‘A prophet and priest, a man of words and action’: The world pays tribute to Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu “was a prophet and priest, a man of words and action,” said the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, as he led tributes from around the world for the giant of the anti-apartheid campaign and South Africa’s political reconstruction who died yon Sunday aged 90.

Echoing messages from across the worlds of religion, politics and activism, Mr Welby said the former Archbishop of Cape Town was not only a great man but had a wonderful and infectious charisma.

“He just had this extraordinary, bubbly, overwhelming sense of humour. I mean you laughed the whole time when you met him,” Mr Welby told the BBC.

As well as defying South Africa’s apartheid authorities, Mr Tutu played a vital role in the transition to democracy, including chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which smoothed the way for a peaceful transition to full and free democracy.

Tutu advocated for international sanctions against apartheid

Credit: Reuters/Mike Hutchings

The late South African Nobel Peace Price Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the late South African President and Nobel Peace prize laureate Nelson Mandela

Credit: AFP

The former Bishop of Johannesburg is credited with coining the term “Rainbow Nation” to describe the vision of a post-apartheid South Africa and many of the tributes to him cited that dream.

“There were really two people who had a clear vision of ‘Rainbow Nation’, one was President [Nelson] Mandela and the other was Desmond Tutu,” said the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Queen has said she and the whole Royal family were “deeply saddened” by the death of the Archbishop, who she said “tirelessly championed human rights in South Africa and across the world”.

Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, said he would be “remembered for his spiritual leadership and irrepressible good humour.”

Mr Tutu, who had been in frail health having been diagnosed with prostate cancer more than 20 years ago, had been largely absent from public life for almost two years. 

Quotes from Desmond Tutu

Speaking to journalists on Sunday morning in Cape Town, the Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, said he gave the Archbishop communion on Christmas Day.

His wife and fellow activist, Nomalizo Leah Tutu, was lying on the bed next to Mr Tutu when he died.

Those paying tribute to the Anglican clergyman, often dubbed “South Africa’s moral compass”, cited his Christian values as helping to bridge the divide between white and black South Africans.

Terry Waite, a special envoy for the former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie and a friend of Mr Tutu , told The Telegraph: "He refused to hate those who vilified him and stood firmly in the Christian faith that had been his mainstay throughout his life. He will go down in history as one of the great humanitarians of his time."

Mr Tutu also played a key role in easing tensions between the many factions within black South African politics and averting a descent into violence during the transition.

The Nobel Peace Laureate provided "a moral affirmation for the negotiated settlement and the kind of compromises associated with that,” said Piers Pigou, a consultant for the International Crisis Group and a former employee of the TRC.

As Mandela’s successors in the presidency failed to live up to his legacy, Mr Tutu became a frequent critic, in particular of Thabo Mbeki for his HIV/Aids denialism and Jacob Zuma for the rampant corruption that thrived under his leadership.

“I wish I could shut up, but I can’t, and I won’t,” Mr Tutu said in 2007.

Officials are preparing for a surge of mourners to St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, Mr Tutu’s former church from which he led numerous marches. 

Desmond Tutu meeting the Dalai Lama in Vancouver in 2004

Credit: Lyle Stafford /Reuters

Nelson Mandela at a service in Cape Town to celebrate the end of Tutu's tenure as leader of the Anglican Church in South Africa

He is expected to lie in state at the cathedral for two days, as part of seven days of mourning. Table Mountain will be lit purple every night until after the funeral.

On Vilakazi Street in Soweto, where Mr Tutu and Mandela both lived at different times, tributes of flowers and candles had already begun to appear.

Mr Tutu’s former neighbours said they would be holding a memorial service for Mr Tutu within Soweto. “People will come later today to pay tribute,” said one former neighbour of the Tutus as she laid down flowers outside the old home.

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