Desmond Tutu was born on October 7, 1931 in Klerksdorp, in the South African state of Transvaal, about 170 kilometers west of Johannesburg. The legendary South African Anglican bishop and theologian is well known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist. From 1985 to 1986, he was Bishop of Johannesburg and then from 1986 to 1996, he became Archbishop of Cape Town, thus becoming the first black African to hold the position. In a theological way, he tried to fuse ideas from black theology with African theology.
Tutu was born of mixed Xhosa and Motswana parents and was educated in South African mission. When he was 12, the family moved to Johannesburg where he attended Johannesburg Bantu High School. Young Desmond was baptized a Methodist and his entire family later joined the Anglican Church.
Once he was diagnosed and hospitalized with tuberculosis, which after his recovery, he befriended Reverend Trevor Huddleston, a white priest, and served in his church. Although he had planned to become a physician, but that dream could not materialise since his parents could not afford to sponsor him to medical school. His father was a teacher, and he himself trained as a teacher at Pretoria Bantu Normal College, and in 1954 he graduated from the University of South Africa.
Then South Africans were legally assigned to an official racial group which means each race was restricted to separate living areas and separate public facilities because the government of South Africa did not extend the rights of citizenship to black South Africans, as only the white South Africans were permitted to vote in national elections. Travelling within the country will require passports even as government banned critics from speaking in public and subjected them to house arrest.
Desmond Tutu was among those that refused to cooperate when the South African government ordained a deliberately inferior system of education for black students. He felt the urge and determination to do something to improve the life of his disenfranchised people as he could no longer work as a teacher.
He spent three years as a high school teacher before he began to study theology, and was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1960. In 1962 moved to the United Kingdom where he devoted himself to studying theology at King’s College London and end up to a Master of Theology. He taught theology in South Africa from 1967 to 1972 and then returned to England as the assistant director of a theological institute in London for three years.
He serve as Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg, thus becoming the first black African to do so. He was the Bishop of Lesotho from 1976 to 1978 becoming the first black General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches in 1978. This position gave Bishop Tutu a national platform to launch attack and criticism at the apartheid system. He denounced the apartheid system and termed it as “evil and unchristian.” He also used to opportunity to call for equal rights for all South Africans and a system of common education. He pressed for the reversal of the oppressive passport laws and demanded an end to forced relocation. While encouraging nonviolent resistance to the apartheid regime, he advocated an economic boycott of the country. Tutu signed a petition calling for the release of Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress activist. His passport was revoked by the government inorder to prevent him from traveling and speaking abroad, but his case soon attracted the attention of the world. The governnment was forced to restore his passport as a result of the international public outcry.
After his passport was returned in January 1981, he embarked on a five-week tour of Europe and North America in March. The tour afforded him the opportunity of meeting politicians including the UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, and he also addressed the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid. He went to England where he met Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury and gave a sermon in Westminster Abbey. Thereafter, he went to Rome where he met he met Pope John Paul II. On his return to South Africa, the governnment again confiscated his passport, preventing him from personally receiving several further honorary degrees. However, the governnment it returned 17 months later. He addressed the Triennial Convention of the Episcopal Church in New Orleans in September 1982. He became popular in US, where he was often compared to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
With his rising profile in the 1970s, different socio-economic groups and political classes in the world held a wide range of views about him, from critical to admiring. Desmond Tutu became popular among South Africa’s black majority and was internationally praised for his anti-apartheid activism. Tutu was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1984 and two years later elected Archbishop of Cape Town. Thus he became the first black African to serve in this position. Also, the position placed him at the leader of the Anglican Church in South Africa, as the Archbishop of Canterbury is spiritual leader of the Church of England.
The South African governnment was forced to embark on reforms as a result of international economic pressure and internal dissent. Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress was released from prison in 1990 after 27 years of incarceration. Desmond Tutu and Nelson led negotiations to end apartheid and introduce multi-racial democracy, with Tutu assisting as a mediator between rival black factions. Thereafter, the South African government began the repeal of racially discriminatory laws as more events unfolds.
After the 1994 general election resulted in a coalition government headed by Mandela, who appointed Archbishop Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, investigating the human rights violations of the previous 34 years; abuses committed by both pro and anti-apartheid groups. Rather than revenge for past injustice, Desmond Tutu counseled forgiveness and cooperation.
Tutu retired as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996, and was named Archbishop Emeritus. He became Visiting Professor of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia for two years. He also compiled several books of his speeches, sermons and other writings which includes Hope and Suffering, Crying in the Wilderness, and The Rainbow People of God.
Desmond Tutu, in 2007, joined former South African President Mandela, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former Irish President Mary Robinson, and retired U.N Secretary General Kofi Annan in establishing The Elders. A private initiative involving the mobilization of experience senior world leaders outside of the conventional diplomatic process. He was assigned to chair the group.
Tutu and Carter traveled together to trouble regions like Darfur, Gaza, and Cyprus in an effort to resolve long-standing conflicts. For his continuous efforts to promote peace in the world, President Barack Obama of the United States in 2009 named him to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Desmond Tutu finally he retired from public life in October 2010, though he said he would continue his work with The Elders.