Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the most important figures in racial injustice in South Africa, has died according to South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa. He was 90 years old.
“The passing of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa,” the president said in a statement.
Tutu, often referred to as “the Arch” was born in 1931. He became a teacher like his father but resigned in 1954 from a teaching post over government restrictions against Black children attending school. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1961 and became the first Black Anglican dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg in 1975. He later served as the first Black elected Archbishop of Cape Town.
He chaired South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission and led the Desmond Tutu Peace Trust.
“Typically he turned his own misfortune into a teaching opportunity to raise awareness and reduce the suffering of others,” his Trust said in a statement. “He wanted the world to know that he had prostate cancer, and that the sooner it is detected the better the chance of managing it.”
A great friend of Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years during apartheid and who became the nation’s first Black president, Mandela spent his first night after being released from prison in Tutu’s home. Mandela called him “the people’s archbishop.”
In 2013, Tutu turned his focus to LGBT rights, launching a campaign in Cape Town during which he said, “I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this. I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say, ‘Sorry, I would much rather go to the other place.’”
He spent his life fighting to end apartheid, South Africa’s brutal oppression of Black people, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his work. He remained politically active until his death.