Desmond Tutu, Fierce Opponent of South African and Israeli Apartheid, Dies at 90

Leaving behind a legacy of fighting for oppressed people in South Africa and around the world, Archbishop Desmond Tutu died Sunday at age 90 in Cape Town, South Africa. The cause was reportedly cancer.

Advocates for human rights, health equity, economic justice, and nonviolence honored Tutu, who helped lead the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was formed afterwards.

The Elders, the independent group of global leaders working for justice and good governance, said his “commitment to peace, love, and the fundamental equality of all human beings will endure to inspire future generations.”

“The Elders would not be who they are today without his passion, commitment, and keen moral compass,” said Mary Robinson, former Irish president and chair of The Elders. “He inspired me to be a ‘prisoner of hope,’ in his inimitable phrase. [Tutu] was respected around the world for his dedication to justice, equality, and freedom. Today we mourn his death but affirm our determination to keep his beliefs alive.”

Tutu served as The Elders’ first chair from 2007 until 2013, after becoming internationally recognized for his work leading Black South Africans in the fight against the apartheid system, which he condemned as “evil” while urging nonviolent methods of protest.

He preached that apartheid threatened the dignity and humanity of both Black and white South Africans and called on international leaders to impose sanctions on the country’s government in protest of the apartheid system, a demand which led South African officials to revoke his passport twice.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” Tutu famously said during the struggle against apartheid. “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in 1984. After the fall of the apartheid system in 1994, Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which aimed to provide a record of the violence and injustice perpetrated by the government under the system. The archbishop sought to provide “restorative justice,” offering compensation to survivors and amnesty to perpetrators who cooperated with the inquiry.

Tutu was a fierce critic of economic and racial inequality that persisted in South Africa following the formal end of the apartheid system, accusing President Thabo Mbeki in 2004 of serving a small number of elites while “too many, of our people live in grueling, demeaning, dehumanizing poverty.”

“Can you explain how a Black person wakes up in a squalid ghetto today, almost 10 years after freedom?” Tutu said in 2003. “Then he goes to work in town, which is still largely White, in palatial homes. And at the end of the day, he goes back home to squalor?”

Beyond his home country, Tutu was an outspoken critic of militarism and imperialism in the Global North, calling for former U.S. President George W. Bush and former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair to face prosecution at the International Criminal Court over their invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Tutu was also a defender of Palestinians’ rights and a critic of Israel’s violent policies targeting millions of people in Gaza and the West Bank, comparing their treatment to the apartheid system.

In 2014, as the Israeli Defense Forces carried out attacks that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians — the vast majority of whom were civilians — Tutu wrote an exclusive article in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, calling for a global boycott of Israel.

He called on Israelis “to actively disassociate themselves and their profession from the design and construction of infrastructure related to perpetuating injustice, including the separation barrier, the security terminals and checkpoints, and the settlements built on occupied Palestinian land.”

“Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of ‘normalcy’ in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice,” Tutu wrote. “They are contributing to the perpetuation of a profoundly unjust status quo. Those who contribute to Israel’s temporary isolation are saying that Israelis and Palestinians are equally entitled to dignity and peace.”

hat same year, Tutu called for a global divestment from the fossil fuel industry modeled on the international sanctions that he supported against South Africa, which helped to end apartheid.

“We live in a world dominated by greed,” Tutu wrote in The Guardian. “We have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our Earth. It is clear [the companies] are not simply going to give up; they stand to make too much money.”

“People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change,” he added. “We can, for instance, boycott events, sports teams, and media programming sponsored by fossil-fuel energy companies… We can encourage more of our universities and municipalities and cultural institutions to cut their ties to the fossil-fuel industry.”

Tutu was also recognized for his global fight for LGBTQ+ rights, his calls for an end to AIDS denialism in South Africa, and recently, his efforts to combat misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines.

“Bishop Tutu meant so much to so many,” said Rev. Dr. William Barber II, co-chair of the anti-poverty Poor People’s Campaign in the U.S. “Thank God for his life. Let we who believe in freedom and justice be his legacy always.”