x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Desmond Tutu bows out of the limelight

The Anglican cleric was well known for his sense of humour and equal willingness to tangle with apartheid's darkest demons.

JOHANNESBURG // Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped to bring down apartheid in South Africa and shaped his country's society, marked his 79th birthday yesterday by announcing the end of his public life. 

The Anglican cleric won a Nobel Peace prize for his non-violent struggle against the apartheid system. Even after the fall of the whites-only regime, he never shied away from shining a spotlight on modern South Africa's failings, while travelling the globe to promote efforts at peace from the Middle East to the distant Solomon Islands.

He brought to all his endeavours a playfulness, quick to crack jokes - often directed at himself - and always ready to skip, dance and laugh uproariously in public. That was how he appeared in June at a concert in Soweto to kick off the World Cup, having swapped his purple clerical garb for a South African football shirt and matching bobble hat. "I'm dreaming, I'm dreaming. It's so beautiful; wake me up!" he said, dancing behind the microphone.

"We want to say to the world: 'Thank you for helping this ugly, ugly worm, or caterpillar which we were, to become a beautiful, beautiful butterfly." It was Rev Tutu who first baptised South Africa the "rainbow nation" at the first all-race elections in 1994. In 1996 - the year after Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first black president - he retired as archbishop of Cape Town to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

For 30 months, the commission lifted the lid on the horrors of apartheid by investigating atrocities. At one of its first hearings, Rev Tutu broke down and sobbed as a disabled victim described his torture by the security forces. Born in the small town of Klerksdorp, about an hour's drive west of Johannesburg, on October 7 1931, he trained as a teacher on a government scholarship because his family could not afford to send him to university.

But after a short stint as a teacher, his anger at the inferior education offered black children prompted him to become a priest. "It wasn't for very highfalutin' ideals that I became a priest," he said in his authorised biography. "It was almost by default. I couldn't go to medical school … the easiest option was going to theological college." Rev Tutu was ordained at the age of 30 and lived in South Africa, Britain and Lesotho before being appointed the first black archbishop of Cape Town in 1986.

He used his status to advocate international sanctions against apartheid South Africa as a means of forcing the government to bring about change. He believed firmly in the reconciliation of black and white South Africans and said at the first all-race elections in 1994: "I am walking on clouds. It is an incredible feeling, like falling in love. We South Africans are going to be the rainbow people of the world."

Mr Mandela is a great admirer of Rev Tutu and has described him as "a man who had inspired an entire nation with his words and his courage, who had revived the people's hope during the darkest of times". But such is their relationship that Rev Tutu felt free to chastise Mr Mandela for living openly with Graca Machel before their marriage. Never a member of the ruling African National Congress, Rev Tutu challenged authority both in government and in his church.

He spoke out against former president Thabo Mbeki's denial of the AIDS epidemic and lashed the party for trying to muzzle a Truth Commission interim report in October 1998. "I didn't struggle in order to remove one set of those who thought they were tin gods and replace them with others who are tempted to think they are," he said. Rev Tutu has also apologised to gays for the suffering the Anglican Church's teachings has caused them.

"I want to say sorry to you and all the others who have been made to suffer so horribly. Sometimes the Bible says these things are unnatural. But, I ask, unnatural to whom?" Some of his sharpest barbs were directed at Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, calling him a "caricature of an African dictator". Mr Mugabe responded by calling him "an evil little bishop". Rev Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and underwent repeated treatments.

He married his wife Leah in 1955 and they had four children. 

* Agence France-Presse