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YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Archbishop Desmond Tutu was “a beacon of hope during the bleak days of apartheid,” according to Bishop Victor Phalana of Klerksdorp and the liaison bishop for justice and peace at the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
The Anglican prelate died on Sunday at the age of 90. A representative of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu IP Trust said he died “peacefully” at a Cape Town nursing home.
“He spoke truth to power and criticized both the apartheid government and the ANC-led government when they started to tolerate corruption and when they took time to deal with the problem of poverty in our country,” Phalana told Crux.
The bishop said Tutu, who won the Nobel Prize in 1984 for his opposition to the brutal apartheid policy, was “a prophet who knew that he had to pray and at the same time fight for freedom. He believed in the spirituality that says, faith without works is dead.”
Phalana noted how risky it was for the Anglican prelate to stand up for truth and justice.
“He was threatened, intimidated, arrested, teargassed, silenced, condemned by the state media, he had his passport confiscated. He never gave up,” he said.
“He believed that change and a democratic dispensation were inevitable. He laughed loudly and laughed a lot since he had a good sense of humor. He cried a lot like the grieving prophets of old. His theology was that God is on the side of the oppressed and that God was a God of justice. This theology inspired him and made him a fighter for liberation and non-violence,” the bishop added.
Phalana said Tutu practically saved millions of South Africans from “despair and despondency.”
Father Peter-John Pearson, Director of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference Parliamentary Liaison Office, told Crux that Tutu’s death has left a void too hard to ever fill.
“We all feel bereft by the archbishop’s death. His warmth, his wonderful connection with people, his prophetic sense of outrage against injustice anywhere and everywhere no matter who perpetrated it. We saw this in the vehemence of his denunciation of the apartheid regime but also in his denunciation of the democratic government’s corruption and failure to care for the lives of the marginalized,” the priest said.
When the struggle against apartheid finally resulted in the collapse of the system in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela as president, Tutu was appointed to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“We will remember always the incredible wisdom with which he led us through the TRC years and guided us away from thoughts of vengeance to commitments to justice and reconciliation. His faith was his key inspiration, and his actions were lessons in contextual theology,” Pearson said.
As the world mourns the late archbishop, both Phalana and Father Peter-John Pearson said the best tribute to Tutu would be to continue with his legacy.
“We must continue his legacy,” Phalana said.
“We must fight against corruption, fight patriarchy, racism and economic inequality. In his honor, let us fight against sexism, Gender Based Violence and all other forms of discrimination. In his honor, let the church hold on to its prophetic ministry, speaking for the oppressed, defending the poor, challenging dictators, advocating for economic justice and climate justice,” the bishop added.
Noting that Tutu was careful not to get entangled in partisan politics and rather spoke out as part of the civil society, Pearson told Crux that one way of continuing his legacy would be to “continue to build the voice and energies of civil society, to assist the faith communities to rediscover the power of contextual theology and to ensure that the demands of justice continue to sound from every pulpit. In that way we will honor him.”
“Our times are seriously compromised by growing disdain for the poor, by nationalism and a perverse populism. The Ubuntu spirit of Tutu demands that we expose those false values for what they are, not in some vague way but as he did, in structural, practical, strategic ways that our words are converted into actions. That was his genius and it’s not difficult, it just demands an unwavering commitment. It is ultimately something we can all do, and together bring down the most unshakeable of walls,” the priest said.
Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, sent a condolence message in which he said Pope Francis was “saddened to learn of the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and he offers heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones. Mindful of his service to the gospel through the promotion of racial equality and reconciliation in his native South Africa, his holiness commends his soul to the loving mercy of almighty god. Upon all who mourn his passing in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection, Pope Francis invokes the divine blessings of peace and consolation in the Lord Jesus.”