Tutu is best known for his belief in the possibility of
ultimate interracial harmony - a conviction that becomes
a feat when considering his personal history.
In 1962, apartheid reached the church. White academics
could no longer teach black clergymen, and black
academics were needed to fill the gap. Tutu’s teaching
experience, his two degrees, and his conscientiousness
made him an ideal candidate for this duty, though he
lacked a master’s degree. In order to fill this gap, he
left South Africa in 1962 to pursue a master’s degree at
King’s College at London University.
He returned to his homeland in 1967 and continued with
his mission of teaching black clergy. In 1976, Tutu
reached religious prominence and was consecrated as the
bishop of Lesotho, an independent enclave within South
The positive events in Tutu’s life were not matched by
events at home. A month before his consecration, Soweto,
a black community near South Africa’s capital,
Johannesburg, exploded in violence as 15,000
schoolchildren took to the streets. They were angry that
Afrikaans, instead of English - their typical language
of instruction — would be used to teach some of their
classes. More than 600 people were killed.
Tutu did not return to South Africa until 1977, when he
was asked to speak at the funeral of black activist
Steven Biko, who died in police custody. Biko’s death
was a turning point for Tutu, and he came to the
conclusion that the church had to play a political role
if apartheid was to be conquered without bloodshed.
In 1978, he accepted a position as general secretary of
the South African Council of Churches (SACC), a
10-year-old organization with a decidedly political
bent. The position gave Tutu increased media exposure,
and he began to speak on talk shows around the world,
pushing for economic sanctions against South Africa. In
reaction, the South African government revoked his
passport in 1979.
Tutu was just one of many voices in South Africa and
abroad that called for sanctions, but his support for
them helped legitimize what some considered a radical
form of protest. The sanctions, eventually supported by
much of the world, had a strong effect on South Africa.
By the 1980s, the country’s economy was stagnant due to
a critical shortage of investment capital, and
diplomatic pressure led to the dismantling of apartheid.
In 1982, Tutu’s isolation became a worldwide
embarrassment for South Africa, when Columbia
University’s president travelled to South Africa to
present Tutu with an honorary degree. It was only the
third time this precedent had been broken in the famed
university’s 244-year history.
“Your president is the pits as far as blacks are
concerned. I think the West, for my part, can go
- Desmond Tutu, after U.S. President Ronald
Reagan on July 22, 1986 called proposed
sanctions against South Africa a “historic act
Tutu found himself in the spotlight once again in 1984,
when he became South Africa’s second black Nobel Peace
laureate. He once more used the increased exposure to
push for sanctions. South Africa’s first Nobel peace
laureate, 1961 winner Albert Luthuli, had been
restricted to his remote Zululand village immediately on
his return from Norway. A month after winning the Nobel,
Tutu was elected the first black Anglican bishop of
Johannesburg. In 1986 Tutu was elected Archbishop of
Cape Town, the highest position in the Anglican Church in
Now South Africa’s highest-ranking Anglican cleric, Tutu
denounced the White government’s failure to make
fundamental changes in apartheid as another wave of
violence swept his nation. As the country went into
elections in 1989, Tutu boldly engaged in a nationwide
defiance campaign, leading a march to a whites-only
beach, where he and supporters who were chased off with
whips. Soon after, F. W. de Klerk was elected the new
president of South Africa on the strength of his pledge
to speed reforms and abolish apartheid.
At the end of 1993, de Klerk’s promises came to fruition
as South Africa’s first all-race elections were
announced. On April 27, 1994 South Africans elected a
new president, the country’s most prominent black man,
Nelson Mandela, and apartheid was finally over. But
Tutu’s job continued. In 1995, he was appointed chair of
the South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission,
a group that investigates apartheid-era crimes.
He retired as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996 to devote
his full energies to the commission. In 1997, Tutu
announced that he would undergo several months of
treatment in the United States for prostate cancer. He
has continued to work with the commission.
Tutu is generally credited with coining the term
"Rainbow Nation" as a metaphor for post-apartheid South
Africa after 1994 under African National Congress rule.
The expression has since entered mainstream
consciousness to describe South Africa's ethnic
Since his retirement, Tutu has worked as a global
activist on issues pertaining to democracy, freedom and
human rights. In 2006, Tutu launched a global campaign,
organised by Plan, to ensure that all children are
registered at birth, as an unregistered child did not
officially exist and was vulnerable to traffickers and
during disasters. Tutu is the Patron of the educational
improvement charity Link Community Development.
been vocal in his criticism of human rights abuses in
Zimbabwe as well as the South African government's
policy of quiet diplomacy towards Zimbabwe. In 2007 he
said the "quiet diplomacy" pursued by the Southern
Africa Development Community (SADC) had "not worked at
all" and he called on Britain and the West to pressure
SADC, including South Africa, which was chairing talks
between President Mugabe's Zanu-PF party and the
opposition Movement for Democratic Change, to set firm
deadlines for action, with consequences if they were not
Tutu has often criticised Robert Mugabe in the past and
he once described the autocratic leader as "a cartoon
figure of an archetypical African dictator". In 2008, he
called for the international community to intervene in
Zimbabwe – by force if necessary. Mugabe, on the other
hand, has called Tutu an "angry, evil and embittered
Tutu wrote to the Chinese government demanding the
release of dissident Yang Jianli in 2007. He criticised
China for not doing more against the Darfur genocide.
During the 2008 Tibetan unrest, Tutu praised the 14th
Dalai Lama and said that the government of China should
"listen to [his] pleas for... no further violence". He
later spoke to a rally calling on heads of states
worldwide to not attend the 2008 Summer Olympics opening
ceremony "for the sake of the beautiful people of
Tutu had announced he would retire from public life when
he turned 79 in October 2010, which he did.
"Instead of growing old gracefully, at home with
my family – reading and writing and praying and
thinking – too much of my time has been spent at
airports and in hotels."