People walking at the side of the road, Namibia

As an anti-apartheid and human rights activist, I as well as millions of others mourn the death of Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu. He passed away on December 26, 2021, at the age of 90. 

A Black South African, Tutu is most known for his tireless struggle against apartheid as a human rights activist. He became a prominent opponent of the South Africa system that upheld racial segregation and the minority rule of whites. Nelson Mandela gave him the moniker of the “people’s archbishop.”

President F.W. de Klerk of the National Party was forced to release Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990. That evening Mandela stayed at Tutu’s house in Cape Town.   

After Mandela became president, Tutu acted as a mediator for Mandela, negotiating with black factions of the anti-apartheid movement. Mandela chose Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address human rights abuses and oppressions committed, especially by the apartheid regime. 

Tutu lambasted ANC former President Thabo Mbeki for dismissing and denying the AIDS epidemic that cost a tremendous loss of lives— estimated in the hundreds of thousands. 

Former president P.W. Botha claimed in a trial organized by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission that some “bad apples” bore responsibility for the killings of thousands of black activists in the apartheid state. “No, no. We cannot say that these are bad apples,” countered Truth Commission Chairperson Desmond Tutu. “They are people who were sitting on the State Security Council.” 

Botha claimed without confirmation that he had no direct knowledge of these killings.

White conservatives in the apartheid regime loathed his stand against apartheid. White liberals thought his stance against apartheid contained too much fire and made him out to be too radical. The South African Communist Party saw him as too moderate while Mandela embraced the SACP ending apartheid.

In August of 1986, according to N.Y. Times, U.S. President Reagan gave a supportive speech applauded by the apartheid government. 

“Your president is the pits as far as Blacks are concerned,” Tutu responded publicly through the NYTimes. “I found the speech nauseating. 

“Black trade unions have said they call for sanctions. Over 70 percent of our people in two surveys have shown that they want sanctions. No, President Reagan knows better. 

“He sits there like the great big white chief of old can tell us Black people that we don’t know what is good for us. The white man knows. I am quite angry, I think the West, for my part, can go to hell.”

In the post-apartheid era, Tutu continued his human rights traditions fighting for gay rights. He advocated for the Palestinians. Washington Post editor Redi Tihabi quoted the archbishop: “When you go to the Holy Land and see what’s being done to the Palestinians at checkpoints, for us, it’s the kind of thing we experienced in South Africa.”  

On the Iraq War, and George Bush, the human rights activist said, “Those responsible for this suffering and loss of life should be treading the same path as some of their African and Asian peers who have been made to answer for their actions in The Hague.”

Tutu responded to the mineworkers killed by the police in 2012 under South Africa President Zuma and most black South Africans’ continuing inequities in the South African newspaper ILO online: “Unhealed wounds and divisions from South Africa’s past fatally combined with the reigning climate of political intolerance to trigger the appalling events at Lonmin’s mine in Marikana last week.

“As a country, we are failing to build on the foundations of magnanimity, caring, pride, and hope embodied in the presidency of our extraordinary Tata Nelson Mandela. We have created a small handful of mega-rich beneficiaries of a black economic empowerment policy while spectacularly failing to narrow the gap in living standards between rich and poor South Africans. Instead, we have allowed the gap to widen.”

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond, Mpilo Tutu, the road you travelled goes much farther than the Nobel Prize you were awarded in 1984. And, it remains only a partial list of your accomplishments.

Former Coppin State University Professor, Dr. Ken Morgan is an internationalist and Black rights activist. He can be reached at: 

Dr. Ken Morgan
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