Archbishop Desmond Tutu


Wiki by: Grace Schierberl


“If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends.
You talk to your enemies.”- Desmond Tutu


South African Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born on October 7th, 1931 in Klerksdorp, Transvaal, South Africa and spent the majority of his adolescence in Johannesburg, South Africa and is still alive today. His father, Zacheriah Zililio Tutu was a teacher and his mother, Aletta, worked at a school for the blind. Despite Desmond’s desire to pursue medicine, his family could not financially support his quest. As an alternative, Desmond pursued teaching and eventually theological studies (1).

After studying at the Pretoria Bantu Normal College in the early 1950s, Desmond Tutu went on to teach at Johannesburg Bantu High School but resigned after the South African government passed the Bantu Education Act of 1953. He then left teaching and pursued theological studies at St. Peter’s Theology College in Johannesburg. Several years later, in 1960, Desmond Tutu was ordained as an Anglican priest. He spent the next few years studying and living in the United Kingdom, studying at King’s College London and working as a curate at St. Mary’s Church in Surrey, England. (2). He returned to South Africa in the early 1970s during the height of the apartheid regime.

Throughout his life, Desmond Tutu dealt with the institutionalized racism legitimized by the oppressive apartheid government. However, rather than be marginalized by the oppressive Afrikaner government, Desmond Tutu overcame personal and institutionalized struggles through religion. Additionally, he was involved in human rights activism and led peaceful anti-apartheid protests of more than 30,000 people in Cape Town (3).

After apartheid officially ended in 1990, Archbishop Desmond Tutu created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, advocating for peace and communication between all those involved in the apartheid regime. He retired as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996 and since then has worked on human rights projects relating to democracy and freedom. He is universally known as “South Africa’s moral conscience” (4).

Archbishop Tutu is known for coining the phrase “Rainbow Nation" to describe post-apartheid South Africa

The Practice of Anglicanism

Archbishop Tutu’s main practice, specifically during the apartheid era, was Anglicanism. As an Anglican bishop,
Desmond Tutu was able to lead the socioeconomically and racially marginalized non-white South Africans into a state of morality and justice. Desmond Tutu was able to flourish because his practice of Anglicanism was solely for the good of the South African people. Throughout his time as the Archbishop of Cape Town, and still today, he embodied altruism, forgiveness and morality. More than anything, Archbishop Tutu dedicated his religious life to creating a fair and just country in opposition to the apartheid regime.

Additionally, through the practice of Anglicanism, Desmond Tutu was able to cultivate a close relationship with God through mass, prayers, and writing. This close relationship with God illustrates the internal good that Desmond Tutu upheld throughout his life, and still upholds today. The close relationship with God that Desmond Tutu believed in also created bonds between him and other followers of Anglicanism. Having this shared experience through prayer and religious services provided a space to discuss and protest against human rights violations spurred by the apartheid regime.

Personal Challenges

The overarching institutional pressure that Desmond Tutu faced was the oppressive and inhumane reign of the apartheid regime. The South African apartheid system enforced racial, class and gender inequalities. During this tumultuous era, white Afrikaners constituted the upper echelon in society while black South Africans were robbed of their land, rights and voice. (5). Rather than succumb to the socio-economic and racial marginalization that the apartheid government created among non-white South Africans, Desmond Tutu overcame this institutional pressure by becoming the first black Archbishop of Cape Town. However, the personal challenges I will focus on are the Bantu Education Act, The Soweto Uprising, and the government’s response to his activism.

The Bantu Education Act of 1953 was passed by the government during Desmond’s beginning years of teaching. It ensured that black South Africans would be allotted one-fourth the educational resources that white South Africans received in schools. This reinforced segregation among white and non-white South African students and forced non-white South Africans towards the unskilled labor market (6). The oppression and injustice affiliated with this legislation motivated Desmond to leave teaching and pursue religion in the hopes of finding moral guidance through a tumultuous era.

Next, the Soweto Uprising of 1976, was a significant event that motivated Desmond Tutu to become involved in human rights activism. The Soweto Uprising involved widespread school protests after the apartheid government enforced Afrikaans, the “white man’s language,” as the main medium of instruction in black schools. (7). Although Desmond endured many personal adversities that motivated him to become a leader to South Africans, these two specific challenges specifically speak to his calling to practice religion and ultimately become the first black Archbishop of Cape Town. The Bantu Education Act, coupled with the Soweto Uprising, are two historical events that motivated Desmond Tutu to become involved in activism.

While these milestones assist in the overall moral leadership of Desmond Tutu, they adversely affected him while they occurred, thus accounting for two of his many personal struggles. Both of these events targeted black people, such as himself and his students, and perpetuated an unequal education system among whites and non-whites. This motivated Tutu to stand up against the human rights violations that were spiraling out of control and guide South Africans as a moral leader. The Soweto Uprising was an especially difficult struggle that Tutu overcame because he was still figuring out his role as a father, a teacher, and a leader. However, it was said that after the Soweto Uprising, “Tutu supported an economic boycott of his country” (8). Both of these events were catalysts into Tutu’s involvement in protests and activism. After comparing apartheid to Nazism, leading over 30,000 people in peaceful protests in Cape Town, and for voicing his opposition to the apartheid regime, the government revoked his passport twice and jailed him briefly in 1980 (9).


South Africa’s first democratically-elected President, Nelson Mandela, described Archbishop Tutu as, “"sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour” and that “Desmond Tutu's voice will always be the voice of the voiceless" (10).

Standards of Excellence

A standard of excellence is a certain activity or characteristic that a leader demonstrates that distinguishes them as an exceptional leader by others. In the case of Archbishop Tutu, his practice was Anglicanism and the standard of excellence was mirroring the attitude of love and forgiveness that Jesus upheld as a religious leader. Desmond Tutu’s standard of excellence is best represented in the establishment of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Desmond Tutu had more than enough reasons to view South Africa with disdain and hurt after residing in a country that belittled his voice solely due to the color of his skin. However, modeling the attitude of love and forgiveness that Jesus had through his practice of Anglicanism, Tutu created the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.

The Truth & Reconciliation Commission was established in post-apartheid South Africa as a way to absolve perpetrator’s past and seek reprieve for those who were affiliated with the apartheid regime. Perpetrators of gross human rights violations were offered the chance to give testimonies and seek amnesty from civil and criminal prosecution (11). Due to this unwavering commitment to social justice and freedom, Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1986, the Pacem in Terris Award in 1987, the Sydney Peace Prize in 1999, the Gandhi Peace Price in 2007 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 (12).


The two main virtues associated with Archbishop Tutu that enabled him to pursue a life of human flourishing were perseverance and loving-kindness. To begin, perseverance, which is a continued effort to achieve one’s goals despite difficulties presented, was present throughout Desmond Tutu’s role as a religious leader, and still today. Desmond Tutu overcame personal challenges, most specifically the racial, socioeconomic and human rights oppression spurred by the apartheid regime. Despite these challenges, he led South Africa to believe in forgiveness and justice.

Second, the other virtue Archbishop Tutu upheld throughout his life and practice as an Anglican bishop, and continues to uphold today, is loving-kindness. Reflecting on the trajectory of Desmond Tutu’s life, it is evident that he put loving-kindness before all else, taking into consideration all people’s views, opinions and feelings. This is most evident through the establishment of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Regardless of whether or not someone was victimized during apartheid or was a perpetrator, the Truth & Reconciliation Commission provided a space to be heard and to be forgiven. This also relates back to flourishing, as “we lead a much more fruitful life by respecting others” (13). Through the Truth & Reconciliation Commission every person had the opportunity to share his or her experience with apartheid in order to seek amnesty for a better future.

Desmond Tutu on Leadership

Cultural Ill & Choice-Worthy Good

The main overarching cultural ill during Archbishop Tutu’s role as a religious leader in South Africa was the institutionalized racism enforced by apartheid. However, the cultural ill that I feel illustrates Desmond Tutu’s moral character, is the hatred that continued to plague the air after apartheid officially ended in 1990, and his ability to overcome that hatred with forgiveness.

His emphasis on forgiving those affiliated with apartheid illustrates his belief that a more inclusive and communal future for South Africa cannot be achieved if hatred clouds the air. Knowing that social progress can never be achieved if people are still angered by the past, motivated Desmond Tutu to create the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Therefore, the unique part of Desmond Tutu’s leadership was his ability to continue spreading amnesty after apartheid had ended because he knew it was when South Africa needed to unite the most. This is why Desmond Tutu is frequently regarded as South Africa’s moral conscience.


1. Miller, Lindsay. "Desmond Tutu – A Man with a Mission". Retrieved 7 April 2013.

2. Gish, Steven (2004). Desmond Tutu. A Biography. Greenwood Press. doi:10.1336/0313328609. ISBN 978-0-313-32860-2.

3. Erasmus, Z. (2005), Race and Identity in the Nation in State of the Nation. South Africa 2004-2005, John Daniel, Roger Southall, Jessica Lutchman (eds.)

4. Jones, Brent. “Archbishop Desmond Tutu lambasts African silence on Zimbabwe". USA Today. 16 March 2007. Retrieved 7 April 2013.

5. Lipton, Merle. 1985.Capitalism and Apartheid: South Africa. Claremont, South Africa: David Philip, 1985. 2.

6. Erasmus, ibid

7. Erasmus, ibid, 150.

8. Erasmus, ibid.

9. Tutu, Desmond. (2011). My Genome. American Association for the Advancement of Science 331( 6018),

10. Miller, ibid.

11. Tutu, Desmond. (1978). Is there still hope?. African Affairs, 77(309), 567-570. Retrieved from

12. “Tutu to be Honoured with Gandhi peace award”. (2006, October 03). Mail & Guardian

13. Nicholas, Jeffrey. "Ethics, Moral Leadership & The Common Good." PHL 301. Providence College. Providence, RI. 25 Feb 2013. Lecture.