Johannesburg - Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu thanked the Mo Ibrahim Foundation for the “once-off” special award it gave him on Thursday.
“I would like to thank Mr Mo Ibrahim and his Foundation for their faith in our work,” Tutu said in a statement.
He said he had received news of the prize while celebrating a combined birthday party with his wife Leah.
“I have been very fortunate throughout my life to be surrounded by people of the highest calibre, beginning with my extraordinary wife,” Tutu said.
“It is these generous people who have guided, prodded, assisted, cajoled and ultimately allowed me to take the credit.”
The special award, which carries a cash prize of US1 million (about R8,5m), will be formally presented to Tutu in Dakar, Senegal, at the 2012 Ibrahim Forum.
“In everything he stands for, everything he says, and everything he does, he displays a consistent obligation to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak the uncomfortable truths,” said Mo Ibrahim, in Johannesburg.
In August, Tutu made headlines when he withdrew his attendance at a Discovery leadership summit, because former British prime minister Tony Blair was speaking at the same event.
At the time, Tutu said Blair's decision to support the United States' military invasion of Iraq, on the basis of unproven allegations of the existence in Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, was morally indefensible.
Last month, he called for Blair and former United States president George Bush to face prosecution at the International Criminal Court for their roles in the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq.
Also last month, the retired Anglican Church's archbishop said democracy in South Africa had turned into a nightmare.
“But I ask myself, why were we in the struggle? The highest price was paid for freedom, but are we treating it as something precious?”
Ibrahim said on Thursday that Tutu's integrity deserved recognition.
“We hope this award will inspire the next generation,” said Ibrahim.
Jay Naidoo, who attended the announcement said the award was not given to Tutu because he was part of the older generation, but was meant to inspire others.
He said society had to work towards having organisations, young people and women in business who would be awarded similar prizes.
Ibrahim said the award was not a replacement of the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement but rather “reflected the assessment” of the Achievement Prize.
The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement is awarded to African heads of state who have excelled during their terms in office. It aims to recognise good and responsible governance.
Joaquim Chissano, of Mozambique, was the first to be awarded the prize in 2007. Botswana's Festus Mogae was awarded the prize in 2008.
In 2007, former president Nelson Mandela became an Honorary Laureate for his role in South Africa and the African community.
Pedro Pires, former president of Cape Verde, was the recipient in 2011. No award was made in 2009.
Tutu turns 81-years-old on Sunday. His wife's birthday is next week.
Desmond and Leah Legacy Foundation executive director Reverend Mpho Tutu said her father was caught in a rather busy retirement from public life.
“He is trying to slow down, to quiet down, but knows there is still so much work to be done,” the reverend said. - Sapa