Desmond Tutu Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Tutu became the first black Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg and head of the South African Anglican church. He is a leader of the antiapartheid movement, and his 1984 Nobel Peace Prize was a recognition of his contributions to nonviolent resistance to apartheid.

Early Life

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born in the gold-mining town of Klerskdorp, Witwatersrand, Transvaal, South Africa, on October 7, 1931. His father, Zachariah Tutu, was a schoolteacher, and his mother, Aletta, was a domestic servant. Although Tutu was baptized a Methodist, his parents later joined the Anglican church.

From an early age, he was profoundly influenced by the idealism of his parents. When he was twelve, the family moved to Johannesburg. His mother was employed as a cook at a missionary school for the blind, where Tutu’s desire to serve the underprivileged was kindled. It was also at that school that he met the Anglican priest Father Trevor Huddleston, who had a profound influence on his life. Father Huddleston was a parish priest in Sophiatown, a black slum, and as Bishop Huddleston, became a leading antiapartheid activist in the United Kingdom.

When Tutu was graduated from Western High School in Johannesburg, he was unable to fulfill his ambition of becoming a doctor as his parents could not afford the tuition fees. As an adolescent, he earned money by selling peanuts at suburban railway stations and caddying at Johannesburg’s exclusive Killarney golf course.

Having decided to pursue teaching as a career instead, he took a diploma at the Bantu Normal College in Pretoria and a B.A. degree at the University of Johannesburg. From 1954 to 1957, he taught high school in Johannesburg and Krugersdorp. A happy personal event occurred during this period, when he married Leah Nomalizo Shenxane in 1955. His career as a teacher was short-lived, for Tutu resigned in 1957 to protest the “Bantu Education Act,” which introduced a discriminatory and inferior educational system for blacks.

Tutu subsequently joined the Community of the Resurrection, the religious order to which Huddleston belonged. Although Tutu has said that he was not motivated to join the ministry by high ideals, his religious conviction grew while studying theology at Saint Peter’s Theological College in Johannesburg. He became a deacon in 1960 and was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1961.

Life’s Work

After serving as curate of two churches in Benoni and Alberton, Tutu left for England in 1962. During the four years he spent in London, he earned the bachelor of divinity and master of theology degrees from King’s College. He was also assigned to St. Alban’s parish in London and St. Mary’s parish in Bletchingley, Surrey. When he returned to South Africa in 1967, he lectured at the Federal Theological Seminary in the Ciskei and from 1969 to 1971 at the University of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland, which later became known as the National University of Lesotho at Roma. Tutu returned to England in 1972 as associate director of the Theological Education Fund based in Bromley, Kent. During the next three years, he was responsible for administering scholarships for the World Council of Churches and traveled widely in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Tutu was rising rapidly in the ranks of the church, and, when he returned to South Africa in 1975, he was appointed the first black Anglican dean of Johannesburg. The following year he was consecrated Bishop of Lesotho. Tutu was becoming more active in the struggle against apartheid, South Africa’s oppressive system of institutionalized racism that denies the black majority any political rights. A few weeks before the Soweto riots on June 16, 1976, during which six hundred young blacks were murdered by the security forces, Tutu wrote an open letter to B. J. Vorster, then prime minister, warning him of the dangerous and volatile situation. Vorster dismissed the letter as a “propaganda ploy,” and, since the uprising at Soweto, South Africa has faced continuing unrest and instability.

In 1978, Tutu became the first black general secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC). the largest ecumenical organization in the country, SACC represents thirteen million Christians (black and white) and is the national representative of the World Council of Churches. Under his leadership, SACC became an important force in the opposition to apartheid and filled the vacuum created by the banning of antiapartheid political parties. Tutu campaigned vigorously against the Pass Laws, the discriminatory and unequal educational system, and the forced relocation of blacks to Bantustans, or so-called homelands. Tutu began the call he has repeated over the years for the imposition of economic sanctions and an end to...

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