As Desmond Tutu turns 90 on Thursday, he remains the undisputed moral voice of South Africa. But age is getting along with them.
The Jovial Emeritus Archbishop retired in 2010 and rarely speaks publicly, in a country that sometimes feels without the leadership of its anti-apartheid liberation icons.
Even as South Africa eases its COVID-19 precautions, birthday celebrations will be silent and largely online.
Known for his radiating energy and infectious laughter, Tutu is expected to attend a special service on Thursday at St George’s Cathedral, where he once held the pulpit as South Africa’s first black Anglican archbishop.
Later that day, the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation will host an online lecture by the Dalai Lama, former Irish President Mary Robinson, rights activist Graca Machel and former South African ombudsman Thule Madonsella, honored for her courageous display of corruption. .
The line of speakers is reminiscent of Tutu’s values, surrounded by rights advocates at a time when South Africa’s current leader is better known for lavish lifestyles and billion-dollar bank accounts.
Last month, an online auction of his memorabilia raised $237,000 for a foundation named after him and his wife of 66 years, Leah.
The last time Tutu himself was seen in public was in May, when he and Leah went to receive their COVID-19 vaccinations.
He smiled and shook his hand in a wheelchair outside a hospital, but did not speak to reporters waiting outside – a far cry from the spirited personality who captivated the world with his strong opposition to apartheid, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. won the award.
Knowing him as a great figure on the world stage now, it is hard to remember that when he returned from his studies in Britain in the 1960s, he faced the same humiliation as any other black South African .
His daughter Ampho Tutu-Van Firth, with whom she has written two books, recalls driving cross-country with her family to bring her siblings to boarding school.
“I remember stopping at a place along the way, and my dad was going to go to the store and buy ice cream for us, because it was just sticky hot,” Tutu-van Firth told AFP.
“And the guy was telling him that they don’t serve kaffir inside the shop, that you have to go around the window. And my dad kind of slammed from there.
“We weren’t going to get ice cream that day.”
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He eventually extended his leadership in the Anglican Church, paving the way towards reconciliation. He coined the term “rainbow nation”, and was deeply convinced that the South African experiment could show the world a new way to address conflicts.
His views of pardon are not in favor of some young South Africans who feel that black people have surrendered too much in the transition to democracy, without holding apartheid criminals accountable.
What Tutu held dear to the nation was that he did not stop speaking after democracy came.
He faced homophobia in the Anglican Church, challenged Nelson Mandela over generous salaries for cabinet ministers, and strongly criticized the endemic corruption led by former President Jacob Zuma.
“He played such a unique role,” said William Gumed of the Democracy Works Foundation. “We were fortunate during the transition that we had him and we had Mandela, these two statesmen who were moral leaders.”
But that era is over.
“We’re entering a period where we really won’t have great moral leaders,” Gumede said. “So how do we build the society we want?”