Humanitarian, Political, Diversity & Inclusion Activist, Author
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Desmond Tutu was born in Klerksdorp, in the South African state of Transvaal. The family moved to Johannesburg when he was 12, and he attended Johannesburg Bantu High School. Although he had planned to become a physician, his parents could not afford to send him to medical school. Tutu’s father was a teacher, he himself trained as a teacher at Pretoria Bantu Normal College, and graduated from the University of South Africa in 1954.
The government of South Africa did not extend the rights of citizenship to black South Africans. The National Party had risen to power on the promise of instituting a system of apartheid — complete separation of the races. All South Africans were legally assigned to an official racial group; each races was restricted to separate living areas and separate public facilities. Only white South Africans were permitted to vote in national elections. Black South Africans were only represented in the local governments of remote “tribal homelands.” Interracial marriage was forbidden, blacks were legally barred from certain jobs and prohibited from forming labor unions. Passports were required for travel within the country; critics of the system could be banned from speaking in public and subjected to house arrest.
When the government ordained a deliberately inferior system of education for black students, Desmond Tutu refused to cooperate. He could no longer work as a teacher, but he was determined to do something to improve the life of his disenfranchised people. On the advice of his bishop, he began to study for the Anglican priesthood. Tutu was ordained as a priest in the Anglican church in 1960. At the same time, the South African government began a program of forced relocation of black Africans and Asians from newly designated “white” areas. Millions were deported to the “homelands,” and only permitted to return as “guest workers.”
Desmond Tutu lived in England from 1962 to 1966, where he earned a master’s degree in theology. He taught theology in South Africa for the next five years, and returned to England to serve as an assistant director of the World Council of Churches in London. In 1975 he became the first black African to serve as Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg. From 1976 to 1978 he was Bishop of Lesotho. In 1978 he became the first black General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches.
This position gave Bishop Tutu a national platform to denounce the apartheid system as “evil and unchristian.” Tutu called for equal rights for all South Africans and a system of common education. He demanded the repeal of the oppressive passport laws, and an end to forced relocation. Tutu encouraged nonviolent resistance to the apartheid regime, and advocated an economic boycott of the country. The government revoked his passport to prevent him from traveling and speaking abroad, but his case soon drew the attention of the world. In the face of an international public outcry the government was forced to restore his passport.
In 1984, Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, “not only as a gesture of support to him and to the South African Council of Churches of which he is leader, but also to all individuals and groups in South Africa who, with their concern for human dignity, fraternity and democracy, incite the admiration of the world.”
Two years later, Desmond Tutu was elected Archbishop of Cape Town. He was the first black African to serve in this position, which placed him at the head of the Anglican Church in South Africa, as the Archbishop of Canterbury is spiritual leader of the Church of England. International economic pressure and internal dissent forced the South African government to reform. In 1990, Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress was released after almost 27 years in prison. The following year the government began the repeal of racially discriminatory laws.
After the country’s first multi-racial elections in 1994, President Mandela appointed Archbishop Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, investigating the human rights violations of the previous 34 years. As always, the Archbishop counselled forgiveness and cooperation, rather than revenge for past injustice. In 1996 he retired as Archbishop of Cape Town and was named Archbishop Emeritus. For two years, he was Visiting Professor of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Published collections of his speeches, sermons and other writings include Crying in the Wilderness, Hope and Suffering, and The Rainbow People of God.
In 2007, Desmond Tutu joined former South African President Mandela, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, retired U.N Secretary General Kofi Annan, and former Irish President Mary Robinson to form The Elders, a private initiative mobilising the experience of senior world leaders outside of the conventional diplomatic process. Tutu was named to chair the group. Carter and Tutu have traveled together to Darfur, Gaza and Cyprus in an effort to resolve long-standing conflicts. Desmond Tutu’s historic accomplishments — and his continuing efforts to promote peace in the world — were formally recognised by the United States in 2009, when President Barack Obama named him to receive the nation’s highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Later in 2009 Desmond Tutu received another President’s Medal, this time from The National University of Ireland and which was presented to him by Sir Bob Geldof for his lifetime achievements in humanitarian work.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu is one of the most inspiring keynote speakers alive in the world today.
"Your presence and active engagement in the Summit’s events helped to make it a truly unforgettable experience for the 300 member delegates from more than 40 countries, as well as for the Academy members and new honorees."
Academy of Achievement
"Archbishop Tutu was simply lovely. His charm dazzled the students and his unassuming presence captured their every breath. He was dynamic, energetic and thoroughly engaged in discussions with the students about the challenges facing Africa."