Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning icon, an uncompromising foe of apartheid and a modern-day activist for racial justice, died Sunday at 90. South Africans, world leaders and people around the globe mourned the death of the man viewed as the country’s moral conscience.
Tutu worked passionately, tirelessly and non-violently to tear down apartheid — South Africa’s brutal, decades-long regime of oppression against its Black majority that only ended in 1994.
The buoyant, blunt-spoken clergyman used his pulpit at frequent public demonstrations to galvanize public opinion against racial inequity, both at home and globally.
The diminutive Tutu became a towering figure in his nation’s history, comparable to fellow Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela, a prisoner during white rule who became South Africa’s first Black president. Tutu and Mandela shared a commitment to building a better, more equal South Africa.
Upon becoming president in 1994, Mandela appointed Tutu to be chairman of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which uncovered the abuses of apartheid.
Tutu’s death on Sunday “is another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said.
Tutu died peacefully at the Oasis Frail Care Center in Cape Town. He had been hospitalized several times since 2015 after being diagnosed with cancer in 1997.
“He turned his own misfortune into a teaching opportunity to raise awareness and reduce the suffering of others,” said the Tutu Trust.
In recent years he and his wife, Leah, lived in a retirement community outside Cape Town.
Former President Barack Obama hailed Tutu as “a moral compass for me and so many others. A universal spirit, Tutu was grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but also concerned with injustice everywhere. He never lost his impish sense of humor and willingness to find humanity in his adversaries.”
A seven-day mourning period is planned in Cape Town before Tutu’s burial. The southern city’s landmark Table Mountain will be lit up in purple, the color of the robes Tutu wore.
Throughout the 1980s — when South Africa was gripped by anti-apartheid violence and a state of emergency gave police and the military sweeping powers — Tutu was one of the most prominent Black leaders able to speak out against abuses.
A lively wit lightened Tutu’s hard-hitting messages and warmed otherwise grim protests, funerals and marches. Plucky and tenacious, he was a formidable force with a canny talent for quoting aptly to harness support for change.
The Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 highlighted his stature as one of the world’s most effective champions for human rights, a responsibility he took seriously for the rest of his life.
With the end of apartheid and South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Tutu celebrated the country’s multi-racial society, calling it a “rainbow nation,” a phrase that captured the heady optimism of the moment.
In 1990, after 27 years in prison, Mandela spent his first night of freedom at Tutu’s residence in Cape Town.
South Africa, Tutu said, was a “rainbow” nation of promise for racial reconciliation and equality, even though he grew disillusioned with the African National Congress, the anti-apartheid movement that became the ruling party after the 1994 election. His outspoken remarks long after apartheid sometimes angered partisans who accused him of being biased or out of touch.
Tutu was particularly incensed by the South African government’s refusal to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama, preventing the Tibetan leader from attending Tutu’s 80th birthday as well as a planned gathering of Nobel laureates in Cape Town. The government rejected Tutu’s accusations that it was bowing to pressure from China, a major trading partner.
Early in 2016, Tutu defended the reconciliation policy that ended white minority rule amid increasing frustrations among some Black South Africans who felt they had not seen the expected economic opportunities since apartheid ended. Tutu had chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated atrocities under apartheid and granted amnesty to some perpetrators, but some people believed that more former white officials should have been prosecuted.
Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born Oct. 7, 1931, in Klerksdorp, west of Johannesburg, and became a teacher before entering St. Peter’s Theological College in Rosetenville in 1958. He was ordained in 1961 and six years later became chaplain at the University of Fort Hare.
He then moved to the tiny southern African kingdom of Lesotho and to Britain, returning home in 1975.
Tutu was arrested in 1980 for joining a protest and later had his passport confiscated for the first time. He got it back for trips to the United States and Europe, where he spoke with the U.N. secretary-general and other religious leaders.
Tutu called for international sanctions against South Africa and talks to end apartheid.
Tutu often conducted funeral services after the massacres that marked the negotiating period of 1990-1994. He railed against black-on-black political violence, asking crowds, “Why are we doing this to ourselves?” In one powerful moment, Tutu defused the rage of thousands of mourners in a township soccer stadium after the Boipatong massacre of 42 people in 1992, leading the crowd in chants of unity.
As head of the truth commission, Tutu and his panel listened to harrowing testimony about torture, killings and other atrocities during apartheid. At some hearings, Tutu wept openly.
“Without forgiveness, there is no future,” he said at the time.
The commission’s 1998 report lay most of the blame on the forces of apartheid, but also found the African National Congress guilty of human rights violations. The ANC sued to block the document’s release, earning a rebuke from Tutu. “I didn’t struggle in order to remove one set of those who thought they were tin gods to replace them with others who are tempted to think they are,” Tutu said.
Tutu is survived by his wife of 66 years and their children.
Asked once how he wanted to be remembered, he told The Associated Press: “He loved. He laughed. He cried. He was forgiven. He forgave. Greatly privileged.”
Reporting by AP