorting to violence.

He was shrewd enough to realise that Pretoria feared economic sanctions more than the African National Congress’s largely ineffective campaign of violence against the apartheid state.

Reverend Desmond Tutu is seen during an audience with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in London, England

The Dalai Lama greets Mr Tutu in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2004

His repeated demands for Europe and America to freeze investment and stop international bank lending were the anti-apartheid levers that Botha feared most. 

Tutu was an old-fashioned Anglican who believed priests should stay in the pulpit rather than campaign on political matters. But as South Africa descended into chaos through the 1980s, he felt he had no option but to step into the political vacuum created by the banning of the ANC.

He found he loved the limelight. People like Botha — who did Tutu the singular honour of branding him ‘Public Enemy No.1’ — resented his celebrity. But there were also mutterings among his natural political allies who thought he enjoyed the global attention more than was good for him.

We journalists there in the 1980s would joke that it was never wise to get between the archbishop and a television camera. 

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams with Tutu after meeting at Sinn Fein’s headquarters. Tutu was on a one day visit to Northern Ireland to promote peace

Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the Archbishop prior to a lunch in Cape Town, South Africa on November 10, 1988. Mother Teresa was in Cape Town to open a House of Charity in a black township

The showman in him loved shocking visitors to his office by picking up the phone and without knowing who was on the line, answering with a slightly camped up, ‘Hello darling!’

He loved being known by his nickname ‘The Arch’. Had he not been ordained, he should probably have gone on the stage because he was at heart a performer.

One day, when we flew up from Cape Town to Johannesburg together, he asked that we not sit side by side as he preferred to pray while on aeroplanes.

Desmond Tutu, in his own words 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died Sunday morning in Cape Town at age 90, was a man of strong faith and conviction, but also of words. He did not hesitate to use humour and anger to express his values and outrage.

Here are some of his most famous quotes:

– ‘Be nice to whites, they need you to rediscover their humanity.’ (New York Times, October 19, 1984)

– ‘For goodness sake, will they hear, will white people hear what we are trying to say? Please, all we are asking you to do is to recognize that we are humans, too. When you scratch us, we bleed. When you tickle us, we laugh.’ (Statement urging sanctions against South Africa, 1985)

– ‘Your President is the pits as far as blacks are concerned. He sits there like the great, big white chief of old can tell us black people that we don’t know what is good for us. The white man knows.’ (Interview with US press, reacting to Ronald Reagan’s vetoing of economic sanctions apartheid government, 1986)

– ‘At home in South Africa I have sometimes said in big meetings where you have black and white together: ‘Raise your hands!’ Then I’ve said, ‘Move your hands,’ and I’ve said, ‘Look at your hands – different colours representing different people. You are the rainbow people of God’.’ (His book ‘The Rainbow People of God’, 1994)

– ‘I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this. I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid.’ (Speech at a UN’s gay rights campaign, 2013).

– ‘I give great thanks to God that he has created a Dalai Lama. Do you really think, as some have argued, that God will be saying: ‘You know, that guy, the Dalai Lama, is not bad. What a pity he’s not a Christian’? I don’t think that is the case, because, you see, God is not a Christian.’ (Speech at Dalai Lama’s birthday, June 2, 2006)

– ‘He has, I mean, mutated into something that is quite unbelievable. He has really turned into a kind of Frankenstein for his people.’ (commenting about Robert Mugabe to Australia’s ABC TV)

– ‘One day I was in San Francisco, minding my own business, as I always do, when a lady came up gushing. Oh, she was so warm and she was greeting me and she said, ‘Hello, Archbishop Mandela!’ Sort of getting two for the price of one.’ (Speech at University of Michigan, 2008)

– ‘Don’t call me, I’ll call you.’ (Announcing retirement from public life, July 22, 2010)

– ‘Our government… says it will not support Tibetans who are being oppressed viciously by the Chinese… I am warning you, I am warning you, that we will pray as we prayed for the downfall of the apartheid government, we will pray for the downfall of a government that misrepresents us.’ (On South Africa refusing the Dalai Lama a visa, 2011)

– ‘I am ashamed to call this lickspittle bunch my government.’ (After South Africa again denied the Dalai Lama a visa, 2014).

– ‘Did he have weaknesses? Of course he did, among them his steadfast loyalty to his organisation and to some of his colleagues who ultimately let him down. He retained in his cabinet under-performing, frankly incompetent ministers. But I believe he was saintly because he inspired others powerfully.’ (At Mandela’s death, 2013)

– ‘Once a Zambian and a South African, it is said, were talking. The Zambian then boasted about their minister of naval affairs. The South African asked, ‘But you have no navy, no access to the sea. How then can you have a minister of naval affairs?’ The Zambian retorted, ‘Well, in South Africa you have a Minister of Justice, don’t you?” (Nobel lecture, 1984)

– ‘I have prepared for my death and have made it clear that I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs. I hope I am treated with compassion and allowed to pass on to the next phase of life’s journey in the manner of my choice.’ (Op-ed in The Washington Post, 2016)


Midflight, I used a lavatory visit as a pretext to walk past his seat and noticed he was engrossed in a glossy magazine. 

When I returned his eyes were closed, his hands clasped in solemn prayer above his open bible. (Despite being only 5ft 4in, he would always insist on travelling first class to anti-poverty conferences.)

South Africans will be mourning him today for his immense physical and moral courage as well as his central role in the relatively peaceful collapse of apartheid. 

A typical example of both sorts of courage was evident after he spoke to a crowd of 15,000 mourners at the funeral of a civil rights lawyer, Griffiths Mxenge, who was hacked to death by state killers in 1981.

Word went round that an informer was in their midst. A can of petrol and a car tyre materialised and the man seemed doomed to become a victim of the hideous practice of ‘necklacing’, in which the tyre was set on fire around a victim’s neck.

Tutu threw himself over the suspected informer and ordered the crowd to back off. With his cassock stained in the blood of the man, Tutu walked him to his car and drove him away.

Tutu was born in 1931 in the black township of Klerksdorp, a dreary town west of Johannesburg. His father was a headmaster who drank too much, but instilled in his son an academic discipline.

As a child, he contracted polio that left him with an atrophied right hand. Later he developed tuberculosis which permanently weakened his lungs. 

Tutu and his wife Leah trained as teachers, but both resigned in protest when the Nationalist government tightened the rules on ‘Bantu education’, an inferior curriculum for black children.

Tutu would always say Leah, to whom he was married for 66 years and who survives him, was ‘much more radical than me’.

Once ordained, his ascent up the Anglican hierarchy was rapid. He was selected for further study, and enrolled at King’s College London in 1962 for a master’s degree in theology. 

Thus he became a bemused witness to London at the height of the Swinging Sixties. While studying, Tutu worked as a part-time curate in Golders Green, and then in the Surrey village of Bletchingley.

When I interviewed him some years ago, Tutu told me that the kindness white English people showed him and his family made him realise, almost for the first time, how wicked apartheid was.

He found it extraordinary that whites would queue happily behind a black man and that policemen were polite to him.

He relished aspects of the high life, proudly recalling that he had been taken as a guest both to Lord’s and the Travellers Club in Pall Mall.

He said the family’s return to South Africa in 1967 was a disturbing change for all of them and, after they went back, critics complained Tutu never stayed long in any position before his ambition led him to take the next step.

But the truth was he more able and charismatic than his clerical colleagues, and the Anglican church needed him if it was not to lose the townships where evangelical churches were stronger.

He became an international figure during the late 1970s with his appointment as General-Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, a role that gave him reason to work with government and opposition leaders.

These activities brought Tutu and his family into grave personal danger. Apartheid agents made at least one unsuccessful attempt to recruit an ex-convict to kill him.

An amateurish effort to sabotage the front wheel of a hire car was thwarted by the sharp eye of a television cameraman.

Another plot to kill him and a fellow churchman failed when the black soldiers given the task refused to follow it through.

Pretoria knew it had a serious problem with Tutu because his demands for the release of Mandela and for economic sanctions were destroying the economy.

In the end, it was his very celebrity which saved him because putting Tutu in jail, or killing him, would have triggered the sanctions he was calling for. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 gave him a further layer of protection, though his reaction was characteristically laconic. ‘One day no one was listening,’ he said, ‘the next I was an oracle.’

When Mandela walked free from prison in 1990, it was inevitably the showman Tutu, by now Archbishop of Cape Town, who introduced him to the adoring crowd.

‘We are the Rainbow People of God. I ask you to welcome our brand-new State President, out of the box, Nelson Mandela,’ he declared. 

Tutu was quick to step aside in the weeks ahead but he did not hold his tongue as the ANC transitioned from liberation movement to looting operation. As Tutu once tartly observed, ‘the ANC stopped the gravy train only long enough to get on themselves’.

But one more enormous burden was placed on his shoulders when Mandela insisted he was the only man who could lead South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This was, in effect, a vast, excruciating public inquest into South Africa’s rancid racial politics over the previous 40 years.

Inevitably, it was impossible to satisfy those who wanted apartheid’s criminal enforcers to be shamed and punished in such a setting. There were endless procedural wrangles over amnesty in return for confessions.

Tutu, on the whole, did a good job, though was forced to concede that some truths might have to be obscured in the bigger search for reconciliation.

In one of his last public appearances, he hosted Prince Harry, his wife Meghan and their four-month-old son Archie at his charitable foundation in Cape Town in September 2019, calling them a ‘genuinely caring’ couple

Britain’s Prince Harry, left, with South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who waves at people during his visit to The Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation in Cape Town, South Africa Monday, Nov. 30, 2015

There was a faint unworldliness about Tutu, which I stumbled upon when I spoke to him at length in Soweto and Cape Town.

Shortly before, ugly rumours surfaced about Bishop Trevor Huddleston, the British churchman who had befriended Tutu’s family when he worked in South Africa. The mother of two boys in East London alleged that Huddleston, while bishop of Stepney, had sexually abused her young sons. The police were involved and a case was prepared, but the prosecution did not go ahead.

I mentioned this to Tutu who was horrified and angry the allegations had been made.

‘He used to bounce us boys on his knee and play around with us,’ Tutu recalled. He added rather ambiguously: ‘There was no fondling below the belt.’

What struck me most was how a man who lived and suffered through the evils of apartheid managed to maintain his belief in the essential goodness of the human sprit to the very end.

For much of his public life, Tutu had to reject demands from militant black activists that whites had no role in the struggle for freedom. He insisted this fight must be non-racial and he based his argument on the horrors he observed overseeing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Tutu was one of the few men who understood that apartheid dehumanised the oppressor even more than the oppressed.

And his most remarkable achievement was his central role in saving South Africa from a racial war that, in the 1980s, had seemed almost inevitable.

Tributes pour in for Desmond Tutu 

Following the news of Desmond Tutu’s death, tributes poured in from religious figures, politicians and celebrities around the world. 

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby tweeted: ‘Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a prophet and priest, a man of words and action – one who embodied the hope and joy that were the foundations of his life.

‘Even in our profound sorrow we give thanks for a life so well lived. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.’

In a statement released online, he added: ‘The death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu (always known as Arch) is news that we receive with profound sadness – but also with profound gratitude as we reflect upon his life.

‘My prayers and condolences are with his family and all who loved him, with the Anglican Church of the Province of Southern Africa, and all of the people of South Africa.

‘Arch’s love transformed the lives of politicians and priests, township dwellers and world leaders. The world is different because of this man.’

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Archbishop Desmond Tutu would be remembered for his leadership and humour.

He said: ‘I am deeply saddened to hear of the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

‘He was a critical figure in the fight against apartheid and in the struggle to create a new South Africa – and will be remembered for his spiritual leadership and irrepressible good humour.’ 

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s legacy would echo through generations.

He said: ‘Desmond Tutu was a tower of a man and a leader of moral activism.

‘He dedicated his life to tackling injustice and standing up for the oppressed. His impact on the world crosses borders and echoes through generations.

‘May he rest in peace.’

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab described Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a ‘truly great figure’.

He tweeted: ‘Sad to hear of the passing of Desmond Tutu.

‘A truly great figure, who I had the privilege to meet in The Hague when he was working for the victims of war crimes. His adage, ‘Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument’, has never felt more apt.’

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss tweeted: ‘Saddened to hear of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s death. He was a driving force behind ending apartheid in South Africa and a worthy winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

‘My thoughts are with the people of South Africa.’

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon paid tribute to Archbishop.

On Twitter, the First Minister said: ‘Such sad news this morning … but his was a life that made the world a better place.

‘Rest in peace, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.’  

TV star Carol Vorderman said she was ‘immensely sad’ to hear of Desmond Tutu’s death.

The Archbishop’s death, aged 90, was announced by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. 

In a series of tweets, Vorderman wrote: ‘1/3 So immensely sad to hear of the passing of Desmond Tutu this morning. For my generation who learned late of apartheid (if it wasn’t in the library you didn’t know about things back then) and then to watch that system of hate be dismantled, the ‘Arch’ was there all the way.’

A second tweet said: ‘He was so wise and strong, and growing up we remembered his smile even when we couldn’t hear his words. Throughout your life, and mine, we will come across the few … the ones who stay in your mind and who fill your heart when you think of them. He is one of the few.’

Her final tweet read: ‘Archbishop Desmond Tutu … thank you for all you’ve done with your life, and for your smile and your dancing, from a little Welsh girl you never knew but who thought you were amazing.’

Singer Boy George described Tutu as a ‘beautiful soul’ .

The Culture Club singer tweeted: ‘Happy to say I met Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu and he was indeed a beautiful soul who gave me faith that some humans do have a strong love frequency. 

‘An amazing man, a powerful energy and one of God’s finest! R.I.P.’  

Strictly Come Dancing stars and sisters Oti and Motsi Mabuse – who grew up in South Africa also paid tribute to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. 

Strictly dancer Oti tweeted: ‘Oh no sad news’ and said it was a ‘major loss’ for South Africa.

Strictly judge Motsi shared a quote on Twitter which read: ‘Forgiving is not forgetting; its actually remembering-remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. 

‘And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened. R.I.P Desmond Tutu.’ 

The Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell paid tribute to Tutu as a ‘giant’ and one of the few who could unite the people of South Africa post-Apartheid.

He said: ‘One of the great and abiding images of the second half of the 20th century was Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela dancing in the courtroom at the end of the closing session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Cape Town. Nelson Mandela asked his friend Desmond Tutu to chair the commission.

‘It was a bold and creative way of helping a nation divided brutally between black and white learn to live in glorious technicolour by facing up to the horrors of its past and by putting the Christian imperative for forgiveness alongside the need for truth as the only way of achieving reconciliation.

‘And Desmond Tutu was asked to chair it because this incredibly joyful little disciple of Jesus Christ was one of the few people in South Africa, other than Nelson Mandela himself, who could unite the nation and carry the trust of everyone.

‘In this respect, he was a giant.’ 

The Archbishop of York added: ‘The world itself feels a little smaller without him. His expansive vision of how the Christian faith shapes the whole of life has touched many hearts and changed many lives.

‘The Anglican church, in particular, gives thanks for one of its greatest saints. But Christian people everywhere, and all people of goodwill, will today be mourning the loss of someone who showed the world what following Jesus looks like and where it leads.

‘Our prayers today are particularly with his family and with our sisters and brothers in the Anglican Church of South Africa.

‘When I go to my chapel this morning to celebrate the Eucharist on this, Saint Stephen’s day, I may dance a little jig in thankful memory of this wonderful human being. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.’ 

Other tributes: 

President Cyril Ramaphosa:

‘The passing of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is another chapter of bereavement in our nationâs 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.’

Thabo Makgoba, Archbishop of Cape Town:

‘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.’

Nelson Mandela Foundation:

‘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.’

Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Anniken Huitfeldt:

‘Desmond Tutu combined the struggle against apartheid with 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:

‘I’m saddened to learn of the death of global sage, human rights leader, and powerful pilgrim on earth … we are better because he was here.’ 

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