Greatest Africans: : Archbishop Desmond Tutu

By Joburg Post

My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” 
- Desmond Tutu

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born in Klerksdorp on 7 October 1931. His father, Zachariah, who was educated at a Mission school, was the headmaster of a high school in Klerksdorp, a small town in the Western Transvaal (now North West Province). His mother, Aletha Matlhare, was a domestic worker. They had four children, three girls and a boy. When he was eight years old, his father was transferred to a school that catered for African, Indian and Coloured children in Ventersdorp. He also was a pupil at this school, growing up in an environment where there were children from other communities. Tutu was baptised as a Methodist, but it was in Ventersdorp that the family followed his sister, Sylvia’s lead into the African Methodical Episcopal Church and finally in 1943 the entire family became Anglicans. Zachariah Tutu was then transferred to Roodepoort, Western Transvaal. Here the family were forced to live in a location, which was a slum and his mother worked at the Ezenzeleni School of the Blind. In 1943, the family was forced once more to move to Munsieville, a Black location in Krugersdorp. The young Tutu used to go to White homes to collect and return laundry for his mother to wash.  

To earn pocket money, together with a friend, he would walk three miles to the market to buy oranges, which he would then sell. Later he sold peanuts at railway stations and caddied at a golf course in Killarney.  Tutu joined the Scouting movement and earned his Tenderfoot, Second Class and Proficiency Badge in cooking. In 1945, he began his secondary education at the Western High, a Government secondary school in the old Western Native Township, near Sophiatown.  At about this time he was hospitalised for over a year, with tuberculosis. It was here that Father Trevor Huddleston befriended him. Father Huddleston brought him books to read and a deep friendship developed between the two. Later, Tutu became a server at Father Huddleston’s parish church in Munsieville, even training other boys to become servers. In 1951, he enrolled at the Bantu Normal College, outside Pretoria, to study for a teacher’s diploma. In 1954, Tutu completed a teaching diploma from the Bantu Normal College and taught at his old school, Madipane High in Krugersdorp. In 1955, he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Africa (UNISA).  One of the people that helped him with his University studies was Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, the first president of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). 

During his stay at Munsieville High, he thought hard about joining the priesthood. He offered himself to the Bishop of Johannesburg to become a priest.  By 1955, together with his former scoutmaster, Zakes Mohutsiou, he had been admitted as a sub-Deacon at Krugersdorp. In 1958, he enrolled at St Peter's Theological College in Rosettenville, which was run by the Fathers of the Community of the Resurrection.  Here Tutu proved to be a star student excelling at his studies.  He was awarded licentiate of Theology with two distinctions. Tutu still regards the Community of Resurrection with reverence and considers his debt to them as incalculable. He was ordained as a deacon in December 1960 at St Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg and took up his first curacy at St Albans Church in Benoni location. By now, Tutu and Leah had two children, Trevor Thamsanqa and Thandeka Theresa. Nontombi Naomi was born in 1960.  At the end of 1961, Tutu was ordained as a priest, following which he was transferred to a new church in Thokoza.  Their fourth child, Mpho, was born in London in 1963. On 14 September 1962, Tutu arrived in London to further his theological studies. Money was obtained from various sources and he was given bursaries by Kings College in London and awarded a scholarship by the World Council of Churches (WCC). 

In London, he was met at the airport by writer Nicholas Mosley, an arrangement co-ordinated by Father Alfred Stubbs, his  former lecturer in Johannesburg. Through Mosley, the Tutus met Martin Kenyon who was to be a lifelong friend of the family. London was an exhilarating experience for the Tutu family after the suffocation of life under apartheid. Tutu was even able to indulge in his passion for cricket. Tutu enrolled at Kings College, at the University of London, where he again excelled. He graduated at the Royal Albert hall where the Queen Mother, who was the Chancellor of the University, awarded him his degree. His first experience of ministering to a White congregation was in Golders Green, London where he spent three years. Then he was transferred to Surrey to preach. Father Stubbs encouraged Tutu to enrol for a postgraduate course.  He entered an essay on Islam for the ‘Archbishop’s Essay Prize’ and won the Prize. He then decided that this was to be the subject of his Masters degree. 

Tutu had a profound influence over his parishioners such that after he had completed his Masters degrees in the Arts in 1966, the entire village where he was the priest turned out to bid him farewell. Tutu then returned to South Africa and taught at the Federal Theological Seminary at Alice in the Eastern Cape, where he was one of six lecturers. Apart from being a lecturer at the Seminary, he was also appointed as the Anglican Chaplain to the University of Fort Hare. At the time, he was the most highly qualified Anglican clergyman in the country.  In 1968, while he was still teaching at the Seminary, he wrote an article on the theology of migrant labour for a magazine called the South African Outlook. At Alice he began working on his Doctorate, combining his interest in Islam and the Old Testament, although he did not complete it. At the same time, Tutu began making his views against apartheid known. When the students at the Seminary went on protest against racist education, Tutu identified with their cause. 

On 6 May 1976, he sent an open letter to the then Prime Minister, John Vorster, reminding him of how Afrikaners had obtained their freedom and, inter alia, drew his attention to the fact that Blacks could not attain freedom in the homelands, the horrors of the pass laws and discrimination based on race; requesting that a National Convention of recognised leaders be called. He also suggested ways in which the Government could prove its sincerity in its then oft quoted refrain of wanting peaceful change. Three weeks later, the Government replied asserting that his motive in writing the letter was to spread political propaganda. On 16 June 1976, Soweto students began a wide scale rebellion against being forced to accept Afrikaans as the language of instruction as well as the inferior education they were forced to endure.  It was at the time, Tutu was the Vicar General when he received news of the police shooting and killing students. He spent the day engaged with students and parents.  Tutu played a significant role in the Soweto Parents Crisis Committee, which was set up in the aftermath of the killings. Following this, Tutu was persuaded to accept the position of Bishop of Lesotho.  After much consultation with his family and church colleagues, he accepted and on 11 July 1976, he was consecrated as Bishop of Lesotho. During his visit to rural parishes, he often travelled on horseback, sometimes for up to eight hours. 

Whilst in Lesotho, he did not hesitate to criticise the unelected Government of the day. At the same time, he groomed a Lesotho national, Philip Mokuku to succeed him. It also was while he was still in Lesotho that he was invited to deliver the funeral oration at Steve Biko’s funeral. Biko was killed in detention by the South African Police. After only a few months in his new post, Tutu was invited to become the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), which he took up on 1 March 1978, where he was once again deeply immersed in both ecumenical and secular affairs. As early as 1982, he wrote to the Prime Minster of Israel appealing to him to stop bombing Beirut; while at the same time he wrote to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, calling on him to exercise ‘a greater realism regarding Israel’s existence’. In 1980, he earned the wrath of White South Africa when he said that there would be a Black Prime Minister within the next five to ten years. He also called on parents to support a school boycott and warned the Government that there would be a repetition of the 1976 riots if it continued to detain protestors.  Tutu condemned the President’s Council where a proposal for an electoral college of Whites, Coloureds and Indians was going to be established.  On the other hand, at a conference at the University of Witwatersrand in 1985, convened by the Soweto Parents Crisis Committee, Tutu warned against an uneducated generation who would not have the requisite skills to occupy positions in a post-Apartheid South Africa. On 7 August 1980, Bishop Tutu and a delegation of church leaders and the SACC met with Prime Minister PW Botha and his Cabinet delegation.  It was a historic meeting in that it was the first time a Black leader, outside the system, talked with a White Government leader. However, nothing came of this meeting as the Government maintained its intransigent position. He also took part in a march, with other church leaders in Johannesburg calling for the release of John Thorne, a church Minister who was detained. The Clergy were arrested under the riotous Assemblies Act and Tutu spent his first night in detention. As a result, he was often subjected to vile rumours, death threats, bomb scares among other threats.  He was constantly vilified by the Government. Furthermore, the Government sponsored organisations such as the Christian League, which accepted money to conduct anti SACC campaigns and thus work against Bishop Tutu. During his overseas trips, Tutu spoke out harshly against Apartheid, the migrant labour system and other social and political ills.  

In March 1980, the Government withdrew Tutu’s passport. This prevented him from travelling overseas to accept awards that were being bestowed upon him.  He was the first person to be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Ruhr, West Germany, but was unable to travel, being denied a passport. The Government finally returned his passport in January 1981. Consequently, he was able to travel extensively to Europe and America on SACC business.In1983 Tutu had a private audience with the Pope where he discussed the situation in South Africa. The Government continued its persecution of Tutu, in 1981; the Prime Minister accused the On 7 September 1986, Tutu was ordained as the Archbishop of Cape Town becoming the first Black person to lead the Anglican Church of the Province of Southern Africa.  Again, there was great jubilation at him being chosen as the Archbishop while detractors were critical. At the Goodwood Stadium over 10,000 people gathered in his honour for the Eucharist. The exiled ANC President Oliver Tambo and 45 Heads of State sent their congratulations to him. A year after the first democratic elections that saw the end of White minority rule in 1994, Tutu was appointed Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), to deal with the atrocities of the past. 

Tutu retired as the Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996 in order to devote all his time to the work of the TRC. He was later named as the Archbishop Emeritus. In 1997, Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent successful treatment in America. Despite this ailment, he continued to work with the commission. He subsequently became patron of the South African Prostate Cancer Foundation, which was established in 2007. In 1998 the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre(DTPC) was co-founded by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mrs. Leah Tutu. The Centre plays a unique role in building and leveraging the legacy of Archbishop Tutu to enable peace in the world In 2004 Tutu returned to the United Kingdom to serve as a visiting professor at King’s College. He also spent two years, as Visiting Professor of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He continued to travel extensively across different places and to work for fair causes, in and out of his country. Within South Africa, one of his focal areas has been health issues, particularly HIV/AIDS and TB.  In January 2004 the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation was formally established under the directorship of Professor Robin Wood and Associate Professor Linda-Gail Bekker. 


The Foundation had its beginnings as the HIV Research Unit based at New Somerset Hospital in the early 1990's and is well known as one of the first public clinics to offer anti-retroviral therapy to those living with HIV. More recently the Foundation, supported by Emeritus Archbishop Desmond and Leah Tutu, has extended its activities to include HIV treatment, prevention and training as well as tuberculosis treatment monitoring in the hardest hit communities of the Western Cape. Tutu continues to speak out on moral and political issues affecting South Africa and other countries. He has criticised the Government and the ruling party when he felt that it had fallen short of the democratic ideals that many people fought for. He has repeatedly appealed for peace in Zimbabwe and compared the actions of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's government to those of the South African apartheid regime. He is also a supporter of the Palestinian cause and the people of East Timor. He is an outspoken critic of the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and has spoken out against human rights abuses in Burma and called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the house arrested leader of Burma’s opposition and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Desmond Tutu's historic accomplishments -- and his continuing efforts to promote peace in the world -- were formally recognized by the United States in 2009, when President Barack Obama named him to receive the nation's highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Tutu officially retired from public life on 7 October 2010. However, he continues with his involvement with the Elders and Nobel Laureate Group and his support of the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre.  He stepped down from his positions as Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape and as a representative on the UN's advisory committee on the prevention of genocide. In the week leading to his 80th birthday, Tutu was cast into the spot light. The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who went into exile in 1959 after leading an uprising against Chinese rule, was invited by Tutu to deliver the inaugural Desmond Tutu International Peace lecture during the three-day celebration of Tutu's 80th birthday in Cape Town on 7October 2011.

The South African Government procrastinated in issuing the Dalai Lama with a visa thus encroaching on the days of his scheduled travel. On 4 October 2011, the Dalai Lama cancelled his trip, saying that he was not going to come to South Africa as the government [South African] found it "inconvenient" and he did not want to place any individual or the Government in an untenable position. The Government caught on its back foot tried to defend its tardiness. South Africans from across the socio-political spectrum, religious leaders, academics and civil society, united in condemning the Governments actions. In a rare show of fury, Tutu launched a blistering attack on the ANC and President Jacob Zuma, venting his anger at the Government’s position regarding the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama was previously refused a visa to visit South Africa in 2009.


  • Sparks A. & Tutu M.A. (2011) Life with the headmaster’s sonfrom the Cape Times, [online] Available at [Accessed on 4 October 2011] • Academy of Achievement, (2010),  Forging equality in South Africa, [online] Available at    [Accessed 30 September 2011] • Write Spirit (date unknown). Desmond Tutu, [online] Available at [Accessed on 29 September 2011] • Famous People, Desmond Tutu, [online] Available at [Accessed on 30 September 2011] • Bio.true story, Desmond Tutu biography,  [online], Available at [Accessed on 26 September 2011] • The Desmond Tutu Peace Centre, About Desmond and Leah Tutu, [online], Available at  [Accessed on 27 September 2011] • Du Boulay, S. (1988), Tutu ”“ Voice of the Voiceless, ( Hodder & Stoughton Suffolk London) • Moreorless, (2011), Archbishop Desmond Tutu [online] Available at  [Accessed on 27 September 2011] • Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation, (2008), Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation,   [online] Available at  [Accessed on 28 September 2011] • Desmond Tutu Peace Centre,  Desmond Tutu Peace Centre, [online] Available at Accessed on 27 September 2011 • South Africa. Info, (2010), Desmond Tutu to retire from public life, [online] Available at  [Accessed on 28 September 2011] • Underhill G. (2011), Tutu's sadness over Dalai Lama from the Mail & Guardian, 7 October, [online] Available at  [Accessed on 6 October 2011] •  AP A, (2011), We will pray for ANC's downfall - Tutu from News24, [online] Available at [Accessed on 6 October 2011]  Source: SA History online 


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