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Whither Desmond Tutu’s Legacy?

Whatever one’s conclusions about Tutu, what is not debatable is that the world has lost a crusader in the struggle for freedom, justice, equality, and peace.

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On Sunday, December 26, 2021, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu passed away in Cape Town, at the age of 90.

Archbishop Tutu, famous the world over for his anti-apartheid activism, succumbed after a protracted battle with prostate cancer.

Tutu’s death has rekindled the debate about his legacy as a person, a priest, and a proponent of humanitarian causes in South Africa and beyond.

A day after his death, CNN reported, As South Africa mourns Desmond Tutu, so do LGBTQ groups, Palestinians and climate activists. While the headline looked routine enough, it was quite conspicuous for the groups it did not list, namely Christians and South Africans.

Why would the late Archbishop from South Africa be identified primarily by anything else before South Africa and Christianity?

A son of a schoolteacher

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born in 1931 in Klerksdorp, a gold mining town in North West Province in South Africa. His father, Zachariah Tutu, was a schoolteacher who brought Tutu many books, magazines, and other publications which exposed him to the pleasures of reading, making him an excellent student.

Tutu graduated from high school as one of the top performers among black South Africans and was admitted to a medical school. However, his family could not afford the school fees, so he joined a teachers’ training college on government scholarship in 1950.

Two years earlier, the National Party came to power and introduced the apartheid policy. Their motto was to ‘keep the kaffirs in their place.’ With apartheid, multiple laws were enacted to separate different racial groups including allocating more than 80 per cent of the land to the white minority.

Protests against apartheid

The ANC, then under the leadership of Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela, organised massive protests, but the government relented not. Being in college insulated Tutu from experiencing the full impact of apartheid, but when he started to see its effects, he decided to pursue the priesthood under the Anglican Church.

He was ordained in 1960 and between 1962 and 1966 he was at King’s College London for theological studies.

While Tutu was away, the fight against apartheid underwent a significant transformation. Despite ANC’s leadership preference for non-violence, as the oppression intensified, ANC decided to launch a militant arm called Umkhoto we Sizwe.

As a result, the government rounded Mandela and his compatriots up and issue them long prison sentences. When Tutu came back the movement had lost steam since it had lost its leaders – and that was the vacuum that fate called the diminutive young priest started to fill.

In 1976, riots erupted in Soweto as students protested the teaching of Afrikaans in schools. Hundreds died and the government declared a state of emergency. This was the time that a new charismatic leader by the name of Steve Biko was teaching blacks to be proud of themselves.

In 1977, Biko was arrested for subversion and died at the hands of the police. Tutu attended the funeral and delivered a rousing speech, saying: “We are being done to death for thy sake all day long, we are being treated like sheep for slaughter—and yet in spite of all, overwhelming victory is ours through him who loves us.”

However, Tutu’s insistence on restoration and reconciliation rather than retribution, made him a controversial figure among those who yearned for justice. He was considered to be an appeaser who sought to maintain the privileges his family was enjoying while his compatriots were suffering.

The whites also considered him radical, being greatly displeased by his calling for international boycotting of South Africa.

Tutu wins Nobel Peace Prize

But Tutu’s star continued to shine, inside and outside South African borders. In 1984 he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize and in 1986 he became the Archbishop of Cape Town, the highest position within the Anglican position in South Africa.

After the release of Nelson Mandela from jail in 1990, Tutu mediated between rival factions to prevent racial and ethnic violence in South Africa. He was later appointed to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which marked yet another historical contribution to South Africa. Nonetheless, even this was not without controversy.

One of the most remarkable cases at the TRC involved Winnie Mandela. Just before Nelson Mandela was released, Winnie had organised a group of young men who rounded up and even killed suspected police informers in Soweto. One of those who fell at the hands of this group was a 14-year-old boy called Stompie Seipei.

The commission heard that Winnie was not only present but she stood by watching the killing of Seipei. The horrific account shocked Tutu and he insisted that Winnie had to apologise for her actions.

Many South Africans, including Nelson Mandela, rejected that “artificial even-handedness that placed those fighting a just war alongside those who defended an inhumane system,” as Mandela put it.

Tutu’s pro-gay activism

After the end of apartheid, Tutu spoke out on many issues, notably for gay rights, Palestinians struggles, and euthanasia. While the other issues had made him controversial in South Africa, these issues made him controversial beyond South Africa.

With respect to homosexuality, Tutu said: “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. I would much rather go to the other place. That is how deeply I feel about this.”

Indeed, Tutu went as far as to support the ordination of gay priests. Her own daughter, Mpho Tutu, an Anglican priest, had to return her pastoral license after a same-sex marriage that her father approved.

Having spent years fighting for justice, Tutu felt compelled to support gay rights. But critics point out that rejection of homosexuality doesn’t imply hate. In fact, for Christians, support for gay rights is tantamount to apostasy. Desmond Tutu’s pro-gay activism could not have endeared him to many Christians.

Support for the Palestinian cause

In 1966, Tutu visited Israel for the first time to study Islam. Upon witnessing the hatred between Arabs and Jews, he concluded that Zionism was akin to apartheid and became a strong advocate of the Palestinian cause.

With regard to the Palestinian issue, Tutut once said: “We are opposed to the injustice of the illegal occupation of Palestine. We are opposed to the indiscriminate killing in Gaza. We are opposed to the indignity meted out to Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks. We are opposed to violence perpetrated by all parties. But we are not opposed to Jews.”

While his convictions were strong, his critics point out that Tutu failed to appreciate the significant differences between the struggles in South Africa and Palestine.

For example, while Tutu said, “We don’t want to drive the white people into the sea, we don’t want to destroy white people,” Palestinians say, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” implying ethnic cleansing of the Jews. Had blacks in South Africa pursued a similar approach, so much blood would have been spilt there.

Tutu failed to appreciate that Palestine lacks pragmatic leaders, men like Luthuli, Mandela, or Tutu himself, who made compromise possible. Unfortunately, even Palestinians stated genocidal intentions of the Jews were not enough to make Tutu reconsider his views.

It is difficult to be dogmatic about Tutu’s legacy. His is a story of a man who sought to balance multiple conflicting perspectives, often attracting the ire of those on both sides of the issues.

But anyone choosing such treacherous paths would have without a doubt attracted controversy. Whatever one’s conclusions about him, what is not debatable is that the world has lost a crusader in the struggle for freedom, justice, equality, and peace.

Charles Makakala is a technology and management consultant based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is available through These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at for further inquiries. 




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