Archbishop Desmond Tutu

In the 1980s Archbishop Desmond Tutu (born 1931) became South Africa's most prominent opponent of apartheid, that country's system of racial discrimination.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize of 1984 to Desmond Mpilo Tutu made him the most visible representative of the struggle in the Republic of South Africa against apartheid, the system by which the minority white population of South Africa dominated the black majority until 1994. It allowed whites, who constituted 20 percent of the population, to reserve for themselves about 87 percent of the land, most natural resources, and all meaningful political power. Blacks who found themselves in lands reserved for whites were arbitrarily made citizens of one of ten homelands, which the white government (but virtually no one else) called nations. In order to remove Blacks from areas reserved for whites, the government forcibly evicted many from their homes, though their families had in some cases occupied them for decades. Blacks in the Republic were relegated to the lowest-paying jobs, denied access to most public accommodations (though this policy was relaxed somewhat in the 1970s), and had drastically lower life expectancies than whites. In contrast, South African whites had one of the highest standards of living in the world.

Black opposition to these conditions began in 1912 when the African National Congress (ANC) was formed. Until the 1960s it engaged in various peaceful campaigns of protest that included marches, petitions, and boycotts— actions which availed Blacks little. After police fired in 1960 on a crowd at Sharpeville, killing 69 and wounding many others, and after the ANC leader Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for life in 1964, many Blacks decided to abandon the policy of non-violent resistance. Most ANC members, led by Oliver Tambo, left South Africa and launched a campaign of sabotage from exile. The white government increased its violence in return. In 1976 500 Black students were shot during protests, and in 1978 and 1980 Black leader Steve Biko and trade unionist Neil Aggett were killed while in police custody. Beginning in 1984 violence again swept South Africa. By the time the government declared a state of emergency in June 1986, more than 2, 000 individuals had been killed.

Against this backdrop Desmond Tutu emerged as the leading spokesman for non-violent resistance to apartheid. Born on October 7, 1931, in Klerksdorp, a town in the Transvaal region, his early education was at a mission school. At the age of 14 he contracted tuberculosis and was hospitalized for 20 months. He wanted to become a doctor, but because his family could not afford the schooling, he entered teaching. When the government instituted a system of racially discriminatory education in 1957, Tutu left teaching and entered the Anglican Church. Ordained in 1961, he earned a B.A. in 1962 from the University of South Africa, and shortly thereafter a B.D. and an M.Th. from the University of London. From 1970 to 1974 he lectured at the University of Lesotho, Botswana, and Swaziland. In 1975 he became dean of Johannesburg, a position from which he publicly challenged white rule. He became bishop of Lesotho in 1976, and in 1985 bishop of Johannesburg. A short 14 months later, in April 1986, he was elected archbishop of Cape Town, the first Black person to head the Anglican Church in southern Africa.

By the 1980s clergymen were among the most vigorous opponents within South Africa of apartheid. Allan Boesak, a biracial minister, and Beyers Naude, head of the Christian Institute, were unusually outspoken. Naude was silenced in the late 1970s by banning, a unique South African punishment by which the victim was placed under virtual house arrest and could not speak or be quoted publicly. Tutu's international recognition as a critic of apartheid came when he became first general secretary of the South African Council of Churches in 1978.

The problem faced by anti-apartheid clergymen was how to simultaneously oppose both violent resistance and apartheid, which was itself increasingly violent. Tutu's opposition was vigorous and unequivocal, and he was outspoken both in South Africa and abroad, often comparing apartheid to Nazism and Communism. As a result the government twice revoked his passport, and he was jailed briefly in 1980 after a protest march. It was thought by many that Tutu's increasing international reputation and his rigorous advocacy of non-violence protected him from harsher penalties. Tutu's view on violence reflected the tension in a Christian approach to resistance: "I will never tell anyone to pick up a gun. But I will pray for the man who picks up a gun, pray that he will be less cruel than he might otherwise have been…."

Another issue Tutu faced was whether other nations should be urged to apply economic sanctions against South Africa. The argument for sanctions stated that sanctions, by denying South Africa the investments on which its economy was dependent, would force the white government to abandon apartheid. The arguments against sanctions were that those who would suffer most would be the Blacks and that the whites were likely to become more intransigent in the face of world pressure. Tutu favored sanctions as the only hope for peaceful change. He also vigorously opposed the "constructive engagement" policy of the Reagan administration in the United States, which advocated "friendly persuasion." When the new wave of violence swept South Africa in the 1980s and the white government failed to make fundamental changes in apartheid, Tutu pronounced constructive engagement a failure. The U.S. Congress did impose some sanctions against South Africa in October 1986, overriding a veto by President Reagan.

In 1989 F.W. de Klerk was elected the new president of the Republic of South Africa. He had promised to abolish apartheid, and at the end of 1993 he made good on his promise when South Africa's first all-race elections were announced. On April 27, 1994 South Africans elected a new president, Nelson Mandela, and apartheid was finally over. Mandela aptly symbolized South Africa's new liberation, since until 1990 he had spent 27 years as a political prisoner because of his outspoken opposition to apartheid.

In 1997, Tutu received the ROBIE award for his work in humanitarianism. The award was presented by NBC sports-caster Bob Costas at the Jackie Robinson Foundation annual dinner, held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. The award came in the midst of Tutu's battle with prostate cancer, and shortly after the presentation he announced plans to undergo several months of cancer treatment in the United States. As head of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a group that investigates apartheid crimes, Mandela planned to set up an office in the United States, where he could continue his work throughout the rigorous cancer treatment.

Receiving the ROBIE was certainly not Tutu's first recognition: he was the second South African to earn the Nobel Prize. The first was Albert Luthuli of the ANC, who received it in 1960 for the same sort of opposition to apartheid.


Further Reading on Archbishop Desmond Tutu

For general descriptions of South African society, see Leo Marquard, The People and Policies of South Africa (4th ed., 1969) and Joseph Lelyveld, Move Your Shadow (1985). For the role of the church see Peter Walshe, Church Versus State in South Africa (1983). There is as yet no biography of Tutu. His speeches and sermons have been published in Crying in the Wilderness (1982); Hope and Suffering (1983); The Words of Desmond Tutu (1989); and The Rainbow People of God: The Making of a Peaceful Revolution. His book Crying in the Wilderness contains a brief account of his life, as do numerous newspapers and journals published shortly after he received the Nobel Prize in October 1984.