Africa’s celebrated Arch Desmond Tutu who was South Africa’s ‘national conscience,’ laid to rest at state funeral

South Africa bid its final farewell to Archbishop Desmond Tutu with a requiem mass on Saturday morning in Cape Town’s Anglican cathedral, a sober and simple ceremony he had arranged himself.

Grey skies and a light drizzle welcomed mourners to St George’s Cathedral including Tutu’s family and friends but also the widow of the country’s last white president FW de Klerk and many priests arrived at the church in dribs and drabs.

President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the eulogy after communion, describing Tutu as “our moral compass and national conscience.”

“Even after the advent of democracy, he did not hesitate to draw attention, often harshly, to our shortcomings as leaders of the democratic state.”

Ramaphosa handed a national flag — the only military tribute allowed here — to Tutu’s widow, Leah, as she sat in a wheelchair.

The cathedral can hold 1,200 worshippers, but only 100 mourners were allowed to attend the funeral because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Tutu’s coffin is made of clear pine following his request that it be “the least expensive possible” despite South African funerals often serving as an opportunity to show that one has spent lavishly on the deceased.

There are no gold handles, just simple pieces of rope to carry it, reminiscent of the sober belt of the Franciscan friars. On top, a bouquet of white carnations. Archbishop Tutu did not want any other flowers in the church.

The cathedral’s bells rang as Tutu’s casket was taken away after the funeral for a private cremation. His ashes are to be interred at the cathedral.

A close and long-time friend of Archbishop Tutu, former Bishop Michael Nuttall, was chosen by the deceased to deliver the sermon. When Tutu was Archbishop, Nuttall was his “number two”.

Nuttall called his relationship with Tutu “an unlikely partnership at a truly critical time in the life of our country from 1989 through 1996, he as archbishop of Cape Town and I as his deputy,” With humour, he described himself as “No. 2 to Tutu.”

“Our partnership struck a chord, perhaps, in the hearts and minds of many people: a dynamic Black leader and his white deputy in the dying years of apartheid,” Nuttall continued. “And hey, presto, the heavens did not collapse. We were a foretaste, if you like, of what could be in our wayward, divided nation.”

Two of Tutu’s daughters, Mpho and Nontombi, both church ministers, participated in the service along with former Irish President Mary Robinson and Graca Machel, the widow of two African presidents, Samora Machel of Mozambique and Nelson Mandela.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the head of the worldwide Anglican church, said in a video message shown at the requiem Mass that “when we were in the dark, he brought light.”

“For me to praise him is like a mouse giving tribute to an elephant,” Welby said. “South Africa has given us extraordinary examples of towering leaders of the rainbow nation with President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu…. Many Nobel winners’ lights have grown dimmer over time, but Archbishop Tutu’s has grown brighter.”

The week was marked by tributes to Archbishop Tutu throughout the country and beyond. South Africans remembered his tenacity and grace in the face of the oppressive regime in Pretoria.

In Soweto, where he preached for many years, he denounced the violence against high school students during the riots of June 1976, which were put down in blood. Little by little, he became the voice of Nelson Mandela, locked up on Robben Island. The police and the army threatened him but his dress saved him from prison.

“We used to get up in the morning and if we saw the military trucks, then we knew he would celebrate mass,” Mathabo Dlwathi, 47, told AFP. “They wanted him dead, but for some reason we can’t explain, it never happened. He would go into the church, say mass and leave.”

During demonstrations, “he was a shield for us,” recalled Panyaza Lesufi, now a senior member of the ANC, the historic party still in power.

Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel, spoke of the “indescribable courage” it took to stand up to the regime. “He stood resolute and fearless at the front of the demonstrations, his clerical robe fluttering in the wind, his cross a shield,” she described.

For his funeral, Shepherd Tutu chose, in his last message to men, the passage from the Gospel according to St John where Jesus addresses his disciples after their last meal. A message of love. “My commandment is this: Love one another as I have loved you.

For decades, Tutu was one of the primary voices pushing the South African government to end apartheid, the country’s official policy of racial segregation and White minority rule. He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, before apartheid ended in the early 1990s and the long-imprisoned Nelson Mandela became the nation’s first Black president.

The revered anti-apartheid fighter will be remembered as one of the most important voices of the 20th century. However, his funeral was subdued: Before he died, Tutu asked for a simple service and the cheapest available coffin, according to two of his foundations. 

            In his address at St. George’s Cathedral, a church famous for its role in the resistance against apartheid, Ramaphosa described Tutu as “a man with a faith as deep as it was abiding,” and “a crusader in the struggle for freedom, for justice, for equality and for peace, not just in South Africa, the country of his birth, but around the world as well.”

“Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been our moral compass and national conscience,” Ramaphosa said. “He saw our country as a ‘rainbow nation’, emerging from the shadow of apartheid, united in its diversity, with freedom and equal rights for all.”

“He embraced all who had ever felt the cold wind of exclusion and they in turn embraced him,” Ramaphosa added, praising Tutu’s advocacy for LGBTQ rights, campaigning against child marriage, and support for the Palestinian cause.

“His was a life lived honestly and completely. He has left the world a better place. We remember him with a smile,” Ramaphosa said.

Tutu’s daughter Naomi also paid tribute to her father and thanked the public for their prayers. “Thank you, daddy, for the many ways you showed us love, for the many times you challenged us, for the many times you comforted us,” she said.

Reverend Michael Nuttall, the retired Bishop of Natal who was once Tutu’s deputy, delivered the main sermon, calling Tutu a “giant among us morally and spiritually.”

His voice breaking at times, Nuttal said being Tutu’s deputy between 1989 and 1996 “struck a chord perhaps in the hearts and minds of many people: a dynamic Black leader and his White deputy in the dying years of apartheid; and hey presto, the heavens did not collapse. We were a foretaste, if you like, of what could be in our wayward, divided nation.”

In a video message played at the ceremony, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said an Archbishop of Canterbury giving a tribute to Archbishop Tutu was “like a mouse giving a tribute to an elephant.”

Events were planned throughout the country to give South Africans the opportunity to collectively mourn ‘”the Arch,” as he was known, while still practicing social distancing.

A week-long remembrance began Monday with the ringing of the bells at St. George’s Cathedral, which held a special place in the late archbishop’s heart, so much so that he requested his ashes be interred there in a special repository.

On Wednesday, several religious leaders gathered outside Tutu’s former home on Vilakazi Street — where his friend and ally Nelson Mandela also grew up — in Soweto, a township in Johannesburg, for a series of events. Another memorial service was held Wednesday in Cape Town, and Tutu’s wife, Nomalizo Leah Tutu, met with friends of the late archbishop on Thursday for an “intimate” gathering.

South Africans also paid their respects before Tutu’s plain pine coffin on Thursday and Friday as it lay in state at the cathedral.

Tutu was born October 7, 1931, in Klerksdorp, a town in South Africa’s Transvaal province, the son of a teacher and a domestic worker. Tutu had plans to become a doctor, partly thanks to a boyhood bout of tuberculosis, which put him in the hospital for more than a year, and even qualified for medical school, he said.

But his parents couldn’t afford the fees, so he turned to teaching.

“The government was giving scholarships for people who wanted to become teachers,” he told the Academy of Achievement. “I became a teacher and I haven’t regretted that.”

However, he was horrified at the state of Black South African schools, and even more horrified when the Bantu Education Act was passed in 1953 that racially segregated the nation’s education system. He resigned in protest. Not long after, the Bishop of Johannesburg agreed to accept him for the priesthood — Tutu believed it was because he was a Black man with a university education, a rarity in the 1950s — and took up his new vocation.  

He was ordained in 1960 and spent the ’60s and early ’70s alternating between London and South Africa. He returned to his home country for good in 1975, when he was appointed dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg. As the government became increasingly oppressive — detaining Black people, establishing onerous laws — Tutu became increasingly outspoken.

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