Desmond Tutu Biography

Archbishop-Tutu-medium Desmond Mpilo Tutu (1931 – 2021) was born in Klerksdorp, Transvaal 7 October 1931 in South Africa. As a vocal and committed opponent of apartheid in South Africa, Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. In the transition to democracy, Tutu was an influential figure in promoting the concept of forgiveness and reconciliation. Tutu has been recognised as the ‘moral conscience of South Africa’ and frequently speaks up on issues of justice and peace.

Tutu was born Klerksdorp, Transvaal, South Africa on 7 October 1931. After graduating from school, he studied at Pretoria Bantu Normal College from 1951.  However, after the passage of the apartheid Bantu Education Act in 1953, Tutu resigned from teaching in protest at the diminished opportunities for black South Africans. He continued to study, concentrating on Theology. During this period in 1955, he married Nomalizo Leah Shenxane – they had four children together. In 1961, he was ordained an Anglican Priest.


Desmond Tutu at Vilakazi Street, Soweto. Photo Johan Wessels CC SA

In 1962, he moved to England, where he studied at Kings College London, where he gained a master’s degree in theology. He also became a part-time curate in St Alban’s and Golders Green.

In 1967, he returned to South Africa and became increasingly involved in the anti-apartheid movement. He was influenced amongst others by fellow Anglican Bishop Trevor Huddleston. Tutu’s understanding of the Gospels and his Christian faith meant he felt compelled to take a stand and speak out against injustice.

In 1975, he was appointed Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg, the first black to hold that position. From 1976 to 1978 he was Bishop of Lesotho, and in 1978 became the first black General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches.

Campaign against Apartheid

In 1976, there were increasing levels of protests by black South Africans against apartheid, especially in Soweto. In his position as a leading member of the clergy, Desmond Tutu used his influence to speak firmly and unequivocally against apartheid, often comparing it to Fascist regimes.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

His outspoken criticism caused him to be briefly jailed in 1980, and his passport was twice revoked. However, due to his position in the church, the government were reluctant to make a ‘martyr’ out of him. This gave Desmond Tutu more opportunity to criticise the government than many other members of the ANC.

During South Africa’s turbulent transformation to end apartheid and implement democracy, Tutu was a powerful force for encouraging inter-racial harmony. He encouraged fellow South Africans to transcend racial differences and see themselves as one nation.

“Be nice to the whites, they need you to rediscover their humanity.”

– New York Times (19 October 1984)

In the post-Apartheid era, Desmond Tutu is credited with coining the phrase ‘Rainbow Nation’ A symbolic term for the aspiration to unite South Africa and forget past divisions. The expression has since entered mainstream consciousness to describe South Africa’s ethnic diversity.

“At home in South Africa I have sometimes said in big meetings where you have black and white together: ‘Raise your hands!’ Then I have said: ‘Move your hands,’ and I’ve said ‘Look at your hands – different colors representing different people. You are the Rainbow People of God.’”

Sermon in Tromsö, Norway (5 December 1991)

Tutu has frequently called for a message of reconciliation and forgiveness. He has stated that real justice is not about retribution but seeking to illumine and enable people to move forward.

“There are different kinds of justice. Retributive justice is largely Western. The African understanding is far more restorative – not so much to punish as to redress or restore a balance that has been knocked askew.”

– Desmond Tutu, “Recovering from Apartheid” at The New Yorker (18 November 1996)

Desmond Tutu on foreign policy

Desmond Tutu was critical of George Bush and Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq. He criticised the decision to single out Iraq for possession of weapons (which they later proved not to have) when many other countries had a far more deadly arsenal.

He has also been critical of America’s war on Terror, in particular highlighting the abuse of human rights in places such as Guantanamo Bay.

Desmond Tutu has been critical of Israeli attitudes to the occupation of Palestine. He has also been critical of the US-Israeli lobby which is intolerant of any criticism of Israel.

Tutu took part in investigations into the Isreali bombings in the Beit Hanoun November 2006 incident. During that fact-finding mission, Tutu called the Gaza blockade an abomination and compared Israel’s behaviour to the military junta in Burma. During the 2008–2009 Gaza War, Tutu called the Israeli offensive “war crimes.”

Tutu has also become involved in the issue of Climate Change, calling it one of the great challenges of humanity.

Social Issues

Desmond Tutu, Cologne, 2007. © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0

Desmond Tutu has been in the forefront of campaigns against the AIDS virus, especially in South Africa where the government have often been reticent. Desmond Tutu has a tolerant attitude to the issue of homosexuality. In particular, he despairs at the huge amount of time and energy wasted on discussing the issue within the church. According to Tutu, there should be no discrimination against people of homosexual orientation.

“Jesus did not say, ‘If I be lifted up I will draw some’.” Jesus said, ‘If I be lifted up I will draw all, all, all, all, all. Black, white, yellow, rich, poor, clever, not so clever, beautiful, not so beautiful. It’s one of the most radical things.”

Tutu was the first black ordained South African Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town. Other awards given to  Desmond Tutu include The Gandhi Peace Prize in 2007, the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, and the Maqubela Prize for Liberty in 1986.

Since Nelson Mandela‘s passing, Tutu became increasingly critical of the ANC leadership, believing they wasted opportunities to create a better legacy and end the poverty endemic in many black townships.

Tutu is one of the patrons of The Forgiveness Project, a UK-based charity which seeks to facilitate conflict resolution and break the cycle of vengeance and retaliation.

Tutu is a committed Christian and starts every day with a period of quiet, reflection, walk  and Bible reading. Even on the momentous day of 27 April 1994 when blacks were able to vote for the first time, Tutu wrote “As always, I had got up early for a quiet time before my morning walk and then morning prayers and the Eucharist.


Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Sri Chinmoy

Tutu is also a supporter of interfaith harmony. He admires fellow religious leaders, such as the Dalai Lama and feels that a person’s outer religion is not of critical importance.

“Bringing people together is what I call ‘Ubuntu,’ which means ‘I am because we are.’ Far too often people think of themselves as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

Tutu died from cancer in December 2021, whilst being treated in Cape Town, South Africa.

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan.  “Biography Desmond Tutu” Oxford, UK. – 13th March 2017. Last updated 1 March 2021

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