On Monday, cathedral bells tolled at midday in Cape Town as South Africa began a week of mourning for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died on Sunday.
As his country marks Tutu’s life and death, people around the world are doing the same, including many from groups he supported, from LGBTQ communities to Palestinians and climate justice advocates.
While Tutu was best known for helping to end decades of institutionalized segregation and racism in South Africa, and for heading the truth and reconciliation commission that came in its aftermath, he was also celebrated for lending his voice to other injustices and oppression globally.
“Anywhere where the humanity of people is undermined, anywhere where people are left in the dust, there we will find our cause,” Tutu said in a 2013 interview.
The respect Tutu had garnered as South Africa’s moral compass made him one of Africa’s most important LGBTQ allies.
Joni Madison, the interim President of the Human Rights Campaign – a prominent LGBTQ advocacy group – said Tutu’s “powerful allyship will never be forgotten.”
“We are forever grateful,” Madison tweeted.
Tutu was a vocal opponent of gender discrimination and supporter of the LGBTQ community. He was an active participant in the United Nations’ Free & Equal campaign and often compared the struggle of those singled out for their sexual orientation to apartheid.
In a 2007 interview with the BBC, he said: “If God, as they say, is homophobic, I wouldn’t worship that God.” Years later he added, “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven … I mean I would much rather go to the other place,” referring to hell.
Speaking about gender-based discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people, Tutu said: “I cannot keep quiet when people are penalized for something about which they can do nothing,” adding “I oppose such injustice with the same passion that I opposed apartheid.”
Tutu’s own daughter – Mpho Tutu van Furth, an Anglican minister herself – was forced to resign her post after she married a woman in 2016.
She told the Guardian shortly after her marriage that the situation was “painful.”
“My father campaigned for women’s ordination, and so every time I stand at the altar I know that this is part of his legacy,” Tutu van Furth said. “It is painful, a very odd pain, to step down, to step back from exercising my priestly ministry.”
Same-sex relationships and homosexuality are frowned upon in many of Africa’s more conservative corners. South Africa is the only country on the continent that has legalized gay marriage, and same-sex relationships are not legal in 32 of Africa’s 54 countries, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. Senegal and Ghana are both debating bills targeting the gay community.
Tutu was also vocal advocate for the rights of the Palestinian people, and politicians in Gaza and the West Bank mourned the late archbishop as an ally in their struggle.
“We will always remember Desmond Tutu as one of the most courageous and principled warriors for human rights and equality in South Africa and Palestine,” said Husam Zomlot, the head of Palestinian Mission to the UK.
Former Palestinian Minister of Higher Education Hanan Ashrawi tweeted that Tutu’s “humanity and compassion were equaled only by his courage and principled commitment in our shared struggle for justice and freedom.”
“His support for Palestine was an embrace of love and empathy,” said Ashrawi.
Tutu tried to use his moral authority to get both Israelis and Palestinians to seek a path of nonviolence. During the 2014 war, when Israel launched an operation to stop the militant group Hamas from firing rockets into Israeli territory, Tutu accused Israel of employing “disproportionately brutal response” and called for both sides to abandon violence in favor of dialogue.
By the time a stable ceasefire was reached after several weeks, more than 2,200 Gazans had been killed in the fighting. About half of them civilians, including more than 550 children, according to a United Nations report. The UN said 71 Israelis were killed, 66 of whom were soldiers.
“We are opposed to the injustice of the illegal occupation of Palestine. We are opposed to the indiscriminate killing in Gaza. We are opposed to the indignity meted out to Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks. We are opposed to violence perpetrated by all parties. But we are not opposed to Jews,” Tutu wrote in Haaretz, one of Israel’s biggest English-language newspapers, at the time.
“We know that when our leaders began to speak to each other, the rationale for the violence that had wracked our society dissipated and disappeared,” he said. “We also know the benefits that dialogue between our leaders eventually brought us; when organizations labeled ‘terrorist’ were unbanned and their leaders, including Nelson Mandela, were released from imprisonment, banishment and exile.”
However, his unique view on the power of truth, absolution and reconciliation sometimes landed him in hot water. His sermon on the importance of forgiveness after visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel in 1989 drew the ire of Jewish activists, including fellow Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.
“For anyone in Jerusalem, at Yad Vashem, to speak about forgiveness would be, in my view, a disturbing lack of sensitivity toward the Jewish victims and their survivors. I hope that was not the intention of Bishop Tutu,” Wiesel said at the time.
Tutu, over the years, said that he was opposed to oppression and violence on both sides of the conflict. But his frequent comparisons of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to that of Black South Africans and his support for boycotts of Israel drew the ire of many Israeli politicians, especially those that were more hawkish on defense issues.
“Tutu, like many in the South Africa struggle against apartheid, had a natural affinity for the Palestinians and a world view that they were similar,” Arthur Lenk, Israel’s former ambassador to South Africa, told the Jerusalem Post. “He (Tutu) wasn’t a friend of Israel, but that said, he was a man of great achievement, heroism and bravery. And anyone who celebrates democracy knows that he’s at the top of the list of people who should be honored, even if he didn’t see our issue the way we would have liked him to.”
Climate and environment
Tutu was a firm believer in the power of international boycotts, divestment policies and sanctions. He saw the global push to economically punishment and isolate South Africa as crucial factor in ending apartheid.
Though he retired from public service in 2010, Tutu advocate for the international community and individuals themselves to consider such boycotts to stop the climate crisis in the final years of his life. He lobbied to former President Barack Obama to stop the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried oil from tar sands in Canada to the United States. In 2014, Tutu traveled to Canada assess the project on his own and hear from its supporters and opponents.
Canada’s former environment and climate minister, Catherine McKenna, called Tutu an “incredible force – not only leading the fight against apartheid but also fighting for racial equality, climate justice and LGBTQ+ rights.”
Tutu wrote multiple pieces in prominent newspapers across the world calling for action. He asked the international community to put in place an “apartheid-style boycott to save the planet” in a 2014 op-ed in the Guardian – which Greta Thunberg tweeted to acknowledge his death – and called the climate crisis the “apartheid of our times” in the Financial Times in 2019.
“Over the 25 years that climate change has been on the world’s agenda, global emissions have risen unchecked while real-world impacts have taken hold in earnest,” Tutu said in a lecture put on by his foundation last year. “Time is running out. We’re already experiencing loss of life and livelihood because of intensified storms, shortages of fresh water, spread of disease, rising food prices and the creation of climate refugees.”
CNN’s Tamara Qiblawi and Riuki Gakio contributed reporting.