Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent his life championing the cause of equality and universal human rights, died at the age of 90 on Sunday, December 26. 

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, while announcing the news of his passing, said Tutu’s death “is another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us as a liberated South Africa.” 

A pioneer in the country’s fight against racial injustice, Archbishop Tutu was born on October 7, 1931, in South Africa’s town of Klerksdorp, and completed his schooling from Johannesburg Bantu High School.

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Tutu donned many hats during his lifetime. Soon after school, he trained to become a teacher at Pretoria Bantu Normal College and later graduated from the University of South Africa. He went on to become a high school teacher, a stint he did for three years, after which he started studying theology. He was ordained as a priest in 1960, completed his Master’s in England, spent four years of his life teaching theology in South Africa, and then three years as the assistant director of a theological institute in London. 

In 1975, he was appointed Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg, the first black to hold that position. From 1976 to 1978, he was Bishop of Lesotho, and in 1978 became the first black General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches. Tutu was also an honorary doctor of a number of leading universities in the USA, Britain and Germany.  

“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,” President Ramaphosa said in his remembrance. 

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In a monumental step, Tutu led a delegation of church leaders to South Africa’s former Prime Minister PW Botha in 1980, as a result of which his passport was confiscated and later returned for trips to the United States and Europe. 

In 1984, Tutu’s won the Nobel Peace Prize for his tireless fight against inequality. 

His contribution to the movement for equality is often posited along with Nelson Mandela’s, the anti-apartheid revolutionary who served as South Africa’s first president. In fact, when Mandela spent his first night in 27 years outside of prison in 1990, he stayed at Tutu’s Cape Town residence, calling him ‘the people’s archbishop’, according to AP reports. 

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With the end of apartheid in South Africa’s in 1994, Tutu celebrated the country’s reformed society, calling it a “rainbow nation”.

When Mandela first became president, he appointed Tutu, nicknamed ‘the Arch’, as the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which uncovered the abuses of the apartheid system.

One year after retiring from the church, Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer and was frequently hospitalised to receive treatment for the disease.

Notably, race was not the only social marker he fought against in his celebrated life. He was also a champion for LGBT and same-sex rights. In 2013 while launching a campaign for the same in Cape Town, he said, “I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this. I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say, ‘Sorry, I would much rather go to the other place’” according to an AP report.

In the past few years, Tutu had been living in a retirement community with his wife, Leah.

He died a peaceful death at the Oasis Frail Care Centre on December 26. He is survived by his wife and four children.  

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

(With inputs from the Associated Press)