An oratorical force whose leadership helped abolish apartheid in South Africa, Tutu died at 90 in Cape Town, South Africa. His stance of nonviolence in the anti-apartheid movement won him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. And he was a vocal advocate for peaceful reconciliation, guiding South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was charged with investigating the crimes of apartheid.
South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, called Tutu “a patriot without equal; a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead.”
Tutu used his position as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission “to reckon with oppressive pasts but also to hold the new democratic government accountable,” the Nelson Mandela Foundation said in a statement. “His contributions to struggles against injustice, locally and globally, are matched only by the depth of his thinking about the making of liberatory futures for human societies. He was an extraordinary human being. A thinker. A leader. A shepherd.”
Thabo Makgoba, archbishop of Cape Town, said in a statement that Tutu’s “legacy is moral strength, moral courage and clarity.”
“He felt with the people,” Makgoba said. “In public and alone, he cried because he felt people’s pain. And he laughed — no, not just laughed, he cackled with delight when he shared their joy.”
Tutu’s legacy, many said, was one of unity and service, built on a life of campaigning for dignity for people everywhere and helping bridge divides.
“Indeed the big baobab tree has fallen,” the African National Congress said in a statement. “South Africa and the mass democratic movement has lost a tower of moral conscience and an epitome of wisdom.”
The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who had struck up a friendship with Tutu, recalled “the spiritual bond” the two shared.
“He was a true humanitarian and a committed advocate of human rights,” he wrote in a letter to Tutu’s daughter Mpho Tutu van Furth. He added, “I am convinced the best tribute we can pay him and keep his spirit alive is to do as he did and constantly look to see how we too can be of help to others.”
John Steenhuisen, leader of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s opposition party, wrote on Twitter, “A true South African giant has left us, but his spirit will live on in the everyday kindness we South Africans show each other, and in our continued effort to build a united, successful, nonracial SA for all.”
But Tutu’s friends and supporters also reminisced about a man who loved life and who was a devoted partner to his wife, Leah Tutu. One friend of Archbishop Tutu’s, Richard Branson, the British billionaire founder of the Virgin brand, wrote in a tribute about teaching the archbishop to swim.
“He was a fast learner and was soon splashing by us with plenty of giggles,” Branson said, describing Tutu as “one of the most positive, funny, life-affirming people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.”
“He was one of the best among us. He brought light to darkness and lightness to heaviness,” Thuli Madonsela, a former public protector for South Africa, wrote on Twitter.
Other leaders, officials and public figures outside South Africa also shared their condolences or simply drew attention to the words of Tutu himself. Accompanied by an image of the pair embracing, former US President Barack Obama said the cleric was “grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but also concerned with injustice everywhere.”
“He never lost his impish sense of humour and willingness to find humanity in his adversaries,” Obama said.
US President Joe Biden praised Tutu’s “courage and moral clarity” in a statement with the first lady, saying that it had helped inspire their commitment to change US policy toward the apartheid regime.
More recently, the statement said, they had reflected “on the power of his message of justice, equality, truth, and reconciliation as we confront racism and extremism in our time today.”
“Desmond Tutu followed his spiritual calling to create a better, freer, and more equal world,” the Bidens said. “His legacy transcends borders and will echo throughout the ages.”
Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store of Norway said on Twitter that Norway sent its “heartfelt condolences to his family and to the South African nation.”
“May his immense contribution to peace and human rights continue to inspire,” Store added.
Tutu would be “remembered for his spiritual leadership and irrepressible good humour,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain wrote on Twitter.
He was also commemorated Sunday by members of the LGBTQ community, including American former tennis player Billie Jean King, as an ally who urged gay and lesbian Christians to take up church leadership positions.
Palestinian leaders also mourned Tutu, a forthright critic of Israel’s actions toward Palestinians.
“His support for Palestine was an embrace of love & empathy,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian former peace negotiator, praising his commitment to “our shared struggle for justice & freedom.”
Though the loss was painful, mourners said, his achievements were evidence of a meaningful life that would be remembered forever.
“A great, influential elder is now an eternal, witnessing ancestor,” Rev. Bernice King, the youngest child of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr, tweeted. “And we are better because he was here.”
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