The “Arch”: Who Was Desmond Tutu?

An honest and jovial man who joined in the fight against apartheid by appealing to the goodness in humanity, Desmond Tutu is a symbol of hope for the whole world.

Jan 29, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

who was desmond tutu arch


Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, affectionately known as “The Arch,” was a campaigner for peace and a firm believer in humanity. Widely regarded as South Africa’s Moral Conscience, he received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in 1984.


He never wanted to get involved in politics. He wanted just to keep his head in the church, but he could not ignore what was happening around him in South Africa. The brutal apartheid regime was a crime against humanity, and humanity was at the core of Desmond Tutu’s belief.


With his jovial and personable manner, Desmond Tutu became much loved by the people of South Africa. And it was his beautiful character and wise insight that changed the hearts of many whose hearts had been hardened by hate.


Early Life of Desmond Tutu

Street art of Desmond Tutu in Cape Town by Brian Rolfe. Source: Street Art Cities


Desmond Tutu was born on October 7, 1931 in Klerksdorp in the Transvaal. He was one of three children, with an older and a younger sister. His father was the principal at a Methodist school, but despite this, the family was poor. They were Methodists but later changed denominations and became Anglican.

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His family moved around a lot, and Desmond attended many schools before 1945 when he enrolled in the Johannesburg Bantu High School. He was an excellent student, doing well academically and playing rugby. He developed a passion for the sport, which would last his entire life.


Source: Shayne Robinson


He lived in an Anglican hostel near the Church of Christ the King in Sophiatown, and it was at the church where he met Trevor Huddleston, an Anglican bishop who would have a huge impact on Desmond Tutu’s life. The bishop’s anti-apartheid activism would lead Desmond in the same direction.


In 1947, Desmond contracted a severe form of tuberculosis and spent 18 months in hospital. During this time, he was constantly visited by Trevor Huddleston.


After returning to school in 1949, he took his final exams, which he passed in 1950.


After school, he was accepted into the University of Witwatersrand to study medicine, but his family could not afford the tuition fees, and instead, Desmond studied to become a teacher. During his time at Pretoria Bantu Normal College, he met Nelson Mandela, but the two would not cross paths again until 1990.


Resistance to the Bantu Education Act. Source: Google Arts & Culture


After graduating in 1954, Desmond Tutu began teaching English at Madibane High School, and the following year he transferred to Krugersdorp High School, where he taught English and history. During this time, he met Nomalizo Leah Shenxane, and the two fell in love and married in 1955.


A year before he graduated, the National Party government in South Africa passed the Bantu Education Act. Through this act, the government sought to control how Black people in South Africa were educated. So before Desmond Tutu began teaching, his outlook on his career was already marred by measures with which he disagreed on a deep and fundamental level.


The apartheid laws in South Africa would become a lot worse. People were separated. Police brutality increased, culminating in massacres. Interracial relationships were forbidden. Black people had to carry passbooks with them, and the government sought to inhibit Black progress at every level, investing only in suppression and control.


Tutu Joins the Clergy

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu in London, 2010. Source: Carl de Souza/AFP


In 1956, Desmond Tutu left the teaching profession and began studying at St Peter’s Theological College, a residential college. His wife, Leah, was busy studying to become a nurse, and their two young children, Trevor and Thandeka, lived with Desmond’s parents at the time.


In 1960, Desmond finished his studies and was ordained as an Anglican priest. During this time, there was a growing desire within the South African Anglican ecclesiarchy to ordain more Africans. Desmond Tutu was thus offered the chance to study further at King’s College in London. In September 1962, Desmond and his family moved to England.


By 1966, Desmond Tutu had completed his Honor’s and Master’s, having studied Hebrew and writing his dissertation on Islam in West Africa. London opened his eyes and his mind, and he was greatly exposed to the white community, ministering to them and eradicating any prejudice that had been instilled in him from his dealings with white people in South Africa.


After completing his studies in London, Desmond and his family moved briefly to East Jerusalem, where he studied Arabic and Greek, before returning to South Africa.


Desmond Tutu Resumes Teaching in South Africa

South Africa was a violent and oppressive state during the height of apartheid. Source: UN Photo/DB on Flickr


In 1967, Desmond Tutu was hired by Federal Theological Seminary, and he was the school’s first Black staff member. His wife became the school’s library assistant. The school was based in the Eastern Cape, but the couple decided to send their children to school in Swaziland (now eSwatini) to keep them from being subjected to the Bantu Education Act in South Africa. He also became the University chaplain at the University of Fort Hare. He began publishing journals and taking an active part in protest movements. He was a supporter of the Black Consciousness Movement, and in September 1968, he took part in a major sit-in protest where he witnessed, for the first time, the state oppression on a large and physical scale.


The Height of Apartheid

Desmond Tutu in 1980. Source: Gallo Images/REX Shutterstock


In 1970, Desmond Tutu left his post in the Eastern Cape and accepted a high-paying job teaching in Lesotho. In 1972, he moved back to London, where he worked for International Missionary Council’s Theological Education Fund as their director for Africa.


After a few years, he returned to South Africa to take up an appointment as the dean of St Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg. This was the fourth-highest position within the Anglican Church in South Africa, and Desmond Tutu was the first Black person to have the job. Naturally, this move ruffled a few feathers in the South African government, and because of the segregation laws, Tutu could not live in the official residence afforded to the position in the white suburb of Houghton. Instead, he lived in a modest house in the Black suburb of Soweto.


Source: Trevor Samson / NPR


Unusually for South Africa, Tutu’s congregation was mixed, as the Anglican community was not generally a big supporter of apartheid. This gave Desmond Tutu hope for the future of race relations in South Africa.


From 1976 to 1978, he changed jobs again and served as the bishop of Lesotho. In the same year, he became the general secretary for the South African Council of Churches.


Throughout the 1980s, Desmond Tutu brought international attention to the plight of Black South Africans and encouraged countries to apply economic pressure to force the South African government into ending apartheid. Above all, he advocated nonviolent means of resistance.


Desmond Tutu leading a protest in a whites-only picnic spot in 1986. Source: Academy of Achievement


He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, which added significantly to the power of his message. As a leading figure in the struggle against apartheid, the National Party government saw him as a significant threat.


Tutu’s power and presence would only grow. He was appointed Johannesburg’s first Black Anglican bishop. Then he became the archbishop of Cape Town and thus the head of the entire Anglican Church in South Africa, representing 1.6 million Anglicans. While his religious affiliations were to Anglicanism, his message was widespread and non-denominational. He appealed to and was widely revered by people from all sectors of South African society.


Throughout the 1980s, Desmond Tutu tried to use his power to mediate between parties in conflict as a result of apartheid. He also took part in and led several protest actions.


As Archbishop, he was committed to equality and appointed women and gay priests to prominent positions, arguing that their exclusion was a form of apartheid within the Anglican community. Later in life, he went public with his support of gay rights, stating in 2007, “If God, as they say, is homophobic, I wouldn’t worship that God.” In 2006, South Africa became the fifth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.


He was also a voice for peace on the international stage. He advocated for peace in Northern Ireland, insisting that Irish Republicans had not exhausted opportunities for a peaceful resolution. He also criticized the government of Israel but was sympathetic to the situation of Jewish people. Despite arguing that his issues were with the Israeli government and its support of apartheid South Africa and not aimed at Jewish people, he was labeled as anti-Semitic by some.


Desmond Tutu & The End of Apartheid

An emotional Desmond Tutu at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing, photograph by Jilian Edelstein, 2000. Source: MutualArt


Desmond Tutu’s role was significant during the fall of apartheid and the transition of power to the Black majority under the African National Congress led by Nelson Mandela. In 1994, after the first fully democratic election, he coined the term “The Rainbow Nation” to refer to South Africa – a name that has stuck.


In 1995, Nelson Mandela appointed Desmond Tutu as the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This was an opportunity for South Africans from all walks of life to share their stories under an umbrella of political amnesty. It was a time filled with tears as the country came to terms with its past.


Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in 2008. Source: AP Photo/Themba Hadebe


Desmond Tutu withdrew from public life in 2010 and began his retirement. Despite this, he continued to work with a group called “The Elders,” which he co-founded and was committed to conflict resolution and the promotion of peace around the world.


He continued to write letters in support of issues around the world. In 2012, he wrote a letter in support of US military whistleblower Chelsea Manning. He asked Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi to stop the mistreatment of the country’s Muslim minority, and he requested that Joe Biden stop sending military aid to Israel.


On December 26, 2021, at the age of 90, Desmond Tutu passed away from cancer while at the Oasis Frail Care Centre in Cape Town. His death was met with an outpouring of grief from the South African nation, equaled only by the death of Nelson Mandela in 2012.


Desmond Tutu and Trevor Huddleston. Source: Gallo Images / Avusa / Margo Williams


Desmond Tutu once said,


“Despite all of the ghastliness in the world, human beings are made for goodness. The ones that are held in high regard are not militarily powerful, nor even economically prosperous. They have a commitment to try and make the world a better place.”


He certainly lived up to this quote.


Desmond Tutu was held in the highest regard and was most certainly an example of the goodness of humanity.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.