JOHANNESBURG (Dispatches) — Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s uncompromising foe of the country’s past racist policy of apartheid and a supporter of Palestinian rights, died Sunday at 90.
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.
Nicknamed “the Arch,” Tutu was diminutive, with an impish sense of humor, but became a towering figure in his nation’s history, comparable to 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 Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which uncovered the abuses of the apartheid system.
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.
Palestinian resistance movement Hamas issued a statement, paying tribute to the iconic leader.
“Our Palestinian people lost a strong supporter of their march towards freedom and independence. Father Desmond Tutu spent his entire life struggling against racism and defending human rights and especially on the Palestinian land,” it said.
Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the late 1990s and in recent years he was hospitalized on several occasions to treat infections associated with his cancer treatment.
A seven-day mourning period is planned in Cape Town before Tutu’s burial, including a two-day lying in state, according to church officials.
Throughout the 1980s — when South Africa was gripped by anti-apartheid violence and a state of emergency giving police and the military sweeping powers — Tutu was one of the most prominent Black leaders able to speak out against abuses.
Early in 2016, Tutu defended the reconciliation policy that ended white minority rule amid increasing frustration among some South Africans who felt they had not seen the expected economic opportunities and other benefits 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 believe 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 for training as a priest.
Tutu was arrested in 1980 for taking part in 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 held talks with the UN secretary-general, the pope and other church leaders.
Tutu is survived by his wife of 66 years and their four children.