Family, friends and dignitaries gathered for Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s official state funeral on New Year’s Day in Cape Town, capping a week of events honoring a man long considered to be the moral compass of South Africa.
Tutu died last Sunday at the age of 90, sparking a global outpouring of tributes to the anti-apartheid hero. He had been in poor health for several years.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who delivered the main eulogy during the service at St. George’s Cathedral on Saturday, hailed Tutu as “our national conscience.” Tutu’s widow Nomalizo Leah, known as “Mama Leah,” sat in a wheelchair in the front row of the congregation, draped in a purple scarf, the color of her husband’s clerical robes.
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. Tutu’s funeral was limited to just 100 people, in line with current Covid-19 regulations.
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.”
Tutu’s body will be cremated in a private ceremony after Saturday’s requiem mass and will then be interred behind the pulpit at the cathedral.
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.
CNN’s Larry Madowo, Chandler Thornton, Allegra Goodwin and Niamh Kennedy contributed reporting.