Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu passed away peacefully in Cape Town this morning.
He will be remembered for his role as an anti-apartheid campaigner, a social rights activist, and a man who united people of all creeds and colours through his commitment to the ideals of tolerance, understanding and ubuntu.
“Archbishop Desmond Tutu was one of those rare personalities whose greatness inspires rather than diminishes,” said Professor Tyrone Pretorius, UWC Rector and Vice-Chancellor. “And he had no shortage of greatness – his strength of character shone through in his decades of resistance to government oppression and corruption, in his willingness to stand up for what he believed in, and in his moral leadership and quiet compassion for the suffering. He taught us all that we can only be our true selves if we help others be their true selves, and that justice, truth and forgiveness can work together for a better world. His passing leaves a hole in the soul of our nation, and I hope we all do our part to try to fill it.”
Desmond Mpilo Tutu needs no introduction. Born on 7 October 1931 in Klerksdorp, in the erstwhile Transvaal, he is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate celebrated around the world for his role as a social rights activist. He dedicated his life to campaigns that stood in opposition to pressing issues such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, among many others.
But it is also worth celebrating his commitment to education and to activism.
“I believe that education is the key to unlocking the door that will eradicate poverty,” Tutu said, “and that young people have the power to make it happen.”
Education was in his blood: His father was a teacher, and subsequent to his own schooling at Johannesburg Bantu High School, Tutu trained as a teacher at Pretoria Bantu Normal College, and in 1954 graduated from the University of South Africa. Following three years working as a high school teacher he pursued studies in theology and was ordained as a priest in 1960.
He proved this commitment to education and to activism when he took up the mantle of Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape in 1987 - a role he held for a quarter of a century.
“We are working for a new South Africa and we are committed to non-violence,” he said in his acceptance speech. “The University of the Western Cape is a first fruit, a promise of what that new South Africa could be like. Let us go for it!”
Together with UWC’s then-Rector, the late Professor Jakes Gerwel, Tutu helped UWC chart a course through the turbulent eighties as the intellectual home of the left, and subsequently helped the university find its way in a new world where quality education could change the lives of students from all walks of life.
“Desmond Tutu has been such a central figure in the various phases and facets of the South African story that there can be few more deserving to be honoured in a manner that passes on the legacy, teachings, examples and messages of his extraordinary life and work,” Gerwel once said. “In the darkest days of apartheid he not only courageously and unflinchingly opposed the iniquities of that system; he moreover represented a beacon of light in that darkness through his inspiring demonstrations of faith in our common humanity and capacity for good.”
UWC today is one of the premier higher education institutions in Africa, and famed worldwide for the quality of its education, its research, and the leaders it produces. And it’s Tutu’s legacy that makes that possible.
“His service as chancellor for the University of the Western Cape over an unprecedented 25 years helped to build the foundation of what we are today,” Prof Pretorius noted. “We’ve gone from a Bush College to an engaged research-led, learning and teaching university that is ranked among the world’s finest - and we couldn’t have done it without Desmond Tutu’s leadership, and his inspiring example.
Desmond Tutu: A Legacy Of Humanity
Tutu’s life’s work has been recognised with honorary doctorates from numerous leading academic institutions around the world, including the USA, Britain and Germany. He has also been honoured with numerous prestigious awards including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1986, the Pacem in Terris Award in 1987, Archbishop of Canterbury’s Award of Outstanding Service to the Anglican Communion (a new award created specially for him), the Sydney Peace Prize in 1999, the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2007 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
“Among the many well deserved laureates of the Nobel Peace Prize, few like [Desmond Tutu] continue to fascinate and inspire people around the world for the great cause of humanity,” Dr Gunnar Staalsett, Bishop of Oslo, once said. “He has continued to be a prophetic voice as the world faces new challenges such as HIV/Aids and global warming. Archbishop Tutu has broadened the ecumenical vision to include all people of goodwill of every living faith and world view. He is a 21st century messenger for truth and reconciliation."
But the awards were never what mattered to him - rather, it was the opportunity to bring out the best in humanity, and to help teach and inspire a nation.
“Forever caring for his flock as a shepherd, Desmond Tutu loved people, in a selfless and sincere manner that caused them to love one another,” said Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, his successor as UWC's Chancellor. “He embodied the spirit of ubuntu, recognising the strengths and vulnerabilities in himself and in others, and helping them to recognise their common humanity and their interdependence and equality before God. Always willing to renew and anxious to reform, resuscitate and rebuild – his death is a loss to all, but his legacy will never fade.”
The University of the Western Cape mourns the passing of this great soul, and celebrates a life well-lived. Now, more than ever, the university is challenged to demonstrate that it is capable of competing with the best and of playing a prominent role in the intellectual, social and economic life of the nation - and of providing the kind of moral leadership that can guide us to a better future.
“The Arch has always been a profound example of humanity, humility, humour and grace,” Prof Pretorius said. “He taught us all that we can only be our true selves if we help others be their true selves, and that justice, truth and forgiveness can work together for a better world. Let us strive to live up to his legacy - and stand together to build a brighter future for all.”
Statement by Professor Sarojini Nadar (Director: Desmond Tutu Research Centre for Religion & Social Justice)
We are saddened by the death of our beloved Arch, and we mourn his passing with a great deal of gratitude for the magnanimous life that he led. A great tree has indeed fallen!
It is an enormous privilege and responsibility to lead the Desmond Tutu Chair and Centre in Religion and Social Justice at UWC. Through research and scholarly reflection, we aim to bring together the two most important aspects of the Arch’s life: spiritual contemplation and social action. While the Arch is celebrated the world over as a political priest, his profound theological and scholarly reflections are often left unattended. It is therefore deeply humbling to be tasked with preserving and maintaining his intellectual legacy. The inspirational black feminist thinker bell hooks, who joined the ancestors on 15 December 2021 once said: “I am often struck by the dangerous narcissism fostered by spiritual rhetoric that pays so much attention to individual self-improvement and so little to the practice of love within the context of community.”
We are deeply thankful for the life of the Arch that that was grounded in context and community:
A Tribute to our Beloved Arch
For the ways in which you inspired consciousness about faith in matters of social justice, we give thanks,
For the ongoing motivation of a critical conscience that is undergirded by an embodied spirituality, we are deeply grateful,
For your contemplative socially-just praxis connecting the physical, intellectual, and spiritual within radical communities of love and acceptance, we offer appreciation,
As we commemorate nine decades of your life and witness, we are mindful that the multiple accolades and honours you have accumulated have come at great cost and personal sacrifice,
We can only marvel at your fortitude and resilience but we undertake to work towards a world where the presence of justice will replace tributes to resilience,
Hold us in your warm ancestral embrace as we build your legacy of integrating scholarly reflection, spiritual contemplation and social action,
And may we do so with your great humility, infectious humour and eternal hope.