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Even in retirement, Desmond Tutu remained South Africa’s moral compass

Although he formally
retired from public life in 2010 — promising to quietly sip tea with his wife
and visit his grandchildren — Tutu remained a powerful advocate for what he saw
as right and fair, including a host of causes such as social and climate
justice.

He also stood against
corruption and lack of accountability under the African National Congress, and
against discrimination, calling out the Anglican Church for not taking a
stronger stance for gay rights.

“If God, as they say,
is homophobic, I wouldn’t worship that God,” he told the BBC in 2007, after the
election of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop in the United States led the
Anglican Church to grapple with the issue.

Gay rights later
became a personal cause for Tutu.

When his daughter
Mpho Tutu, an Anglican priest, married a woman, her longtime partner, Marceline
van Furth, in 2015, he was publicly supportive. When their marriage led the
church to revoke her license, and to her leaving the priesthood, he also
supported her choice.

Still, Tutu remained
loyal to the church, said Mamphela Ramphele, a former anti-apartheid activist
who spoke Sunday on behalf of the family.

Although he was
saddened by the church’s rules, Ramphele said, Tutu followed them at his
daughter’s wedding.

“He was not allowed
to bless them, and he followed the precepts of the church at their marriage,”
Ramphele said.

Tutu also used his
post-church platform, mainly the Desmond and Leah Legacy Foundation, to speak
out against “adaptation apartheid,” the growing divide between rich and poor
countries in responding to climate change.

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Through the
foundation, he added his voice to the calls for climate justice and
accountability from governments and big business.

Last year, he met
with former Vice President Al Gore in Cape Town to discuss divestment from
fossil fuels. And his foundation invited Ugandan climate justice activist
Vanessa Nakate to deliver a lecture in his name, alongside Christiana Figueres,
executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate
Change.

In a video message
before the lecture, Tutu called environmental destruction “the human rights
challenge of our time.”

Over the years, he
also lent his name to other causes, including the promotion of social cohesion,
which is the focus of the Desmond Tutu Peace Center, and to HIV research.

At the height of the
HIV/AIDS epidemic, when South Africa’s public health response was marred by
inconsistency and malaise, Tutu’s name helped a research centre in Cape Town
raise its profile, allowing it to become one of the leading institutions of its
kind.

Toward the end of
apartheid in the early 1990s, it was Tutu who coined the phrase “the rainbow
nation” to describe the optimism of a multiracial South Africa. But in later
years, he did not temper his criticism of the new government or the African
National Congress.

Although he enjoyed a
close friendship with the party’s leader and South Africa’s first Black leader,
President Nelson Mandela — the two men famously made fun of each other’s
sartorial choices — Tutu was critical of Mandela’s successors. He was
particularly vociferous in his disappointment in President Jacob Zuma, who
resigned in 2018 and whose administration was tarnished by corruption scandals.

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Indeed, in 2011, Tutu
was openly incensed when the South African government under Zuma refused to
grant the Dalai Lama a visa to attend Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations.

“Our government,
representing me — representing me — says it will not support Tibetans who are
being oppressed viciously by the Chinese,” Tutu said in a news conference,
visibly angry.

The South African
government, believed to be currying favour with the Chinese government, denied
a visa to the Tibetan spiritual leader three times, in 2009 and again in 2014,
when he was to attend a summit meeting of Nobel laureates alongside Tutu.

Tutu’s critiques of
the governing African National Congress continued, and in 2013, he said that he
would not be voting for the party because it had failed to deliver on its
promise of social justice.

His rift with the
former liberation movement was also evident later that year when Mandela died.
The government at first snubbed Tutu, despite his prominence and their
relationship, but then invited him to speak at the public memorial service.

In May, in one of his
last public appearances, Tutu received his coronavirus vaccine shot in the hope
that it would encourage others to do the same while dispelling misinformation,
which has hampered vaccine uptake in South Africa.

“All my life, I have
tried to do the right thing and, today, getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is
definitely the right thing to do,” he said after getting the jab, adding that
it was also a “wonderful” chance to get out of the house.

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“Believe me, when you
get to our age,” he said, “little needles worry you far less than bending over
does.”

©2022 The New York
Times Company

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