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Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s top 7 defining moments

Archbishop Desmond Tutu Mural on Longmarket Street in Cape Town File picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA)

Archbishop Desmond Tutu Mural on Longmarket Street in Cape Town File picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Dec 27, 2021


Born Desmond Mpilo Tutu on October 7, 1931, in Klerksdorp, the Anglican cleric received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1984 for his non-violent role in opposing apartheid in South Africa. On Thursday, the international community joins South Africa in celebrating his milestone 90th birthday.

Tutu, fondly known as the “Arch” and for his infectious giggle and humanity, was born of Xhosa and Tswana parents and was educated in mission schools at which his father taught. Although he initially wanted a medical career, Tutu was unable to afford the training costs and instead became a schoolteacher in 1955. He resigned in 1957 to become a priest.

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In July 1955, Tutu married Nomalizo Leah Shenxane, a teacher who was taught by his father. They had four children: Trevor Armstrong Thamsanqa Tutu, Theresa Ursula Thandeka Tutu, Naomi Nontombi Tutu and Mpho Andrea Tutu.

Following his retirement from the Anglican Church in 1996, Tutu still continues to champion various human rights causes through his foundation. Here are seven of the defining moments in the 90-year-old Tutu’s life:

The day he first saw Trevor Huddleston

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When a white man tipped his hat in a show of respect to Desmond Tutu’s mother, who was a domestic worker, on a sidewalk during the dark days of apartheid, it changed the nine-year-old’s life forever. His mother told him that the man was an Anglican priest, and this led Tutu to decide to become an Anglican priest too, ’’a man of God”.

That man was Trevor Huddleston, who was fiercely opposed to apartheid. When Tutu came down with tuberculosis at the age of 14, Huddleston brought him books and supported him for months (Tutu would name his first child Trevor). Huddleston later became a mentor to Tutu in his commitment to the equality of all human beings.

Refused to take part in apartheid education

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In 1954, Tutu had obtained a teaching diploma from the Pretoria Bantu Normal College and later completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at Unisa. After three years as a teacher, Tutu quit in protest of the Bantu Education Act of 1953, which he saw as the apartheid government’s efforts to deliberately create an inferior system for black students.

Ordained as a priest

Having left teaching, Tutu enrolled at St Peter’s Theological College. He was ordained as a deacon in 1960 and became a priest in 1961. In 1962 he moved to London, where he completed his Honours and Master’s degrees in Theology at King’s College in 1966.

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Spoke out against apartheid

He used his status as a preacher to support those disenfranchised by the political system. Tutu was the Bishop of the Anglican Church in Lesotho and became the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches. He labelled the regime “evil and unchristian”, called for equal rights for all South Africans and demanded the discontinuation of apartheid laws and forced relocations.

In 1976, Tutu wrote a letter to then prime minister John Vorster alluding to a possible uprising. Soon after on June 16, a series of demonstrations and protests led by black schoolchildren in Soweto shook the country.

Due to his outspokenness, the apartheid government revoked his passport an he was harassed by the state security police. Due to international pressure, the government was forced to reissue his passport and Tutu continued to drum up support for the anti-apartheid movement around the world.

Awarded Nobel Prize for Peace

In 1984, Tutu was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in honour of his efforts to end apartheid in a non-violent manner – the first South African to receive the accolade since Albert Luthuli in 1961. In his Nobel Lecture in 1984, Tutu was famously outspoken about the apartheid government.

Elected Archbishop of Cape Town

In 1985, Tutu was appointed the Bishop of Johannesburg and a year later became the first black cleric to lead the Anglican Church in South Africa when he was named Archbishop of Cape Town. From 1987 to 1997, he served as president of the All Africa Conference of Churches.

Four years after his appointment, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Desmond Tutu officially retired from his position in the Anglican Church in 1996, became an Archbishop Emeritus and went on to establish the Desmond Tutu Peace Trust.

Chairs Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Following South Africa’s first multiracial, democratic elections in 1994, President Nelson Mandela appointed Tutu to chair the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission was set up to investigate human rights violations under apartheid, enabling victims to share their stories of violence and oppression.