When Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, he had already spent more than three decades fighting apartheid. A well-respected leader in the Anglican Church, he spoke out against oppression, encouraging sanctions against his own country as a means of non-violent protest. But the government-instituted racism that had polarized South Africa for much of the 1900s continued. It would be another decade before efforts to end apartheid would reach a pivotal point as South Africa held its first all-race elections.
The son of a South African schoolteacher and domestic worker, Archbishop Tutu was born into a nation rife with racial tension and segregation. Despite many obstacles, the bright and curious child grew up to earn a teacher’s certificate and bachelor’s degree. He only taught for four years before his interests turned to theology.
Archbishop Tutu, who was first ordained as an Anglican Deacon in 1960, earned degrees in theology from King’s College in London. His rise to international prominence began in 1975 when he became the first black Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg. He would later become the first black general secretary of the South African Council of Churches.
He continued to use his elevated position in the South African religious hierarchy to advocate for an end to apartheid. Threats of imprisonment, banishment, and death never diminished his calls for equality for all South Africans.
Archbishop Tutu was appointed Bishop of Johannesburg in 1985 and the following year became the first black South African Archbishop of Cape Town and primate of South Africa’s 1.6 million-member Anglican Church. In sermons and lectures, he continued to serve as both social conscience and messenger of hope to his fellow South Africans.
By the 1990s, with the end of apartheid in sight, Archbishop Tutu’s message became one not of revenge for the wrongs his people had suffered, but of forgiveness. He became instrumental in the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which promotes a free, nonracial South Africa by offering amnesty in exchange for confessions from those who committed crimes under apartheid. “Acknowledging the horrors that occurred under apartheid and forgiving who committed them is the beginning of the healing process,” he said.
Since his retirement from the primacy in 1996, Archbishop Tutu has continued to speak around the world as an advocate for those suffering oppression and the violation of basic human rights and dignities.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu continues to receive recognition with honorary degrees and various awards for his humanitarian efforts. Among the most notable are the Sydney Peace Prize, Gandhi Peace Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Templeton Prize. In 2010, Archbishop Tutu officially retired from public life. However, he continues to be involved with the Elders, a group of elder statesmen from around the world who work to solve global problems, and the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre, which he founded with his wife, Leah.