Writers & Company

Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu brought a spiritual dimension to South Africa's liberation struggle

Desmond Tutu died on Dec. 26, 2021 at the age of 90. In this 2001 conversation, the South African anti-apartheid activist, theologian and author spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about faith and the painful process of healing.
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks during the funerals of four young anti-apartheid activists, victims of hand-grenade blasts, on 10 July 1985 in Duduza township, near Johannesburg. (Gideon Mendel/AFP via Getty Images)

This interview originally aired on May 20, 2001.

When Desmond Tutu died on Dec. 26, 2021 at the age of 90, tributes poured in from around the world. The Dalai Lama called him a "true humanitarian," while Queen Elizabeth II remembered Tutu's "great warmth and humour."

Honoured and beloved, the former Archbishop was a hero of South Africa's liberation struggle and one of the most outspoken critics of apartheid. Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. When Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, Tutu was at the forefront, dedicated to creating a new country out of what he called "the Rainbow People of God."

He served as co-chair of South Africa's groundbreaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission, bringing a spiritual dimension to the painful process of healing — an experience he reflected on in his 1999 book No Future Without Forgiveness.

The son of a schoolteacher and a domestic servant, Tutu was born in 1931 in Klerksdorp, in what was the Western Transvaal. He earned a teacher's diploma from the Bantu Normal College in Pretoria, then studied at the University of South Africa in Johannesburg. He later went to theological college and was ordained by the time he was 30.

Tutu spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from his office in Cape Town in 2001. 

Separate and unequal

"As a Black child in South Africa, you didn't go about feeling heavily burdened by the fact that there was segregation, discrimination and oppression. Thinking back, it appears as if somehow one reckoned that this is how things are ordered — that this is, as it were, the divine decree. 

"You didn't keep kicking against the codes. We had our own school in the township. At the time, Indians and those we call coloured in South Africa attended our school. This was the case although Indians, in fact, lived in town, which was just one of those aberrations and anomalies of South Africa.

I didn't have highfalutin reasons why I wanted to become a priest. I went because it was the only other alternative available to me.

"But when you went past the white school, you would see Black kids scavenging in the bins of the white school, because in the crazy logic that we had in this country, the government was giving food to white school children — whose families could afford to buy it — but were not giving any to Black children. What happened is that many white children would bring their own school lunches — and they would just throw away the perfectly good apples and sandwiches that the government had supplied. 

"It was these things that were impressing themselves on my mind."

South African activist and Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu delivers a sermon, at the Regina Mundi Church, in Soweto, on June 23, 1985, protesting against the South African raid into Botswana. (Gideon Mendel/AFP/Getty Images)

Divine intervention

"My first love was medicine, and I was admitted to medical school at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. But my family was unable to pay the tuition fees, so I was not able to attend. I have to say, I still have a small hankering for stethoscopes and white coats and things of that sort.

"I then went into teaching, which I love very much. But I found that I couldn't possibly, when they introduced Bantu education, be part of this conspiracy to educate Black children with a curriculum that was deliberately inferior.

It seemed as if God had put his finger on me.

"I didn't have too many options and so I didn't have highfalutin reasons why I wanted to become a priest. I went because it was the only other alternative available to me. 

"I went to college, studied, went to King's College, studied, came back and taught at seminary. But when I was then called to become dean of Johannesburg, it wasn't a deliberate career move. I was there, and most of our leaders were either in jail or in exile. Being the first Black person to hold this position, I got a platform that was not readily available to others, and it wasn't deliberate manoeuvring. 

"It seemed as if God had put his finger on me." 

Anti-apartheid icon Desmond Tutu dead at 90

6 months ago
Duration 2:19
Desmond Tutu, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent fight against apartheid in South Africa, died at the age of 90. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was one of several world leaders who paid tribute to Tutu, calling him a tireless advocate for human rights.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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