Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu turns 90 on Thursday. Henk Kruger African News Agency (ANA)
Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu turns 90 on Thursday. Henk Kruger African News Agency (ANA)

A tireless advocate for justice, Archbishop Tutu turns 90

By Bulelwa Payi Time of article published Oct 6, 2021

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Anglican Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu's name is held with high esteem across the world for his contribution to the fight against apartheid.

On Thursday, the man who held the attention and adulation from statesmen and ordinary people alike, will celebrate his 90th birthday.

Born to a teacher and a mother who was a domestic worker during difficult political times in South Africa, he shared glimpses into his life.

He recalled how he was a sickly baby and medical doctors thought he would not survive tuberculosis.

Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu who celebrates his 90the birthday on Thursday with his wife Leah Tutu. SUPPLIED

In an article he wrote for the Cape Times he described a meeting with English Archbishop Trevor Huddleston during the first decade of his life as having had a profound impact.

“It was something I could never have imagined. The impossible was possible”, he wrote.

He described the meeting: “There was this tall white priest with a big black hat. He doffed his hat to greet my mother, a black working-class woman.”

He also related the incident to the BBC: “My mother and I were standing on a verandah. It was mind-blowing, a white man greeting my black mother with such courtesy.”

Huddleston would become one of the leading anti-apartheid campaigners in the United Kingdom.

Another incident which “etched itself” in his subconscious mind was when he stayed in Ventersdorp.

As the only black child with a bicycle, his father would send him to buy a newspaper in the local shop

“I would ride past a whites-only primary school and see black kids rummaging through the bins for sandwiches which were provided by the school for free. They did not need those sandwiches and would throw them in the bin. And we had black kids who were poor,” he told the BBC.

In his twenties, Tutu became a teacher but left the profession when the then-prime minister, Hendrik Verwoed, introduced Bantu education which he said was designed to teach black children “just enough to understand instructions and keep them in perpetual servanthood”.

“I could not collaborate with this and I turned to priesthood. It was much later that I realised that it was almost like God was grabbing me by the scruff of the neck into it,” Tutu recalled.

The next decade of his year was characterised by his vocal stance against apartheid.

In the 60s, Tutu and his wife, Leah moved to the UK for a few years where he continued with his studies.

“The contrast was incredible. Leah and I would sometimes take walks in the night and would ask for directions from a white police officer who would address us in a courteous way,” he said.

In 1976, at the age of 45, Tutu wrote a letter to prime minister John Vorster warning him that something cataclysmic was brewing. But Vorster treated the letter with contempt, he said.

Not long after, the country saw the June student uprisings which started in Soweto.

Tutu continued to be a thorn in the side of apartheid South Africa for calling on the international world to impose economic sanctions against the country.

He also advocated a non-violent resistance to apartheid.

He also became one of the vocal campaigners for the release of the imprisoned ANC leader, Nelson Mandela.

In July 1988, Tutu attended a rally in central London in support of the Free Nelson Mandela campaign.

Veteran journalist, Allister Sparks described Tutu this way: “Throughout the period when Mandela was in jail, Tutu was effectively the leader of the liberation struggle in the country.”

As his stature as an anti-apartheid activist grew, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 53, becoming the second South African after Chief Albert Luthuli to receive the honour.

In 1986, he was elected the archbishop of Cape Town - the first black African to serve in the position.

In his sixties, he witnessed the release of Mandela from prison, who would later task him with setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

On 11 May 1994, he introduced Mandela to the crowds gathered at the Grand Parade.

During the early 90s, he played a mediation role between rival black groups in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

At the age of 63, he voted for the first time in his country, along with millions of others in the April 1994 democratic elections.

“No words would be able to adequately describe how I felt, how we all felt. It was a miracle. There was something in the atmosphere - you could even smell it,” he would later describe the experience.

However, a few months after the elections, Tutu publicly criticised the huge salaries that Mandela’s cabinet received.

“They stopped the gravy train long enough for them to get on it,” Tutu told the media.

Tutu was regarded by many as a proponent for Ubuntu and an architect of the Rainbow Nation.

As chair of the TRC, pictures of Tutu weeping spread across the media as he listened to the stories of families whose lives were shattered by apartheid and its agents. For him, forgiveness was the only way to deal with the painful past.

Tutu announced his retirement in 1996.

However, his seventies were characterised by yet more responsibilities, focused on finding peace in the world.

Mandela also tasked Tutu to chair The Elders, a group of retired statesmen including former US president Jimmy Carter, former Irish prime minister Mary Robinson, former UN general secretary Kofi Annan and Ela Bhatt, an activist from India.

The group used their experience and skills to solve global challenges.

Tutu led a delegation of the Elders to Darfur, Sudan to broker a peace deal.

Mandela also sent him to Liberia and Nigeria to help find peace.

Former US president Barack Obama met with Tutu in 2006, long before he became president and in 2004, actor Will Smith was photographed with him at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

In 2009, Obama awarded Tutu with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Not one to shy away from controversial issues, he criticised the ANC-led government for denying the Dalai Lama a visa to visit South Africa in 2011.

In his eighties, he continued with his lifelong commitment of speaking truth to power and criticised the church for not recognising same-sex marriages and referred to the negative treatment of gay people as the “new apartheid”.

Weekend Argus

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