South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died on December 26 at the age of 90, was the moral compass of his beloved “Rainbow Nation”, never afraid to speak truth to power, whatever its creed or colour.
A tireless activist, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for combatting white minority rule in his country.
“The passing of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement.
Famously outspoken, even after the fall of the racist apartheid regime, Tutu never shied away from confronting South Africa’s shortcomings or injustices.
“It’s a great privilege, it’s a great honour that people think that maybe your name can make a small difference,” he told AFP shortly before his 80th birthday in 2011.
Whether taking on his church over gay rights, lobbying for Palestinian statehood or calling out South Africa’s ruling African National Congress on corruption, his high-profile campaigns were thorny and often unwelcome.
None at the top were spared – not even his close friend, late president Nelson Mandela, with whom Tutu sparred in 1994 over what he called the ANC’s “gravy train mentality”.
Yet “the Arch” brought an exuberant playfulness to all his endeavours.
Quick to crack jokes – often at his own expense – he was always ready to dance and laugh uproariously with an infectious cackle that became his trademark.
It was Tutu who coined and popularised the term “Rainbow Nation” to describe South Africa when Mandela became president.
At the time, Tutu was serving as the first black Anglican archbishop of Cape Town.
Ordained at the age of 30 and appointed archbishop in 1986, he used his position to advocate for international sanctions against apartheid, and later to lobby for rights globally.
Along the way, he won a host of admirers.
“I believe that God is waiting for the archbishop. He is waiting to welcome Desmond Tutu with open arms,” said Mandela, who stayed at Tutu’s home on his first night of freedom in 1990, after 27 years in apartheid jails.
“If Desmond gets to heaven and is denied entry, then none of the rest of us will get in!”
The Dalai Lama called Tutu his “spiritual older brother”.
Irish activist and pop star Bob Geldof praised him as “a complete pain in the arse” for those in power, and US President Barack Obama hailed him as “a moral titan”.
Among Tutu’s critics were Zimbabwe’s veteran former president Robert Mugabe, who described him as an “evil and embittered little bishop”.
Even with his global celebrity, his faith remained an integral part of his life.
“I developed tremendous respect for his fearlessness. It wasn’t fearlessness of a wild kind. It was fearlessness anchored in his deep faith in God,” said apartheid’s last leader, FW de Klerk.
Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and underwent repeated treatment.
He had retired a year earlier to lead a harrowing journey into South Africa’s brutal past, as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
For 30 months, the commission lifted the lid on the horrors of apartheid.