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Our Prophetic Exemplar of UBUNTU: Desmond Tutu (1931-2021)

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

Desmond Tutu

(No Future Without Forgiveness, 1999)



On Sunday, December 26, 2021 Nobel Peace Prize awardee, anti-apartheid leader and the moral conscience of South Africa, Desmond Mpilo Tutu completed his earthly assignment and ascended to his final reward after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer. Born October 7, 1931 in Klerksdorp, South Africa, Tutu was of both Xhosa and Moswana heritage. One of 4 children, his older brother, Sipho died as an infant. The Tutu family were Methodist, then changed denominations to the African Methodist Episcopal Church before becoming Anglican.


After his premed studies at University of the Witwatersrand were interrupted due to limited family finances, Tutu decided to attend Pretoria Bantu Normal College to become a teacher. In 1954 he taught English at Madibane High School. On July 2, 1955 Tutu married Nomalizo Leah Shenxane and to the union were born four children: Trevor Thamsanqa, Theresa Thandeka, Naomi Nontombi and Mpho Andrea.


After the National Party introduced the Bantu Education Act which furthered the apartheid system of racial segregation and white supremacy, Tutu left teaching in protest and enrolled at St. Peter’s Theological College (Johannesburg) to become a priest. In December 1960, Tutu was ordained an Anglican Priest at St. Mary’s Cathedral and continued his studies at King’s College London where he earned his master’s degree. In January 1970, Tutu accepted a position at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland until returning to Britain in 1972 to serve as the Africa Director of the International Missionary Council’s Theological Education Fund from which he benefitted. In March 1976 Tutu was called to serve as Bishop of Lesotho and emerged as the leader of the South African Council of Churches in 1978. During his time in leadership, Tutu focused his attention on “a democratic and just society without racial division,” which included a demand for equal civil rights for all as well as a common system for education. For this and other work that aided in the ending of apartheid in South Africa, Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. In 1985 Tutu was called to serve as the Bishop of Johannesburg, the first Black to serve the large diocese, accepting the post of Archbishop of Cape Town a year later and served until 1994 when he retired. His work as an international humanitarian and non-violent activist continued during his time as archbishop and retirement.


During the 1970s Tutu embraced liberation theology, especially Black liberation theology. In 1973 he attended a conference on Black liberation theology at Union Theological Seminary (New York, NY) where he delivered a paper that fused the growing work of James H. Cone with that of African theologian John Mbiti. Tutu, as an Anglican who believed that all theology was contextual, forged his own approach to Black theology and was not afraid to engage in theological debate with love and compassion.


The Archbishop Emeritus was appointed by President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela to serve as the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996-1998) with a three-fold focus: confession, forgiveness and restitution. After a series of publicly televised hearings, the final report was presented to Mandela in October 1998.


A man of faith with a deep connection to prayer, Tutu is the recipient of over 100 honorary degrees, the author of over a dozen books, and will forever be recognized as a leader amongst leaders whose amicable personality and commitment to kindness will remain a high standard for international leaders of the church and the state. Rest well, our prophetic exemplar of Ubuntu, rest well.


“One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu - the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in

isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality - Ubuntu - you are known for your generosity.”

Desmond Tutu

(Ubuntu Women Institute USA, January 24, 2012)


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