Desmond M. Tutu, a theologian who used his pulpit and eloquent oratory to help bring down apartheid in South Africa and then went on to become the foremost champion for peaceful reconciliation under Black majority rule, died on Sunday in Cape Town. He was 90 years old.
The president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, confirmed his death, describing the archbishop as “a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical understanding that faith without works is dead.”
The Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation stated that cancer was the cause of death and that Archbishop Tutu died at a care facility. He was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and has been admitted to the hospital several times since then, fearing that the disease had spread.
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Archbishop Tutu brought the church to the vanguard of Black South Africa’s decades-long struggle for independence as the leader of the South African Council of Churches and then as the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town. In the anti-apartheid struggle, his voice was a significant force for nonviolence, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.
When that movement won in the early 1990s, he pushed the country toward a new relationship between white and black residents, and as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he gathered testimony documenting apartheid’s heinousness.
“The scope of evil overwhelms you,” he explained. However, he explained, the wound has to be opened in order to be cleansed. The committee granted amnesty in exchange for an honest accounting of past atrocities, establishing what Archbishop Tutu called the notion of restorative — rather than retributive — justice.
His credibility was vital in the commission’s efforts to elicit cooperation from former members of the South African security forces and former guerrilla fighters.
Apartheid, according to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was as degrading to the oppressors as it was to the afflicted. At home, he spoke out against impending violence and attempted to bridge the divide between black and white South Africans; internationally, he advocated for economic penalties against the South African government in order to compel a policy shift.
But, as much as he railed against apartheid-era officials, he was equally critical of the ruling African National Congress, which rose to power in 1994 under Nelson Mandela in the country’s first completely democratic elections.
President Thabo Mbeki, Mr Mandela’s successor, was accused by the archbishop in 2004 of following policies that rewarded a small elite while “many, too many, of our people, suffer in torturous, degrading, dehumanizing poverty.”
Desmond Tutu said, “We’re sitting on a powder keg.”
Although he and Mr Mbeki later reconciled — they were photographed together in 2015 as Mr Mbeki, by then the former president, paid a visit to Archbishop Tutu in a hospital — the archbishop remained dissatisfied with the state of affairs in his country under its next president, Jacob G. Zuma, who had denied Mr Mbeki a second term despite being embroiled in scandal.
In 2010, Archbishop Tutu told The New York Times Magazine, “I believe we are in a poor condition in South Africa, especially when compared to the Mandela era.” Many of the things we imagined were possible are becoming increasingly out of reach. We live in the world’s most unequal society.”
After critics accused the A.N.C. of corruption and mismanagement in 2011, Archbishop Tutu attacked the administration once more, this time in a language that would have been unthinkable before. “This administration, our government, is worse than the apartheid regime,” he continued, “because, with the apartheid government, you were at least expecting it.”
“Mr Zuma, you and your government do not represent me,” he added. You are a self-advocate for your own interests. Out of love, I’m warning you that one day we’ll start praying for the A.N.C. government’s demise. You’re a shame.”
When a group of South African religious leaders joined other critics in calling for Mr Zuma to resign in 2016, his statements appeared prescient. After a power struggle with his deputy, Mr Ramaphosa, who took over the presidency in February of that year, Mr Zuma was removed from office in early 2018.
Because of his declining health, Archbishop Tutu had mainly stopped giving interviews by that time and only appeared in public on rare occasions. The archbishop, however, invited Mr Ramaphosa to his home a few months after he was inaugurated as the new president with the promise of a “new dawn” for the country.