Photo credit: Peter Williams/WCC @oikoumene

ANNOUNCING THE DEATH of Desmond Tutu on Sunday 26 December 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “The passing of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu 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.

“Desmond Tutu was a patriot without equal; a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead.

“A man of extraordinary intellect, integrity and invincibility against the forces of apartheid, he was also tender and vulnerable in his compassion for those who had suffered oppression, injustice and violence under apartheid, and oppressed and downtrodden people around the world.

“As Chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he articulated the universal outrage at the ravages of apartheid and touchingly and profoundly demonstrated the depth of meaning of ubuntu, reconciliation and forgiveness.

“He placed his extensive academic achievements at the service of our struggle and at the service of the cause for social and economic justice the world over.

“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.

“In his richly inspiring yet challenging life, Desmond Tutu overcame tuberculosis, the brutality of the apartheid security forces and the intransigence of successive apartheid regimes. Neither Casspirs, teargas nor security agents could intimidate him or deter him from his steadfast belief in our liberation.

“He remained true to his convictions during our democratic dispensation and maintained his vigour and vigilance as he held leadership and the burgeoning institutions of our democracy to account in his inimitable, inescapable and always fortifying way.

“We share this moment of deep loss with Mam Leah Tutu, the Archbishop’s soulmate and source of strength and insight, who has made a monumental contribution in her own right to our freedom and to the development of our democracy.

“We pray that Archbishop Tutu’s soul will rest in peace but that his spirit will stand sentry over the future of our nation.”

The World Council of Churches (WCC) said that whilst the Archbishop was a key leader in the moral struggle against the apartheid system in South Africa, the impact of his life’s ministry and witness extended far beyond the borders of his own country and beyond that historical moment. Also in the post-apartheid era, his principled commitment and engagement for justice for all remained unwavering. Tutu believed passionately that the Christian faith is inclusive of all, and that Christian responsibility is for the good of all people. His leadership strengthened us all in that belief and continues to call us to action upon that belief.

WCC acting General Secretary, the Rev Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca, said “We thank God for giving us Archbishop Tutu for 90  years. Through his life and works he has become an image of dignity and freedom for all human beings and  inspired many to use their gifts and talents in the service of others and the mission and prophetic task of the church.”

“Today, with Desmond Mpilo Tutu’s passing, the world is very much poorer. We join the people of South Africa in mourning this stalwart of the resistance against apartheid. We join the Anglican Communion and all members of the ecumenical fellowship in mourning the Archbishop who has so long been a leading voice for the Christian faith in witnessing for justice instead of injustice and inclusion instead of exclusion. And we join the Tutu family in mourning a father, grandfather and husband.”

Sauca concluded “We invite all member churches, ecumenical partners and all people of good will to celebrate a life well and faithfully lived in service to God and humanity, and to uphold his legacy of consistent solidarity with the marginalised communities of this world.”

The Rev. Frank Chikane, Moderator of the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, paid tribute to his counterpart in the struggle against apartheid: “In Archbishop Desmond Tutu we have lost a great prophet of God who lived among us and stood for justice – the justice of God for all – here in South Africa, on the African continent, and throughout the world, including standing against injustices committed against Palestinians in Israel-Palestine, where others would not dare to. We thank God for his prophetic witness which is worth celebrating nationally and internationally.”

In a visit to the Ecumenical Centre in 2008, Tutu thanked the WCC for its “costly solidarity” at the time of the anti-apartheid struggle. “We would not be free had not been for the steadfast support of the WCC, which cost the WCC a very great deal”, he said.

Baldwin Sjollema, first Director of the WCC Programme to Combat Racism, wrote: “Back in the 1970s Desmond and I were colleagues at the WCC. He was working for the Theological Education Fund (TEF) based in London whereas I was working in the controversial Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) in Geneva which supported the liberation movement. We were not always on the same wavelength.  At that time Desmond had to be careful not to be too outspoken against the Pretoria regime in order not burn his bridges at home. But his attitude changed radically after his return to South Africa when he was appointed dean of Johannesburg in 1975 and one year later Anglican bishop of Lesotho, then General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and finally the first black Archbishop of Cape Town (1987).

“In the 1980s when the struggle against apartheid reached its peak, Desmond was fearless in predicting black rule: “We need Nelson Mandela”, he said in April 1980, “because he is almost certainly going to be that first black prime minister.” His great courage and moral authority were recognised by the international community when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

“Together with many other church leaders in South Africa, Desmond was in the forefront of the struggle, providing leadership at both local and national levels. Churches became meeting places and centres of information. Desmond was not frightened to speak the truth to those that were in power: straightforward and with humour. He was irrepressible.

“I shall remember Desmond Tutu foremost as a friend and colleague who reminded us time and again that instead of racism, disunity, enmity and alienation, “God has intended us for fellowship, for koinonia, for togetherness, without destroying our distinctiveness, our cultural identity”.

* Sources: World Council of Churches and The Presidency, Republic of South Africa