Desmond Mpilo Tutu OMSG CH (7 October 1931 – 26 December 2021) was a South African Anglican bishop and theologian, known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist. He was the Bishop of Johannesburg from 1985 to 1986 and then the Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996, in both cases being the first African to hold the position. Theologically, he sought to fuse ideas from black theology with African theology.
Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born of mixed Xhosa and Motswana heritage to a poor family in Klerksdorp, South Africa. Entering adulthood, he trained as a teacher and married Nomalizo Leah Tutu, with whom he had several children. In 1960, he was ordained as an Anglican priest and in 1962 moved to the United Kingdom to study theology at King’s College London. In 1966 he returned to southern Africa, teaching at the Federal Theological Seminary and then the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. In 1972, he became the Theological Education Fund’s director for Africa, a position based in London but necessitating regular tours of the African continent. Back in southern Africa in 1975, he served first as dean of St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg and then as Bishop of Lesotho; from 1978 to 1985 he was general-secretary of the South African Council of Churches. He emerged as one of the most prominent opponents of South Africa’s apartheid system of racial segregation and white minority rule. Although warning the National Party government that anger at apartheid would lead to racial violence, as an activist he stressed non-violent protest and foreign economic pressure to bring about universal suffrage.
In 1985, Tutu became Bishop of Johannesburg and in 1986 the Archbishop of Cape Town, the most senior position in southern Africa’s Anglican hierarchy. In this position he emphasised a consensus-building model of leadership and oversaw the introduction of female priests. Also in 1986, he became president of the All Africa Conference of Churches, resulting in further tours of the continent. After President F. W. de Klerk released the anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 and the pair led negotiations to end apartheid and introduce multi-racial democracy, Tutu assisted as a mediator between rival black factions. After the 1994 general election resulted in a coalition government headed by Mandela, the latter selected Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights abuses committed by both pro and anti-apartheid groups. Since apartheid’s fall, Tutu has campaigned for gay rights and spoken out on a wide range of subjects, among them the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, his opposition to the Iraq War, and his criticism of South African presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. In 2010, he retired from public life.
Tutu polarised opinion as he rose to notability in the 1970s. White conservatives who supported apartheid despised him, while many white liberals regarded him as too radical; many black radicals accused him of being too moderate and focused on cultivating white goodwill, while Marxist–Leninists criticised his anti-communist stance. He was widely popular among South Africa’s black majority, and was internationally praised for his anti-apartheid activism, receiving a range of awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize. He has also compiled several books of his speeches and sermons.
Early Life, History and Career
Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born on 7 October 1931 in Klerksdorp, northwest South Africa. His mother, Allen Dorothea Mavoertsek Mathlare, was born to a Motswana family in Boksburg. His father, Zachariah Zelilo Tutu, was from the amaFengu branch of Xhosa and had grown up in Gcuwa, Eastern Cape. At home, the couple spoke the Xhosa language. Having married in Boksburg, they moved to Klerksdorp in the late 1950s, living in the city’s “native location,” or black residential area, since renamed Makoetend. Zachariah worked as the principal of a Methodist primary school and the family lived in the mud-brick schoolmaster’s house in the yard of the Methodist mission.
The Tutus were poor; describing his family, Tutu later related that “although we weren’t affluent, we were not destitute either”. Tutu had an older sister, Sylvia Funeka, who called him “Mpilo” (“life”), a name given to him by his paternal grandmother. He was his parent’s second son; their firstborn boy, Sipho, had died in infancy. Another daughter, Gloria Lindiwe, was born after him. Tutu was sickly from birth; polio resulted in the atrophy of his right hand, and on one occasion he was hospitalised with serious burns. Tutu had a close relationship with his father, although was angered at the latter’s heavy drinking, during which he would sometimes beat his wife. The family were initially Methodists and Tutu was baptised into the Methodist Church in June 1932. They subsequently changed denominations, first to the African Methodist Episcopal Church and then to the Anglican Church.
In 1936, the family moved to Tshing, where Zachariah became principal of a Methodist school. There, Tutu started his primary education, learned Afrikaans, and became the server at St Francis Anglican Church. He developed a love of reading, particularly enjoying comic books and European fairy tales. In Tshing his parents had a third son, Tamsanqa, who also died in infancy. Around 1941, Tutu’s mother moved to Witwatersrand to work as a cook at Ezenzeleni Blind Institute in Johannesburg. Tutu joined her in the city, living in Roodepoort West. In Johannesburg, he attended a Methodist primary school before transferring to the Swedish Boarding School (SBS) in the St Agnes Mission. Several months later, he moved with his father to Ermelo, eastern Transvaal. After six months, the duo returned to Roodepoort West, where Tutu resuming his studies at SBS. Pursuing his interest in Christianity, at the age of 12 he underwent confirmation at St Mary’s Church, Roodepoort.
Tutu entered the Johannesburg Bantu High School in 1945, where he excelled academically. There, he joined a school rugby team, developing a lifelong love of the sport. Outside of school, he earned money selling oranges and as a caddie for white golfers To avoid the expense of a daily train commute to school, he briefly lived with family nearer to Johannesburg, before moving back in with his parents when they relocated to Munsieville. He then returned to Johannesburg, moving into an Anglican hostel near the Church of Christ the King in Sophiatown. He became a server at the church and came under the influence of its priest, Trevor Huddleston; later biographer Shirley du Boulay suggested that Huddleston was “the greatest single influence” in Tutu’s life. In 1947, Tutu contracted tuberculosis and was hospitalised in Rietfontein for 18 months, during which he was regularly visited by Huddleston. In the hospital, he underwent a circumcision to mark his transition to manhood. He returned to school in 1949 and took his national exams in late 1950, gaining a second-class pass.
lthough Tutu secured admission to study medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand, his parents could not afford the tuition fees. Instead, he turned toward teaching, gaining a government scholarship to start a course at Pretoria Bantu Normal College, a teacher training institution, in 1951. There, he served as treasurer of the Student Representative Council, helped to organise the Literacy and Dramatic Society, and chaired the Cultural and Debating Society. During one debating event he first met the lawyer—and future president of South Africa—Nelson Mandela; they would not encounter each other again until 1990. At the college, Tutu attained his Transvaal Bantu Teachers Diploma, having gained advice about taking exams from the activist Robert Sobukwe. He had also taken five correspondence courses provided by the University of South Africa (UNISA), graduating in the same class as future Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe.
In 1954, he began teaching English at Madibane High School; the following year, he transferred to the Krugersdorp High School, where he taught English and history. He began courting Nomalizo Leah Shenxane, a friend of his sister Gloria who was studying to become a primary school teacher. They were legally married at Krugersdorp Native Commissioner’s Court in June 1955, before undergoing a Roman Catholic wedding ceremony at the Church of Mary Queen of Apostles; although he was an Anglican, Tutu agreed to the ceremony due to Leah’s Roman Catholic faith. The newlyweds lived at Tutu’s parental home before renting their own six months later. Their first child, Trevor, was born in April 1956; a daughter, Thandeka, appeared 16 months later. The couple worshipped at St Paul’s Church, where Tutu volunteered as a Sunday school teacher, assistant choirmaster, church councillor, lay preacher, and sub-deacon, while outside of the church he also volunteered as a football administrator for a local team.
In 1953, the white-minority National Party government introduced the Bantu Education Act to further their apartheid system of racial segregation and white domination. Disliking the Act, Tutu and his wife left the teaching profession. With Huddleston’s support, Tutu chose to become an Anglican priest. In January 1956, his request to join the Ordinands Guild was turned down due to his debts; these were then paid off by the wealthy industrialist Harry Oppenheimer. Tutu was admitted to St Peter’s Theological College in Rosettenville, Johannesburg, which was run by the Anglican Community of the Resurrection. The college was residential, and Tutu lived there while his wife moved to train as a nurse in Sekhukhuneland and his children lived with his parents in Munsieville. In August 1960, his wife gave birth to another daughter, Naomi.
At the college, Tutu studied the Bible, Anglican doctrine, church history, and Christian ethics, earning a Licentiate of Theology degree, and winning the archbishop’s annual essay prize. The college’s principal, Godfrey Pawson, wrote that Tutu “has exceptional knowledge and intelligence and is very industrious. At the same time he shows no arrogance, mixes in well and is popular… He has obvious gifts of leadership.” During his years at the college, there had been an intensification in anti-apartheid activism as well as a crackdown against it, including the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. Tutu and his other trainees did not engage in anti-apartheid activism; he later noted that “we were in some ways a very apolitical bunch”.
In December 1960, Edward Paget ordained Tutu as an Anglican priest at St Mary’s Cathedral. Tutu was then appointed assistant curate in St Alban’s Parish, Benoni, where he was reunited with his wife and children, and earned two-thirds of what his white counterparts were given. In 1962, Tutu was transferred to St Philip’s Church in Thokoza, where he was placed in charge of the congregation and developed a passion for pastoral ministry. Many in South Africa’s white-dominated Anglican establishment felt the need for more indigenous Africans in positions of ecclesiastical authority; to assist in this, Aelfred Stubbs proposed that Tutu train as a theology teacher at King’s College London (KCL). Funding was secured from the International Missionary Council’s Theological Education Fund (TEF), and the government agreed to give the Tutus permission to move to Britain. They duly did so in September 1962.
At KCL’s theology department, Tutu studied under theologians like Dennis Nineham, Christopher Evans, Sydney Evans, Geoffrey Parrinder, and Eric Mascall. In London, the Tutus felt liberated experiencing a life free from South Africa’s apartheid and pass laws; he later noted that “there is racism in England, but we were not exposed to it”. He was also impressed by the freedom of speech available in the country, especially that at Speakers’ Corner. The family moved into the curate’s flat behind the Church of St Alban the Martyr in Golders Green, where Tutu assisted Sunday services, the first time that he had ministered to a white congregation. It was in the flat that a daughter, Mpho Andrea Tutu, was born in 1963. Tutu was academically successful and his tutors suggested that he convert to an honours degree, which entailed him also studying Hebrew. He received his degree from Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in a ceremony held at the Royal Albert Hall.
Tutu then secured a TEF grant to study for a master’s degree; he studied for this degree from October 1965 until September 1966, completing his dissertation on Islam in West Africa. During this period, the family moved to Bletchingley in Surrey, where Tutu worked as the assistant curate of St Mary’s Church. In the village, he encouraged cooperation between his Anglican parishioners and the local Roman Catholic and Methodist communities. Tutu’s time in London helped him to jettison any bitterness to whites and feelings of racial inferiority; he overcame his habit of automatically deferring to whites.
In October 1994, Tutu announced his intention to retire as archbishop in 1996. Although retired archbishops normally return to the position of bishop, the other bishops bestowed on him a new title: “archbishop emeritus”. A farewell ceremony was held at St George’s Cathedral in June 1996, attended by senior politicians like Mandela and de Klerk. There, Mandela awarded Tutu the Order for Meritorious Service, South Africa’s highest honour. Tutu was succeeded as archbishop by Ndungane.
In January 1997, Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer and travelled abroad for treatment. He publicly revealed his diagnosis, hoping to encourage other men to go for prostate exams. He faced recurrences of the disease in 1999 and 2006. Back in South Africa, he divided his time between homes in Soweto’s Orlando West and Cape Town’s Milnerton area. In 2000, he opened an office in Cape Town. In June 2000, the Cape Town-based Desmond Tutu Peace Centre was launched, which in 2003 launched an Emerging Leadership Program.
Conscious that his presence in South Africa might overshadow Ndungane, Tutu agreed to a two-year visiting professorship at Emory University. This took place between 1998 and 2000, and during the period he wrote a book about the TRC, No Future Without Forgiveness. In early 2002 he taught at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From January to May 2003 he taught at the University of North Carolina. In January 2004, he was visiting professor of postconflict societies at KCL, his alma mater. While in the United States, he signed up with a speakers’ agency and travelled widely on speaking engagements; this gave him financial independence in a way that his clerical pension would not. In his speeches, he focused on South Africa’s transition from apartheid to universal suffrage, presenting it as a model for other troubled nations to adopt. In the US, he thanked anti-apartheid activists for campaigning for sanctions, also calling for US companies to now invest in South Africa.
Post-apartheid, Tutu’s status as a gay rights activist kept him in the public eye more than any other issue facing the Anglican Church. Tutu regarded discrimination against homosexuals as being the equivalent to discrimination against black people and women, and his views on this known through speeches and sermons. After the 1998 Lambeth Conference of bishops reaffirmed the church’s opposition to same-sex sexual acts, Tutu wrote to George Carey stating “I am ashamed to be an Anglican”. He regarded the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams as too accommodating of conservatives who wanted to eject various US and Canadian Anglican churches from the Anglican Communion after they expressed a pro-LGBT rights stance. Tutu expressed the view that if these conservatives disliked the inclusiveness of the Anglican Communion, they always had “the freedom to leave”. In 2007, Tutu accused the church of being obsessed with homosexuality and declared: “If God, as they say, is homophobic, I wouldn’t worship that God.” In 2011, he called on the Anglican Church of Southern Africa to accept and conduct same-sex marriages.
In October 2010, Tutu announced his retirement from public life so that he could spend more time “at home with my family – reading and writing and praying and thinking”. In May 2013, he declared that he would no longer vote for the ANC, stating that while the party was “very good at leading us in the struggle to be free from oppression”, it had done a poor job in countering inequality, violence, and corruption. The following month, he welcomed the launch of a new party, Agang South Africa. After Mandela died in December 2013, Tutu initially stated that he had not been invited to the funeral; after the government denied this, Tutu announced his attendance. He criticised the memorials held for Mandela, stating that they gave too much prominence to the ANC and marginalised Afrikaners, commenting that Mandela would have been appalled.
Tutu maintained an interest in social issues. In July 2014, he came out in support of legalised assisted dying, later stating that he would want that option open to him personally. In December 2015, Tutu’s daughter, Mpho Tutu, married a woman in the Netherlands. Tutu attended and gave the proceedings a blessing, despite Anglican opposition to same-sex marriage.
Tutu continued commenting on international affairs. In November 2012, he published a letter alongside Mairead Maguire and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel in which they expressed support for the imprisoned U.S. military whistleblower Chelsea Manning. In August 2017, Tutu was among ten Nobel Peace Prize laureates who urged Saudi Arabia to stop the execution of 14 participants of the 2011–12 Saudi Arabian protests. In September, Tutu asked Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi to halt the army’s persecution of the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority. In December, he was among those to condemn U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to officially recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital despite Palestinian opposition.
Tutu died on 26 December 2021 at the age of 90.
His death was confirmed in a statement by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
It marked “another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa,” he said.
Tutu was one of the country’s best known figures at home and abroad.
Wife, Children, Family and Personal Life
Du Boulay noted that Tutu was “a man of many layers” and “contradictory tensions”. His personality has been described as warm, exuberant, and outgoing. Du Boulay noted that his “typical African warmth and a spontaneous lack of inhibition” proved shocking to many of the “reticent English” whom he encountered when in England, but that it also meant that he had the “ability to endear himself to virtually everyone who actually meets him”.
Du Boulay noted that as a child, Tutu had been hard-working and “unusually intelligent”. She added that he had a “gentle, caring temperament and would have nothing to do with anything that hurt others”, commenting on how he had “a quicksilver mind a disarming honesty”. Tutu was rarely angry in his personal contacts with others, although could become so if he felt that his integrity was being challenged. He had a tendency to be highly trusting, something which some of those close to whom sometimes believed was unwise in various situations. He was also reportedly bad at managing finances and prone to overspending, resulting in accusations of irresponsibility and extravagance.
Tutu had a passion for preserving African traditions of courtesy. He could be offended by discourteous behaviour and careless language, as well as by swearing and ethnic slurs. He could get very upset if a member of his staff forgot to thank him or did not apologise for being late to a prayer session. He also disliked gossip and discouraged it among his staff. He was very punctual, and insisted on punctuality among those in his employ. Du Boulay noted that “his attention to the detail of people’s lives is remarkable”, for he would be meticulous in recording and noting people’s birthdays and anniversaries. He was attentive to his parishioners, making an effort to regularly visit and spend time with them; this included making an effort to visit parishioners who disliked him.
According to Du Boulay, Tutu had “a deep need to be loved”, a facet that the clergyman recognised about himself and referred to as a “horrible weakness”. Tutu has also been described as being sensitive, and very easily hurt, an aspect of his personality which he concealed from the public eye; Du Boulay noted that he “reacts to emotional pain” in an “almost childlike way”. He never denied being ambitious, and acknowledged that he enjoyed the limelight which his position gave him, something that his wife often teased him about. He was, according to Du Boulay, “a man of passionate emotions” who was quick to both laugh and cry.
As well as English, Tutu could speak Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, and Xhosa. Tutu was often praised for his public speaking abilities; Du Boulay noted that his “star quality enables him to hold an audience spellbound”. Gish noted that “Tutu’s voice and manner could light up an audience; he never sounded puritanical or humourless”. Quick witted, he used humour to try and win over audiences. He had a talent for mimicry but, according to Du Boulay, “his humour has none of the cool acerbity that makes for real wit”. His application of humour included jokes that made a point about apartheid; “the whites think the black people want to drive them into the sea. What they forget is, with apartheid on the beaches – we can’t even go to the sea.” In a speech made at the Sixth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Vancouver, he for instance drew laughs from the audience for referring to South Africa as having a “few local problems”.
[Tutu’s] extravert nature conceals a private, introvert side that needs space and regular periods of quiet; his jocularity runs alongside a deep seriousness; his occasional bursts of apparent arrogance mask a genuine humility before God and his fellow men. He is a true son of Africa who can move easily in European and American circles, a man of the people who enjoys ritual and episcopal splendour, a member of an established Church, in some ways a traditionalist, who takes a radical, provocative and fearless stand against authority if he sees it to be unjust. It is usually the most spiritual who can rejoice in all created things and Tutu has no problem in reconciling the sacred and the secular, but critics note a conflict between his socialist ideology and his desire to live comfortably, dress well and lead a life that, while unexceptional in Europe or America, is considered affluent, tainted with capitalism, in the eyes of the deprived black community of South Africa.
— Shirley du Boulay on Tutu’s personality
Tutu has had a lifelong love of literature and reading, and was a fan of cricket. To relax, he enjoyed listening to classical music and reading books on politics or religion. His favourite foods included samosas, marshmallows, fat cakes, and Yogi Sip. When hosts asked what his culinary tastes were, his wife responded: “think of a five year old”. Tutu awoke at 4 am each morning, before engaging in an early morning walk, prayers, and the Eucharist. On Fridays, he fasted until supper.
Tutu was a committed Christian since boyhood. Prayer was a big part of his life; he often spent an hour in prayer at the start of each day, and would ensure that every meeting or interview that he was part of was preceded by a short prayer. He was even known to often pray while driving. He reads the Bible every day. Tutu says he reads the Bible every day and recommends that people read it as a collection of books, not a single constitutional document: “You have to understand is that the Bible is really a library of books and it has different categories of material,” he said. “There are certain parts which you have to say no to. The Bible accepted slavery. St Paul said women should not speak in church at all and there are people who have used that to say women should not be ordained. There are many things that you shouldn’t accept.”
On 2 July 1955, Tutu married Nomalizo Leah Shenxane, a teacher whom he had met while at college. They had four children: Trevor Thamsanqa, Theresa Thandeka, Naomi Nontombi and Mpho Andrea, all of whom attended the Waterford Kamhlaba School in Swaziland. Du Boulay referred to him as “a loving and concerned father”, while Allen described him as a “loving but strict father” to his children.
utu gained many international awards and honorary degrees, particularly in South Africa, the United Kingdom, and United States. By 2003, he had approximately 100 honorary degrees; he was, for example, the first person to be awarded an honorary doctorate by the Ruhr University of West Germany, and only the third person whom Columbia University in the U.S. agreed to award an honorary doctorate off-campus to. Many schools and scholarships were named after him. For instance, in 2000 the Munsieville Library in Klerksdorp was renamed the Desmond Tutu Library. At Fort Hare University, the Desmond Tutu School of Theology was launched in 2002.
On 16 October 1984, the then Bishop Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee cited his “role as a unifying leader figure in the campaign to resolve the problem of apartheid in South Africa”. This was seen as a gesture of support for him and The South African Council of Churches which he led at that time. In 1987 Tutu was awarded the Pacem in Terris Award. It was named after a 1963 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII that calls upon all people of good will to secure peace among all nations.
In 2003, Tutu received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement presented by Awards Council member Coretta Scott King. In 2008, Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois proclaimed 13 May ‘Desmond Tutu Day’.
In 2015, Queen Elizabeth II approved Desmond Tutu the honorary British award of The Order of the Companions of Honour. (CH). Queen Elizabeth II appointed Tutu as a Bailiff Grand Cross of the Venerable Order of St. John in September 2017.
In 2010 Desmond Tutu delivered the Bynum Tudor Lecture at the University of Oxford and became Visiting Fellow at Kellogg College, Oxford. In 2013 he received the £1.1m ($1.6m) Templeton Prize for “his life-long work in advancing spiritual principles such as love and forgiveness”. In 2018 the fossil of a Devonian tetrapod was found in Grahamstown by Rob Gess of the Albany Museum; this tetrapod was named Tutusius umlambo in Tutu’s honour.