This Week in History: Archbishop Desmond Tutu was born on Oct. 7, 1931

People call him “the Arch.” He is Desmond Tutu, who served as the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, from 1986 to 1996. As archbishop, Tutu was the leader of the Anglican Church in southern Africa. He was the first black African to hold that post. In 1984, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was the strict and often brutal system of racial segregation that existed in South Africa from 1948 to the early 1990’s. Tutu believed it was morally wrong and sought to end it by nonviolent means. He led the effort to convince foreign nations to push for change by imposing economic sanctions on South Africa. He called on both the supporters and the opponents of apartheid to find a peaceful way to end it.

Sometimes it takes courage to be a peacemaker. In 1985, the South African government banned large black funeral gatherings, which had sometimes turned into politically heated events. Tutu defied the ban. In August, hundreds of police officers and soldiers surrounded a gathering of about 1,000 funeral mourners. With military helicopters circling overhead, Tutu negotiated with the police for half an hour to avoid a violent encounter. A month earlier, he had waded into a mob of enraged black youths and kept them from killing a man whom they suspected of being an informer for the police. Nelson Mandela, who became South Africa’s first black president in 1994, once said of Tutu, “Sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid, and seldom without humor, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless.”

It also takes understanding to be a peacemaker. Tutu was born in Klerksdorp, South Africa, on Oct. 7, 1931. He lived through the imposition of the apartheid system. He began his career as a teacher, but he left teaching in protest against laws purposely designed to give black students second-rate educations. He became an Anglican priest in 1961 and later was made a bishop. After the end of apartheid, he headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a South African panel that conducted hearings on suspected human rights abuses during apartheid. Tutu is known for his compassion. On more than one occasion during TRC testimony, he lowered his head on his hands and wept. Under Tutu’s leadership, the commission promoted healing, forgiveness, and national unity.

It takes hope to be a peacemaker. Tutu is famous for his joy and his marvelous laugh. He believes all people were “made for goodness,” and that we should search out the good at the true heart of every person. He believes all people are brothers and sisters, children of God. All, therefore, deserve honor and respect. For Tutu, this faith exists in harmony with the traditional African concept of ubuntu, which sees people as interdependent. An injustice to one diminishes all. To oppress one person diminishes the entire community, as does taking revenge on the oppressor. Tutu has said, “There is no peace without forgiveness.” Both in South Africa and in other nations that have experienced conflict or oppression, Tutu has worked to help people overcome hate and find peace.

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