Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped lead the movement that ended the brutal regime of white minority rule in South Africa, has died at the age of 90, the country’s president confirmed Sunday.
“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 early Sunday.
“Desmond Tutu was a patriot without equal; a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead.”
Tutu gained prominence through his work as a human rights campaigner. In 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his tireless and nonviolent fight against apartheid in South Africa, and later played a key role in the segregationist policy’s downfall.
Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the late 1990s and was hospitalized on several occasions in recent years to treat infections associated with his treatment.
“Ultimately, at the age of 90, he died peacefully at the Oasis Frail Care Centre in Cape Town this morning,” Dr Ramphela Mamphele said in a statement on behalf of the Tutu family.
She did not give details on the cause of death.
The Anglican clergyman used the pulpit to preach and galvanize public opinion against the injustice faced by South Africa’s Black majority.
The first Black bishop of Johannesburg and later first Black Archbishop of Cape Town, Tutu was a vocal activist for racial justice and LGBTQ rights not just in South Africa but across the world.
In 1990, after 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela spent his first night of freedom at Tutu’s residence in Cape Town.
After the fall of the apartheid regime and with Mandela leading the country as its first Black president, Tutu headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that laid bare the terrible truths of white rule.
“His contributions to struggles against injustice, locally and globally, are matched only by the depth of his thinking about the making of liberatory futures for human societies,” the Nelson Mandela Foundation said in a statement after Tutu’s death.
Tributes poured in from across the world.
Former President Barack Obama said in a statement that Tutu “was a mentor, a friend, and a moral compass for me and so many others. 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,” Obama said.
TuTu had an “unshakeable faith in the inherent decency of all people,” former president Bill Clinton said Sunday, calling TuTu’s life a “gift.”
“His own heart was good enough to seek reconciliation not revenge, to reject demonization and embrace his uncanny ability to bring out the best in others,” Clinton said. “Those of us touched by the gift of his life owe it to him to pass it on.”
The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, said that “the friendship and the spiritual bond between us was something we cherished.” Tutu, he added, “was a true humanitarian and a committed advocate of human rights.”
Outspoken and exuberant, Tutu never wavered in his fight for a fairer South Africa and continued to call the Black leaders of the country’s new democracy to account.
In his final years, he regretted that his dream of a “rainbow nation” had yet to come true.
Tutu largely retired from public life in 2010, but never stopped speaking his mind with wit and tenacity.
He is survived by his wife of 66 years, Leah, and their four children.
His death comes little more than a month since the passing of F. W. de Klerk, the country’s last apartheid president.
Erik Ortiz, Reuters and Associated Press contributed.