Human rights icon
The South African Archbishop of the Anglican Church passed away at the age of 90 on Boxing Day. The world paid tribute to this prominent cleric for his commitment to anti-racism, peace and freedom for all South Africans. In 1984 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his campaign of non-violent resistance against Apartheid or white minority rule in South Africa. The icon of the struggle against apartheid or institutional racism in the former South Africa and the tireless human rights activist was known for his outspokenness, infectious laughter, and unwavering commitment to the oppressed. He was not afraid to criticise all the crimes committed during Apartheid in the name of the white South African governments, but also the abuses committed in the name of the black national liberation movements. He coined the phrase ‘Rainbow Nation’, a metaphor for the union of all South Africans regardless of skin colour, a phrase he popularised after the advent of democracy and the election of his friend Nelson Mandela as President of the Republic of South Africa in 1994.
His commitment to the oppressed is not limited to South Africa. Archbishop Tutu spoke out against the exploitation of child labour worldwide, the plight of women, violence against women, racism and the massacres of minorities around the world. He was one of 350 ambassadors for the climate protection organisation 350.org. In a petition, Tutu called climate change one of the “greatest moral challenges of our time”. In articles, interviews and speeches, Tutu encouraged consumers to stay away from media, sports teams and events sponsored by fossil fuel companies and to buy low-carbon products. An advocate for gay and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights, he has condemned homophobia in the Church and called on the Anglican Church to reconsider its position. He himself gave a “father’s blessing” to one of his daughters at her wedding ceremony.
For years, Desmond Tutu preached “a message of peace, reconciliation and non-violence”. His sermons helped prevent bloodshed after the democratic elections in South Africa. For him, peace between communities is the only possible way to live together. His role as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to shed light on human rights violations in the face of racial segregation and state racism of the time will forever be written in gold on the most beautiful pages of history. A true lesson in humanity. His humour, his dance steps, but also his tears in front of the camera
during the interrogations, when he listened to the testimonies of the victims of racial segregation, will remain unforgettable. For the first time, the victims were able to tell their stories and face their executioners.
Even after Mandela’s release and the democratic elections of 1994, he remained politically active and did not hesitate to criticise the new South African leaders. He was the moral conscience of the nation, raising his voice against injustice sometimes with irony and humour.
Tributes from all over the world
His death has sent shockwaves around the world, as evidenced by the numerous statements from various personalities. South African President Cyrill Ramaphosa expressed “on behalf of all South Africans his deep sadness” and paid tribute to “an incomparable patriot, a man of exceptional intelligence, integrity and invincibility in the face of the forces of apartheid. “He saw our country as a ‘rainbow nation’, emerging from the shadow of apartheid, united in its diversity, with freedom and equal rights for all.”.The President added “…Even after the advent of democracy, he did not hesitate to draw attention, often harshly, to our shortcomings as leaders of the democratic State.”
On behalf of the 27 Member States of the European Union, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, paid tribute “to a man who gave his life to freedom with a deep commitment to human dignity. A giant who stood up against apartheid.
A man of faith, he is a model for his colleagues on the continent, as Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, head of the archdiocese of Kinshasa, said. “He represented, for us, a big voice for Africa in view of everything he did for his country […] He symbolised the model of a man that Africa needs. I have always seen him as a model for our Congolese society. It hurts my heart to see an icon like him go, a true prophet for our time who dedicated his whole life to the cause and brotherhood between men.
The former Minister of Justice and Keeper of the Seals, candidate for the French presidency, Christiane Taubira, recalled her meetings with the former president of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She said: “Resonate his laughter, because I have also known the sound of his anger and I have seen his tears at close range. As a student, I worshipped Desmond Tutu. As a Member of Parliament, I was able to say thank you for such courage. As a minister, I greeted him officially. The last time at the Mandela Farewell. What a life!”
He inspired many African leaders like the Chadian oppositionist Succès Masra, who heads the party “Les Transformateurs.” He inspires us in many ways and I think he leaves these legacies for the young leaders we are trying to be.
Desmond Tutu is the one I was lucky enough to meet in 2016 and at that time he was going out of his way to tell us that what Africa needs is leaders who are servants. I think he was absolutely right.”
Ugandan opposition leader Bobi Wine says a “giant has fallen” who had put his life “at the service of humanity.”
Senegal’s head of state, Macky Sall, followed suit with these words: “I salute his historic fight against apartheid and his remarkable contribution to national reconciliation.
For Barack Obama, also a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Desmond Tutu “was a friend, mentor and moral beacon to me and so many others […] “A universal spirit, Archbishop Tutu was grounded d in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but was also concerned with injustice”
The Dalai Lama, with whom he had published a joint book and who regarded Tutu as his “spiritual elder brother”, praised “a great man, who lived a meaningful life”…, “totally dedicated to the service of his brothers and sisters”.
In Germany, the President of the Republic, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, paid tribute to the memory of “one of the world’s most prominent fighters against apartheid and for democracy and human rights […] His unwavering commitment against apartheid must be an example for all of us to commit ourselves relentlessly against racism and inequality” ([…] “He will remain unforgettable in Germany as a Christian and as a political priest, as a reconciler and as an independent spirit”.
David Sassoli, President of the European Parliament, hailed him as “a true inspiration and “a giant in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.”
Desmond Tutu leaves behind his wife Leah, a son and three daughters. He told Cicero magazine in 2014 that he would like to spend his last 24 hours with his family – and added with his legendary humour:
“I’ll tell them to take care of themselves and each other – especially their mother; if not, I’ll come back and haunt them”!
In the course of the Archbishop’s many struggles for human dignity, forgiveness and reconciliation, Desmond Tutu is an emblematic figure in the fight against racism, against all forms of discrimination and injustice. But above all, he has upheld these values even at times when it meant extreme danger to his life. We pay tribute to him for never being bitter or vindictive, but for always seeking to see what is good in people. Archbishop Tutu lived in a country where justice, respect and esteem for one’s fellow man were not self-evident to a large part of the population, and he left a country that had set out to establish these values.
He was fortunate, however, to live out parts of his dream, such as the formal abolition of apartheid. Nevertheless, this dark period has left a legacy that the younger generation must now eliminate completely. This would mean the final realisation of his dream.
Desmond Tutu has gone to join his ancestors in the afterlife and continues to watch over our world. South Africa’s last Nobel Peace Prize winner has undertaken the long journey of no return. He has completed his mission on earth.
May he rest in peace! May the words of his country’s national anthem accompany him to his final resting place!
Nkosi sikelel iafrika! God bless Africa!
Dr. Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, MEP