Long before Nelson Mandela won his freedom from 27 years of imprisonment in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu earned the moniker “the nation’s conscience.”
White and Black residents of the African nation lauded the bishop for his relentless fight to unite races and end the racist system of apartheid.
Tutu, South Africa’s leading advocate for change and reconciliation under a Black majority rule and the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner, died Sunday in Cape Town at the age of 90.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa first confirmed the bishop’s passing.
“He was a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead,” Ramaphosa said.
A spokesperson for the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation said Tutu died of cancer after a decadeslong battle with the disease.
Tutu reportedly had been hospitalized several times in the years since his 1997 diagnosis but continued his work.
His demands for freedom and advocating that justice be accomplished in a nonviolent manner helped earn Tutu the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.
Tutu was born on Oct. 7, 1931, in Klerksdorp, South Africa, to Aletha, a domestic worker, and Zacharia, a teacher.
Tutu was baptized a Methodist, but his family would later join the Anglican Church, according to his official biography.
When he was 12, his family moved to Johannesburg.
Tutu often spoke of Rev. Trevor Huddleston, a white preacher who opposed apartheid.
Huddleston earned the young Tutu’s admiration with a simple gesture of tipping his hat to Tutu’s mother.
Tutu studied at the Pretoria Bantu Normal College and earned a degree in teaching from the University of South Africa.
He taught for three years but resigned after South Africa enacted the Bantu Education Act, lowering Black students’ education standards.
He married Nomalizo Shenxane, and the couple remained together for more than 66 years until Tutu’s death.
They have four children, Trevor, and three daughters, Theresa, Naomi and Mpho.
“Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a mentor, a friend, and a moral compass for me and so many others,” former U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement. “A universal spirit, Archbishop Tutu was grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but also concerned with injustice everywhere. He never lost his impish sense of humor and willingness to find humanity in his adversaries, and Michelle and I will miss him dearly.”
England’s royal family tweeted condolences from Queen Elizabeth.
Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali also tweeted out his sympathies.
“I join other world leaders in expressing my sadness at the passing of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who has been the embodiment of the struggle for liberation,” the prime minister wrote. “Ethiopia sends its condolences to the people and the government of South Africa.”
Officials at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta also released a statement expressing condolences.
“Our hearts go out to his family. Archbishop Tutu was a global human rights activist and a compassionate, bold, consistent voice on behalf of the ostracized and oppressed,” the King Center officials wrote. “May we carry his love forward.”