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Tutu, Desmond Mpilo
b. 1931
South Africa

Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, head of the Anglican Church in South Africa, was the leading spokesman of non-violent resistance to apartheid during 1980s, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1984.

Tutu was born in the Transvaal and spent his teen years in Johannesburg, where his mother had taken work at a mission school for the blind. His religious faith was deeply strengthened by the staff's compassion and dedication, and shortly thereafter he met Father Trevor HUDDLESTON, whom he has termed the greatest single influence on his life. Huddleston, then just beginning his career as the leading white foe of apartheid, spent time with Tutu, including daily visits for almost two years when Tutu was in the hospital with tuberculosis. Unable to afford medical school fees after high school, Tutu received a teacher's certificate from the Bantu Normal College in 1953 and a correspondence degree from the University of South Africa the following year. He taught for several years until the government's Bantu education program, guaranteeing second-class status for black South Africans, took effect. With many other teachers, Tutu resigned in 1957.

He decided to enter the Anglican clergy and placed himself under the direction of the Mirfield Fathers, Huddleston's religious community. From them he learned their high-church patterns of daily prayer, liturgy, and meditation, but he also absorbed their strong sense of Christian social justice. He went on to theological studies at St.Peter's Seminary, taking his degree in 1960 and being ordained a deacon. A year later he was ordained an Anglican priest. He spent two years as a curate and then went to London for further study from 1962 to 1966. For the next three years he taught theology and was chaplain at Fort Hare University and then at the National University of Lesotho from 1969 to 1971. He then returned to England for three years as director of the Theological Education Fund, a World Council of Churches scholarship program. Tutu returned to South Africa in 1975 as dean of Johannesburg, and his clerical career moved swiftly: he was bishop of Lesotho from 1976 to 1978, secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) from 1978 to 1985, Anglican bishop of Johannesburg (1985), and archbishop of Cape Town and head of the Anglican Church in South Africa in 1986.

Throughout his rise in church circles, Tutu was increasingly involved in confronting the patterns of violence in the townships and their root cause: the country's apartheid regime. Firmly committed to a policy of Christian non-violence, Tutu nevertheless was unable to be a passive bystander, and he used his SACC position as a world pulpit. He argued that "to be impartial is to have taken sides already." He strongly endorsed economic sanctions against South Africa on a 1979 trip to Denmark, which led to his passport being lifted for two years. When he was again able to travel, Tutu made an international tour to promote sanctions, which he saw as the best non-violent means of breaking apartheid's power. On his return, his passport was again taken, and thereafter he went abroad with a travel document stamped "nationality undetermined."

After the Soweto student riots in 1976, there was a great need for black voices of authority, especially as most political leaders were silenced, exiled, or imprisoned. Under the circumstances, Tutu's charismatic speaking style and uncompromising attitude thrust him to the forefront. Many other prominent religious leaders were against apartheid, but none had Tutu's position, dynamism, and respect. Tutu also showed himself a competent administrator and organizer, and he was able to shape the SACC into a far more efficient body than when he took its leadership. When the government backed down from banning the SACC after an investigation in 1984, no one doubted that Tutu's prestige had saved the organization. That fall he took a sabbatical at General Theological Seminary in New York, where he received the announcement that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Tutu returned home to a society that was descending into violent chaos. Thousands of government troops raided the townships, strikes paralyzed industry, and some 200,000 students boycotted classes. A new constitution provided token representation to Indians and Coloureds (people of mixed racial heritage) while excluding blacks. Shortly after Tutu's return to Johannesburg, he was elected bishop. He continued to promote sanctions, witnessing the first restrictions placed on trade by the U.S. government. At the same time, violence escalated until President P. W. BOTHA declared a state of emergency. Hundreds of Africans died in township violence outside the major cities, and Tutu not only spoke out but acted against it. On one occasion he intervened at the risk of his own life to save a police informer from a black mob that was about to burn him to death. Time and again he served as a peacemaker in tense situations. When the position of Archbishop of Cape Town opened in 1986, he made it known that he was interested, and in a contested election he was chosen primate of the Anglican Church in South Africa. He used the occasion of his installation to speak out again for sanctions, reiterating the statement that he had made when he first advocated them: "If we can not consider all peaceful means then people are in effect saying that there are no peaceful means."

Tutu is a diminutive man, ebullient and spirited. At the inauguration of Nelson MANDELA as president in 1994, he could not contain himself and broke out with whoops of joy. He has been known to dance at solemn services, and his preaching is just as enthusiastic, but the style is more prophetic than emotional. Although he is close to Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) leadership, Tutu has never joined the ANC, and, consistent with his non-violent position, he opposed the ANC's guerrilla action during the liberation struggle. Through it all, he remains faithful to the disciplines of daily prayer and meditation that he learned from the Mirfield Fathers. He has always argued that apartheid morally destroyed both its advocates and its victims, and he has insistently called for a South African society based on racial equality. On the morning of Mandela's inauguration, he celebrated the eucharist in Afrikaans.

Norman C. Brockman


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Additional reading:

Du Boulay, Shirley. Voice of the Voiceless (1988); Wepman, Dennis. Desmond Tutu (1989) [young adult].

This article is reproduced, with permission, from An African Biographical Dictionary, copyright © 1994, edited by Norbert C. Brockman, Santa Barbara, California. All rights reserved.