Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born in Klerksdorp, Transvaal, an area in northern South Africa, on October 7, 1931. At age 12, he moved with his family to Johannesburg. Although Tutu aspired to be a physician, his family could not afford to send him to medical school. God had a different plan for his life; his dreams of becoming a physician would soon be overshadowed by his passion to fight for justice. Growing up, Tutu was part of a society that did not extend the full rights of a citizen to black South Africans. When the National Party rose to power in 1948, it was with the promise to institute an apartheid—the complete separation of the races.
Do your little bit of good where you are; its those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world. –Desmond Tutu
Under apartheid, interracial marriage were banned, passports were required to travel within the country, and black South Africans were barred from certain jobs and from forming labor unions. When the government, still ruled by the National Party, ordered inferior education systems for black students, Tutu refused to cooperate. As the son of a teacher and an educator himself, he knew the importance of a good education. Determined to help those being marginalized, but unwilling to teach under a policy he vehemently opposed, Tutu began studying for priesthood in the South African Anglican church.
In 1960, when Tutu was ordained a priest, the South African government began its relocation and deportation of blacks and Asians away from the new “white areas” and back to their “homelands.” South Africans were assigned a race and forced to live under conditions government officials deemed appropriate for that race. Voting rights were only given to whites, while blacks could only be represented in the governments of their “tribal homelands”.
In 1966, Tutu earned his Master’s degree in theology from King’s College London, and he would dedicate the next five years to teaching theology in South Africa. Between 1972 and 1978, he held several prominent positions. He served as the assistant director of the World Council of Churches in London, then returned to South Africa as the first black African to serve as Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg. Tutu then served as Bishop of Lesotho two years, and in 1978, he became the first black General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches.
In his position as General Secretary, Tutu finally obtained the necessary platform to denounce apartheid. He labeled the system “evil and unchristian” and called for equal rights for all South Africans along with a common system of education. Tutu also demanded abolition of South Africa’s passport laws and the end of forced deportations of Africans to their “homelands”. Tutu strongly believed in a nonviolent movement and encouraged peaceful resistance to the oppressive regime of apartheid.
One of the primary means of resistance he encouraged was economic boycotts. As such, he strongly opposed Ronald Reagan’s policy of “constructive engagement,” in which economic incentives were used to encourage South Africa to move away from apartheid. Rather, Tutu believed “disinvestment” would have a greater impact on bringing an end to apartheid. He stood by this belief, even if it meant the poor would be hit the hardest, and more blacks would be out of work. His commitment to this nonviolent resistance succeeded after the value of national currency, the Rand, dropped substantially, forcing the government to push for reform.
However, Tutu’s resistance did not come without struggle. The government twice revoked his passport to prevent him from traveling and speaking abroad, and he was also arrested during his nonviolent demonstrations. As his voice grew louder and his message stronger, the South African government began to worry about his influence, but refrained from violent response due to international pressures.
In 1984, Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as a gesture of support to him, the South African Council of Churches, and to the people of South Africa fighting for equality. However, it was only in 1991, after African National Congress member Nelson Mandela was released from prison, that the South African government began its reform efforts. 1994 marked the end of apartheid and the first interracial elections in over 35 years. Mandela, who had been elected president, appointed Bishop Tutu to be the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose mission was to investigate the human rights violations of the previous three and a half decades.
Despite the various hardship and injustices Tutu endured, he never spoke of revenge. He always has and continues to preach love, forgiveness and cooperation through his numerous writings and public appearances. Although he retired as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996, he continues to speak for social and environmental justice to this day.