Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu was one of the most effective activists against South African apartheid. He was born of Xhosa and Tswana parents at Klerksdorp in South Africa in 1931. He was educated in South African mission schools. His father was a respected schoolteacher but the family had little money and lived in a small shack without water or electricity. In 1936 the black South Africans’ right to vote was abolished.
From his family he learned tolerance and sympathy. I never learnt to hate, he said. When Desmond was twelve his family moved to Johannesburg where his father taught, and his mother cleaned and cooked at a school for the blind. Here Desmond learned compassion for the most underprivileged. It was here too, that he met Trevor Huddleston, the white parish priest in Sophiatown, a poor black settlement, who became his greatest mentor. Tutu says:
One day I was standing in the street with my mother when a white man in a priest’s clothing walked past. As he passed us he took off his hat to my mother. I couldn’t believe my eyes – a white man who greeted a black working class woman!
When he was fourteen Desmond caught tuberculosis and was in hospital for two years. Every day Father Huddleston came to visit him which inspired his devotion to Christianity. Later, when asked why he didn’t hate whites, he replied that it was because he was fortunate in the whites he had met when he was young.
The National Party won the general election in 1948 on an apartheid platform and passed the Group Areas Act and the Population Registration Act and began issuing Banning Orders.
Although he wanted to be a doctor, Desmond was unable to afford medical school and instead became a schoolteacher. In 1955 the Bantu Education Act was passed which, in an effort to limit opportunity for black students, denied them maths and science instruction. In July of that year Desmond Tutu married Leah Nomalizo Shenxane. Together they have had four children. Desmond Tutu resigned from his teaching post in 1957, frustrated by the Bantu Education Act. In 1958 he began training for the Anglican priesthood. He said: It just occurred to me that, if the Church would have me, the profession of priest could be a good way of serving my people.
In 1959 eight Bantustans, or homelands, were set up by the government. Millions of black South African families were forced from their homes to live in distant areas. In March 1960 five thousand black South Africans assembled in Sharpeville to protest peacefully against the Pass Laws. Police opened fire, killing sixty-nine people and wounding 180. The African National Congress (ANC) was banned. In 1961 South Africa was expelled from the British Commonwealth and declared itself a republic. The ANC began guerrilla attacks and in 1964 its leader, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment. The ANC was forced into exile.
Desmond Tutu was ordained in 1961 and lectured at a theological seminary. Later he went to London, where he obtained an M.A. from King’s College. From 1972 to 1975 he served as an assistant director for the World Council of Churches. In 1973 the United Nations adopted the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid declaring apartheid to be a crime against humanity.
In 1975 Tutu was elected the first black Dean of Johannesburg and gained international recognition. It was during this time he wrote a very poignant letter to the prime minister, Vorster. He wrote of reconciliation and racial oppression. He warned that without justice and freedom for blacks, all South Africans, both black and white faced a terrible and bloody future. He said that black people could take only so much, and that people made desperate by despair, injustice, and oppression are driven to desperate means. Vorster virtually ignored the letter. He refused to answer Tutu’s concerns and wrote back accusing him of trying to sensationalise. Tutu’s prophecy came true sooner than expected.
On June 16, 1976, hundreds of high-school students in Soweto, an African township near Johannesburg, marched in peaceful protest against the use of the Afrikaans language in schools. The police responded with tear gas and then with gunfire leaving at least three students dead and a dozen injured. The demonstrators, joined by angry crowds of Soweto residents, reacted by attacking and burning down government buildings. The government sent in more police and troops and quelled the violence but at the cost of several hundred African lives. The uprising then led to weeks of demonstrations, marches, and boycotts throughout South Africa. Violent clashes with police left more than 500 dead, several thousand arrested, and thousands more seeking refuge outside the country, many with the exiled forces of the ANC. In the same year Desmond Tutu, still advocating non-violence, was consecrated Bishop of Lesotho.
In 1977 Steve Biko, who had been a medical student at the University of Natal and leader of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) died from massive head injuries received while in police custody. Bishop Tutu delivered the funeral oration. World protest erupted against apartheid and the United Nations adopted a mandatory embargo on arms sales to South Africa.
In 1978 Bishop Tutu became general secretary of the South African Council of Churches and a leading spokesperson for the rights of black South Africans. He emphasized peaceful means of protest and encouraged international economic sanctions against South Africa. He was accused of being a traitor but became a popular world figure. P W Botha became President. Tutu was viewed as dangerous and his passport was cancelled. Protesters were beaten, arrested, imprisoned or even shot. In 1979 in an effort to stem industrial unrest and the slowing economy the government permitted black workers to form unions and inadvertently facilitated organised protest.
In 1983 nearly 600 organisations including trade unions, women’s groups and youth organizations, formed the United Democratic Front (UDF), to persuade the government to abolish apartheid. Bishop Tutu became one of their prime spokesmen. The UDF’s slogans were simple and reached a broad support base: Apartheid divides, the UDF unites; and The past is theirs, the future is ours. The UDF launched strikes and boycotts and within a year membership had grown from 15,000 to over three million.
In 1984 Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of all who opposed apartheid and supported peaceful reconciliation of black and white communities in South Africa. His objective was a democratic and just society without racial divisions. His demands were equal rights for all, the abolition of South Africa’s pass laws, a common system of education and the cessation of forced deportation to the homelands. The apartheid government of South Africa did not acknowledge the award. Bishop Tutu visited Washington where he addressed the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa and fearlessly spoke out against the US President’s South African policy:
We are talking about a moral issue. ….racial segregation is evil, is immoral, is un-Christian, without remainder. In my view, the Reagan Administration’s support and collaboration with it is equally immoral, evil and totally un-Christian. You are either for or against apartheid, and not by rhetoric. You are either in favour of evil, or you are in favour of good. You are either on the side of the oppressed or on the side of the oppressor. You can’t be neutral.
In 1985 Desmond Tutu became Johannesburg’s first black Anglican bishop and in 1986 was enthroned Archbishop of Cape Town, leader of South Africa’s 1.6 million Anglicans of all races. In his role as archbishop he urged whites to become more involved in peaceful protests, and all Christians to disobey unjust laws. Some of his services were overtly political. Tutu gained huge support from blacks, but his actions and words drew criticism from some whites.
In 1987 the unions used their power and almost six million days were lost to strikes. The ANC attacked South Africa from bases in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The military counter-attacked, the media and other organisations were restricted, more foreign investors withdrew, foreign banks called in loans, the currency collapsed, economic production declined and inflation became chronic.
In 1988 Archbishop Tutu, the Roman Catholic archbishop and the Methodist president were arrested as they tried to march to parliament in protest against the banning of political organisations. In October the US congress passed legislation implementing mandatory sanctions against South Africa and the government began talks with the still imprisoned Nelson Mandela. In 1989 President P W Botha resigned and F W de Klerk, a moderate, replaced him. Negotiations for Mandela’s release began.
In 1990 de Klerk removed the ban on the ANC and other illegal political organisations and lifted the restrictions on the media, the UDF and other legal political organisations. Nelson Mandela was released and in August announced the end of the ANC’s armed struggle. More talks took place and in October the Government allowed all races to share the same amenities.
In 1991 more restrictive laws were rescinded and the international community lifted most of their embargos on South Africa. A National Peace Accord was negotiated and signed and after white South Africans overwhelmingly voted against the continuation of apartheid a Government of National Unity was planned. On April the 27th, 1994 the ANC claimed the overwhelming majority in the historic first free elections in South Africa that marked the end of the apartheid era. Nelson Mandela was elected President.
In 1995 President Mandela appointed Archbishop Tutu as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated human rights abuses and political crimes committed by both supporters and opponents of apartheid between 1960 and 1994. Tutu said:
I hope that the work of the commission, by opening wounds to cleanse them, will thereby stop them from festering. We cannot be facile and say bygones will be bygones, because they will not be bygones and will return to haunt us. True reconciliation is never cheap, for it is based on forgiveness, which is costly. Forgiveness in turn depends on repentance, which has to be based on an acknowledgment of what was done wrong, and therefore on disclosure of the truth. You cannot forgive what you do not know.”
At a thanksgiving for Desmond Tutu upon his retirement as Archbishop in 1996, President Mandela said:
His joy in our diversity and his spirit of forgiveness are as much part of his immeasurable contribution to our nation as his passion for justice and his solidarity with the poor.”
On another occasion Mandela said:
Sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless.”
Source and further reference:
- More Heroes
- Utah State University, TeacherLink, Desmond Tutu
- Nobel e-Museum
- CAPECONNECTED Heritage
- Find an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Peacejam Foundation website.
Theme: International racism and anti-racism – Stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination