JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning icon, an uncompromising foe of the country’s past racist policy of apartheid and a modern-day activist for racial justice and LGBT rights, died Sunday at 90. South Africans, world leaders and people around the globe mourned the death of the man viewed as the country’s moral conscience.
Tutu worked passionately, tirelessly and non-violently to tear down apartheid — South Africa’s brutal, decades-long regime of oppression against its Black majority that only ended in 1994.
The buoyant, blunt-spoken clergyman used his pulpit as the first Black bishop of Johannesburg and later the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town as well as frequent public demonstrations to galvanize public opinion against racial inequity, both at home and globally.
Nicknamed “the Arch,” Tutu was diminutive, with an impish sense of humor, but became a towering figure in his nation’s history, comparable to fellow Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela, a prisoner during white rule who became South Africa’s first Black president. Tutu and Mandela shared a commitment to building a better, more equal South Africa.
Upon becoming president in 1994, Mandela appointed Tutu to be chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which uncovered the abuses of the apartheid system.
Tutu’s death on Sunday “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,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said.
“From the pavements of resistance in South Africa to the pulpits of the world’s great cathedrals and places of worship, and the prestigious setting of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, the Arch distinguished himself as a non-sectarian, inclusive champion of universal human rights.”
Tutu died peacefully at the Oasis Frail Care Center in Cape Town, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Trust said Sunday. He had been hospitalized several times since 2015 after being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997.
“Typically he turned his own misfortune into a teaching opportunity to raise awareness and reduce the suffering of others,” said the Tutu trust. “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.”
In recent years he and his wife, Leah, lived in a retirement community outside Cape Town.
“His legacy is moral strength, moral courage and clarity,” Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba said in a video statement. “He felt with the people. In public and alone, he cried because he felt people’s pain. And he laughed — no, not just laughed, he cackled with delight — when he shared their joy.”
A seven-day mourning period is planned in Cape Town before Tutu’s burial, including a two-day lying in state, an ecumenical service and an Anglican requiem mass at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, according to church officials. Cape Town’s landmark Table Mountain will be lit in purple, the color of the robes Tutu wore as archbishop.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was among the world leaders paying tribute to Tutu. “He was a critical figure in the fight against apartheid and in the struggle to create a new South Africa — and will be remembered for his spiritual leadership and irrepressible good humor.”