Archbishop Desmond Tutu


By 1600 all of what is now South Africa has been occupied by indigenous Africans. European encroachment begins in 1652 when the Dutch establish a settlement at the Cape of Good Hope on the southwestern tip of Africa. The British seize the settlement in 1795, leading to conflict with the established European farmers (the Boer). The conflict eventually boils over into the Boer War of 1899-1902. The British win but ultimately opt to give South Africa independence.

The Union of South Africa is formed on 31 May 1910. Black South Africans have limited voting rights and are subjected to growing discrimination. In 1948 the National Party wins the all-white general election on a campaign promise to introduce a system of "apartheid" to totally separate the races. Opposition to the apartheid system by the black majority is ruthlessly suppressed. The National Party will remain in power until 1994. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 7 October 1931 in Klerksdorp, about 150 km southwest of Johannesburg. His father is a teacher and his mother a domestic worker. Tutu is raised in an atmosphere of tolerance and sympathy where, he later says, "I never learnt to hate". When Tutu is 12 his family moves to Johannesburg.

1945 - Tutu enters Johannesburg Bantu High School. He matriculates in 1950 then trains as a teacher at Pretoria Bantu Normal College, receiving his diploma in 1953. Tutu had wished to become a doctor, but his family could not afford to pay for his training. He studies for bachelor of arts degree instead.

1948 - The National Party is voted into power by the white electorate. The party has campaigned on the promise to introduce a system of "apartheid" to totally separate the races. Discrimination against blacks, "coloureds" and Asians will be codified and extended.

All South Africans are legally assigned to one racial group - white, African, coloured or Asian. All races have separate living areas and separate amenities (such as toilets, parks and beaches). Signs enforcing the separation are erected throughout the country. Only white South Africans are allowed full political rights.

Black Africans have no parliamentary representation outside of the supposedly independent homelands created by the state. Mixed marriages are prohibited. Black trade unions are banned. Education is provided only up to a level to which it is deemed "a native is fitted". Separate universities and colleges are established for Africans, coloureds and Indians. Jobs can be categorised as being for whites only. Travel without a pass is not permitted.

Police powers are expanded. Those charged with dissent are presumed guilty until proven innocent. The Suppression of Communism Act (1950) allows the police to "list" almost any opponent of apartheid as a supporter of the outlawed Communist Party of South Africa.

Opponents can be "banned", an order subjecting them to lengthy periods of house arrest and preventing them from holding public office, attending public meetings and visiting specified areas. The Native Administration Act (1956) allows the government to "banish" Africans to remote rural areas.

During the 1950s there are approximately 500,000 pass law arrests annually, more than 600 individuals are listed as communists, nearly 350 are banned, and more than 150 are banished.

1952 - In February the African National Congress (ANC) calls on the government to repeal all unjust laws or face a Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws. Mass rallies and strikes staged on 6 April and 26 June attract thousands of supporters.

The government reacts by introducing harsher penalties for protests against apartheid. Campaign leaders and opposition newspapers are banned and about 8,500 people are arrested.

1954 - After graduating with a bachelor of arts from the University of South Africa, Tutu becomes a schoolteacher at high schools near Johannesburg.

1955 - The ANC writes a Freedom Charter stating that South Africa belongs to all people living within it regardless of race, that all South Africans should be treated equally before the law, and that the country's wealth should be distributed equitably.

Meanwhile, Tutu marries Nomalizo Leah Shenxane on 2 July. The couple have four children.

1957 - The deterioration of the education system for blacks caused by the introduction of the Bantu Education Act in 1953 leaves Tutu feeling dissatisfied with the teaching profession. He decides to become a priest. Speaking later he claims he was not motivated by high ideals. "It just occurred to me that, if the Church would have me, the profession of priest could be a good way of serving my people."

1958 - He resigns from teaching to begin his ordination training at St Peters Theological College in Johannesburg.

1959 - A radical faction of the ANC splits from the parent body and forms the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). The PAC advocates direct action against the apartheid regime.

1960 - During the 1960s, the regime introduces a program of forced relocation. Africans, coloureds and Asians are moved from areas designated for whites only to the "homelands" and other declared areas. By the 1980s about 3.5 million have been relocated.

In March 1960 the PAC begins a national campaign against the pass laws. Africans are asked to assemble outside police stations without their passes and challenge the police to arrest them. The confrontation turns violent on 21 March when police open fire on a peaceful protest at Sharpeville, a black township near Johannesburg. Sixty-nine black Africans are killed and 186 wounded. Most have been shot in the back.

When demonstrations continue, the government declares a state of emergency and arrests about 18,000 protesters, including the leaders of the ANC and the PAC.

1961 - On 31 May South Africa leaves the British Commonwealth and becomes a republic. The ANC organises a national strike in protest. When the government responds by introducing new and harsher laws, and by mobilising its armed forces to break up the strike, ANC leaders conclude that the time has come for the Congress to move beyond nonviolent protest.

The ANC forms Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), its military wing, in November. Under Nelson Mandela's leadership Umkhonto launches a campaign of sabotage against power supplies, pass offices, government buildings and other infrastructure targets. Over the next two years about 200 acts of sabotage are carried out by Umkhonto.

Meanwhile, Tutu is ordained as an Anglican parish priest.

1962 - Tutu travels to England to undertake further theological study, obtaining a bachelor of divinity at Kings College, London, in 1965 and a masters in theology in 1966, also from Kings. While studying he works as a part-time curate.

1964 - On 11 June Mandela, Walter Sisulu and six others are convicted for plotting to overthrow the government by violence. All eight are sentenced to life imprisonment and sent Robben Island Prison, a former leper colony 7 km off the coast from Cape Town. The eight, and Nelson Mandela in particular, become a symbol for the struggle of black South Africans and a focus of world attention.

However, despite growing international criticism of the apartheid regime, foreign investment continues to pour into the country and immigration rises.

1967 - Tutu returns to South Africa to teach at the Federal Theological Seminary at Alice on the Eastern Cape. He also serves as chaplain at the University of Fort Hare.

1970 - Tutu lectures in theology at the University of Botswana in Roma, Lesotho.

1972 - Tutu returns to London to serve as an assistant director for the World Council of Churches. He is also honorary curate of St Augustine's.

1973 - The United Nations (UN) declares apartheid "a crime against humanity".

1975 - Tutu returns to South Africa and is appointed dean of St Mary's Cathedral in Johannesburg, the first black to hold the position. He emerges as an eloquent spokesperson for the antiapartheid movement and begins to attract world attention.

1976 - An uprising in Soweto begins on 16 June when high school students protest against the enforced use of Afrikaans in schools. After the police respond with tear gas and gunfire, demonstrators attack and burn down government buildings.

The uprising leads to weeks of demonstrations, marches and boycotts throughout South Africa. Violent clashes with police leave more than 500 dead. Several thousand are arrested. Thousands more seek refuge outside the country, many with the exiled forces of the ANC.

Meanwhile, Tutu is consecrated Bishop of Lesotho.

1978 - Tutu is appointed as the first black general secretary of the South African Council of Churches. He becomes one of the leading critics of apartheid both in South Africa and on the international stage.

He describes the apartheid system as "evil and unchristian" and calls for "a democratic and just society without racial divisions" where there are equal civil rights for all. He advocates the use of nonviolent resistance by black South Africans and encourages the world community to apply economic sanctions against the regime. The apartheid government responds by cancelling his passport.

1979 - With capital leaving the country because of political instability, and with the economy beginning to slow, the government attempts to reduce industrial unrest by allowing black workers to form unions. The first chink in the apartheid system has appeared.

1983 - The United Democratic Front (UDF), a coalition of nearly 600 organisations, is formed to persuade the government to abolish apartheid. Tutu emerges as one of the front's principal spokesmen. By 1984 the Front has a membership of more than three million.

1984 - Tutu receives the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of "the courage and heroism shown by black South Africans in their use of peaceful methods in the struggle against apartheid".

The Nobel Committee asks that the awarding of the prize to Tutu be regarded "not only as a gesture of support to him and to the South African Council of Churches of which he is leader, but also to all individuals and groups in South Africa who, with their concern for human dignity, fraternity and democracy, incite the admiration of the world".

At the award presentation held in Norway in December the chairman of the Nobel Committee says, "Some time ago television enabled us to see this year's laureate in a suburb of Johannesburg. A massacre of the black population had just taken place - the camera showed ruined houses, mutilated human beings and crushed children's toys. Innocent people had been murdered. Women and children mortally wounded. But, after the police vehicles had driven away with their prisoners, Desmond Tutu stood and spoke to a frightened and bitter congregation: 'Do not hate', he said, 'let us choose the peaceful way to freedom'."

Full copy of the presentation speech.

The apartheid regime refuses to acknowledge the award.

The National Party introduces a new constitution in an attempt to stem dissent. However, the constitution, which establishes three racially segregated houses of parliament, for whites, Asians, and coloureds, but excludes blacks from full citizenship, has the opposite effect and is denounced as a continuation of apartheid.

1985 - Tutu is installed as Johannesburg's first black Anglican bishop.

Conflict and violence escalate. In 1984 there are 174 fatalities linked to political unrest. In 1985 the number rises to 879. Capital begins to flee the country. Forty US companies pull out of South Africa in 1984. Another 50 leave in 1985. Inflation rises and standards of living drop.

The government declares states of emergency in various parts of the country; the first time the emergency laws have been used since the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. The laws allow police to arrest without warrant and to detain people indefinitely without charge and without notification to lawyers or next of kin. Censorship of the media is also extended.

1986 - Tutu is elected as the first black archbishop of Cape Town, becoming the head of the Anglican church in South Africa and leader of South Africa's 1.6 million Anglicans. While serving in this position he intensifies his criticism of apartheid.

In October the US Congress passes legislation implementing mandatory sanctions against South Africa. All new investments and bank loans are banned, air links between the US and South Africa are terminated and the importation of many South African products is stopped.

1987 - While the union movement becomes increasingly militant, with the number of days lost to strikes reaching 5.8 million in 1987, armed members of the ANC and PAC stage raids on South Africa from their bases in Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.

The regime responds by renewing a series of states of emergency, unleashing its police, and sending its military forces on counter-strike raids.

Media restrictions are tightened and the UDF and other activist organisations are effectively banned.

Condemnation of the regime grows around the world. More foreign investors withdraw, banks call in loans, the currency collapses, economic production declines and inflation becomes chronic.

Meanwhile, Tutu is elected as president of the All Africa Conference of Churches. The following year he is made chancellor of the University of the Western Cape.

1988 - In May South African President P.W. Botha, a National Party hardliner, directs the head of his intelligence service, Niel Barnard, to meet secretly with Nelson Mandela in prison to discuss the possibility of a peace settlement. More than 60 similar meetings follow.

On 31 August the Johannesburg headquarters of South African Council of Churches is bombed. The building, which is also a base for several other antiapartheid groups, is destroyed and 21 people injured. It is later revealed that the bombing was carried out by the police on the orders of Botha.

1989 - The "secret" talks between Mandela and the government culminate with a face-to-face meeting between Mandela and Botha at Botha's presidential office on 5 July.

Botha subsequently resigns following a stroke and is replaced by F.W. de Klerk, a moderate within the National Party.

Mandela meets with de Klerk in December. Negotiations on the terms and conditions for Mandela's release begin.

1990 - On 2 February de Klerk announces that Mandela will be released. He also rescinds the orders banning the ANC, the PAC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and other previously illegal organisations. Restrictions on the UDF and the media are lifted. Mandela is finally released from prison on Sunday 11 February.

In June Mandela and de Klerk met officially for the first time. In August Mandela announces the suspension of the ANC's armed struggle. In October the government repeals the law requiring the races to use separate amenities.

1991 - On 5 June the government repeals the law making it illegal for Africans to own land in urban areas and the law segregating people by race. A new law allows all races equal rights to own property anywhere in the country. The law assigning every resident of South Africa to a specific racial group is repealed on 17 June. The international community responds by lifting most of the sanctions on South Africa.

1992 - White South African's overwhelmingly vote "yes" in a referendum asking if the reform of apartheid should be continued.

1994 - The ANC wins the country's first all-race elections. It becomes the majority partner in a Government of National Unity with the National Party. Nelson Mandela is inaugurated as president on 10 May.

The ministry of the new government includes blacks, whites, Afrikaners, Indians, coloureds, Muslims, Christians, communists, liberals and conservatives.

In June the government announces that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will investigate human rights abuses and political crimes committed by both supporters and opponents of apartheid between 1960 and 10 May 1994. The commission is empowered to consider amnesty for those who confess their participation in atrocities and to recommend compensation to survivors and their dependants.

1995 - Guidelines are set for the operation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tutu is appointed as the commission's chair. "I hope that the work of the commission, by opening wounds to cleanse them, will thereby stop them from festering," he says.

"We cannot be facile and say bygones will be bygones, because they will not be bygones and will return to haunt us. True reconciliation is never cheap, for it is based on forgiveness, which is costly. Forgiveness in turn depends on repentance, which has to be based on an acknowledgement of what was done wrong, and therefore on disclosure of the truth. You cannot forgive what you do not know."

1996 - The Truth and Reconciliation Commission begins hearing testimony in March. Tutu retires as archbishop in June to devote himself to his role on the commission, although he is granted the honorary title of archbishop emeritus. He presides over the commission as it hears about 20,000 testimonials and receives nearly 4,000 applications for amnesty.

A new South African constitution that bars discrimination against the country's minorities, including whites, is signed into law by Mandela on 10 December. The new constitution contains a bill of rights and ends the Government of National Unity. The ANC takes government in its own right. The National Party becomes the opposition.

1998 - The Truth and Reconciliation Commission issues its interim report in October. The report states that apartheid is a crime against humanity but also criticises the ANC for human rights abuses.

Tutu steps down as the commission's chair.

Tutu and his wife set up the Desmond Tutu Peace Trust to research and establish a nondenominational Peace Centre.

Tutu widens his focus beyond South Africa, becoming an outspoken and influential commentator on social and political issues around the world.

He weighs in on the debate about the political situation in Zimbabwe, saying President Robert Mugabe "seems to have gone bonkers in a big way". African nations should condemn Zimbabwe for the human rights abuses taking place there, Tutu says. In 2008 he calls on the African Union to reject the results of a highly compromised presidential election that saw President Mugabe returned for a sixth term.

Tutu accuses Israel of using apartheid-like policies against the Palestinians, saying that he was "very deeply distressed" and that the situation reminded him "so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa". In 2008 Tutu travels to Gaza on a UN mission to investigate the killing of 21 Palestinian civilians by Israeli shelling in November 2006. He is shocked by what he sees, saying "he entire situation is abominable". He calls on Israel to lift its blockade on enclave and on the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) to stop firing rockets into Israel.

Tutu is one of the many world figures critical of plans by the administrations of US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to launch a preemptive, unilateral attack on Iraq. He calls the invasion of Iraq "an immoral war" that has left the world "a great deal less safe place than before".

Tutu and former Czech President Vaclav Havel urge the UN Security Council to pressure the military government of Burma to implement political reforms. Tutu is a strong advocate for political reform in Burma. He also campaigns for the release of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

Later, Tutu and Vaclav Havel come together again to denounce the policies of the Russian Government.

Tutu also continues to hold the South African Government to account. He warns that the government's economic policies are favouring an elite few and could be "building up much resentment which we may rue later". He also publicly criticises the government for its tardiness in dealing with the HIV-AIDS epidemic plaguing the country. He becomes increasingly critical of and disillusioned with the performance of the ANC.

2003 - The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is handed down on 21 March.

In April the government announces that victims of apartheid who testified before the commission will receive a once-off compensation payment of about US$4,000.

2005 - On 16 December Tutu marks South Africa's official reconciliation day and the 10th anniversary of the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by saying that too many human rights abusers from the apartheid era were allowed to escape justice.

According to Tutu, the failure to prosecute abusers who boycotted the commission left a legacy of impunity. "It does mean that there are those who are able to say, 'Ha ha ha, what can you do to us?', and it makes people possibly have slightly less regard for the rule of law," Tutu says.

2007 - On 31 January Tutu is presented with the International Gandhi Peace Prize for 2005. The prize, which is awarded by the Government of India, is considered to be India's highest international honour.

2010 - Tutu officially retires from public life on 7 October. "I have done as much as I can and need time to do things I have really wanted to do," Tutu had said in July.

"I do want a little more quiet. ... The time has now come to slow down, to sip Rooibos tea with my beloved wife in the afternoons, to watch cricket, to travel to visit my children and grandchildren, rather than to conferences and conventions and university campuses."

Nevertheless, just 19 days after retiring Tutu issues a statement calling on the Cape Town Opera to postpone a planned trip to Israel.

"Just as we said during apartheid that it was inappropriate for international artists to perform in South Africa in a society founded on discriminatory laws and racial exclusivity, so it would be wrong for Cape Town Opera to perform in Israel," the statement says.

"Cape Town Opera should postpone its proposed tour next month until both Israeli and Palestinian opera lovers of the region have equal opportunity and unfettered access to attend performances."

Many more public comments on a wide range of issues follow.

2012 - In August Tutu pulls out of The Discovery Invest Summit to be held in Johannesburg because he does not want to share a platform with Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A statement from Tutu's office says, "The Discovery Invest Summit has leadership as its theme. Morality and leadership are indivisible. In this context, it would be inappropriate for the Archbishop to share a platform with Mr Blair."

In an op-ed piece published in 'The Observer' on 2 September, Tutu elaborates on his decision, saying that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was "immoral" and that "in a consistent world", those responsible for the suffering and loss of life that followed "should be treading the same path as some of their African and Asian peers who have been made to answer for their actions in the Hague".

2013 - In April Tutu is awarded the 2013 Templeton Prize. The prize "honours a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works". It is one of the world's leading religious awards and comes with a US$1.7 million endowment.

In May Tutu states that he will no longer vote for the African National Congress. Writing in an editorial published in South Africa's 'Globe and Mail' newspaper, Tutu says, "It is a very huge ache, for oldies like me to see our country deteriorating and slowly sliding off what we thought belonged to us - the moral high ground."

In July Tutu gives his support to a UN-backed campaign for gay rights in South Africa, saying he would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. "No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this. I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid. For me, it is at the same level."

Nelson Mandela dies on 5 December. Remembering his friend, Tutu says, "He awed everyone as a spectacular embodiment of magnanimity and forgiveness, and he saved our land from the bloodbath that most had predicted would be our lot in resolving the problem of apartheid's vicious oppression of the vast majority of our motherland's population. Suffering can embitter, but it can also ennoble, and God blessed us richly when the latter happened in Madiba's case."

Tutu is initially excluded from the program at Mandela's funeral, presumably because of his falling out with the ANC. He is only invited at the last minute, following a public outcry.

2014 - Tutu continues to comment publicly on issues of concern. He condemns a proposal in Uganda to pass a law against homosexuality. He calls for a disinvestment campaign against the fossil fuel industry, saying that carbon emissions from the industry are driving global warming and it "makes no sense to invest in companies that undermine our future".

Later, he launches a petition urging global leaders to act against climate change by abandoning fossil fuels and switching to 100% renewable energy by 2050.

Tutu continues to criticise the ANC, saying he is glad Nelson Mandela is no longer alive to see what his successors in the ANC are doing with the country.

He comments on the issue of assisted death, saying laws preventing people from being helped to end their lives with dignity are an affront. Tutu calls for a "mind shift" in the right to die debate.

"I have been fortunate to spend my life working for dignity for the living. Now I wish to apply my mind to the issue of dignity for the dying. I revere the sanctity of life - but not at any cost," he says.

Returning to the issue in 2016, Tutu writes, "Dying people should have the right to choose how and when they leave Mother Earth. I believe that, alongside the wonderful palliative care that exists, their choices should include a dignified assisted death."

2015 - Tutu is hospitalised several times for treatment of a persistent infection resulting from therapy he has been receiving for prostate cancer. Tutu was first diagnosed with the cancer in 1997. He is forced back into hospital in 2016 for treatment of the same recurring infection.

2016 - Tutu is one of 23 signatories to a letter urging the UN Security Council to act to stop the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma. Calling the situation in Burma "a human tragedy amounting to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity," the letter criticises Burma's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi for her failure to "take any initiative to ensure full and equal citizenship rights of the Rohingyas".

When Suu Kyi fails to effectively respond to the calls for her to intercede on behalf of the Rohingyas, Tutu intensifies his criticism.


Nelson Mandela once said, "Sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour, Desmond Tutu's voice will always be the voice of the voiceless."

One of the enduring memories of the struggle to end apartheid is Tutu's high-pitched yet melodious voice admonishing the regime and the world to end the discrimination. In the face of the regime's brutalities, Tutu maintained a lightness to his approach. He always preserved his moral authority and personal integrity and always extended a hand of forgiveness and reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has become the model for other communities around the world trying to heal the fractures of social injustice.