AFRICA: Desmond Tutu’s life and death hold important lessons for America and the world – By Mohamed Hamaludin


Desmond Tutu

Desmond Mpilo Tutu, son of a South African schoolteacher and a laundress, rose to the position of Catholic Archbishop of Cape Town, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and headed his country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission charged with paving the way for unity between the majority 48 million Africans and the 10 million Europeans who ruthlessly suppressed them for 46 years.

When Tutu died on Dec. 26, 2021, of complications from cancer at age 90, the world honored the five-foot six-inch, 150-pound champion of democracy for a life well lived. He had been “a true servant of God and of the people,” President Joe Biden said. “His legacy transcends borders and will echo through the ages.”           

Former President Barack Obama, who presented Tutu with the Presidential Medal of Honor at the White House on Aug. 12, 2009, called him “a mentor, friend and moral compass” and noted that he had been “grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country but also concerned with injustice everywhere … [and]never lost his impish sense of humor and willingness to find humanity in his adversaries.”

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II remarked that Tutu’s death “will be felt by the people of South Africa and by so many people in Great Britain, Northern Ireland and across the Commonwealth, where he was held in such high affection and esteem.”

And, said the Vatican, “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.”

Tutu helped bequeath “a liberated South Africa,” said the country’s president ,Cyril Ramaphosa. He had been “an iconic spiritual leader, anti-apartheid activist and global human rights campaigner … a patriot without equal, a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that ‘faith without works is dead.’ … he was also tender and vulnerable in his compassion for those who had suffered oppression, injustice and violence under apartheid and oppressed and downtrodden people around the world.”

For some, Nelson Mandela, even as he was serving 27 years in prison, was regarded as the hero in the struggle against apartheid, and justifiably so. During much of that time, however, it was Tutu who relentlessly challenged the system. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1984 for his role in ending apartheid. After Mandela was freed in 1990 and apartheid ended and he became president in 1994, he appointed Tutu to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“You are overwhelmed by the extent of evil,” The Washington Post quoted Tutu as saying at the time. He added, in The Post’s words, that “it was necessary to open the wound to cleanse it.” The commission “offered amnesty, rather than punishment, for an honest accounting of past crimes, establishing what Archbishop Tutu called the principle of restorative — rather than retributive — justice,” The Post said. This is a lesson still to be learned in the United States, where Republican leaders are shamelessly trying their best to make Americans forget about slavery and that, as a Zulu proverb says, “A fault confessed is half-redressed.”

Tutu was also a harsh critic, in later years, of the new African majority government. “Can you explain how a Black person wakes up in a squalid ghetto today, almost 10 years after freedom, then he goes to work in town, which is still largely White, in palatial homes and at the end of the day, he goes back home to squalor?” The Post quoted him as saying at a 2003 news conference marking the end of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “I don’t know why those people don’t just say, ‘To hell with peace. to hell with Tutu and the truth commission.’”

If there ever lived a human being who deserved the most ornate coffin, the most elaborate funeral service and burial, it was Tutu. But, in his final request, he chose to leave the world in as simple a manner as he lived. His body lay “In an almost empty cathedral, with an unvarnished, rope-handled coffin placed before the altar … with the simplicity that he had planned,” The New York Times reported. The coffin cost the equivalent of $44, at his request the cheapest that could be found.

As for the burial, in keeping with his long advocacy of environmental responsibility, after a simple funeral service at St. George’s Cathedral, there was a “green burial” through a process known as aquamation or water cremation that avoids “non-biodegradable materials and promotes natural decomposition,” The Post reported. The process reduces energy use by 90 percent compared to cremation by flames and takes three to four hours at a temperature of around 300 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to two hours at a temperature of 1,400 to 1,800 degrees, experts told The Post.

That is how Tutu chose to leave the world, in the most humble manner, as he lived his life. The dictators doing everything to stay in power, the super-rich relentlessly pursuing ever greater profits, the loud-mouthed purveyors of hatred, racism and divisiveness and the political charlatans everywhere would do well to reflect on the example which this man set – that, in the final analysis, it is service that counts, not power, wealth, prestige or racial domination.

For, as William Shakespeare said in “Macbeth” in 1606, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/And then is heard no more. It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing.”

Or, as a song in the 1977 Indian movie “Apnapan” (“Kinship”)says, “Man is nothing but a traveler/in this long and hard journey of life./He enters once and exits once,/leaving bits of memories all along the route. …/What have you brought along with you in your journey?/What have you broken along your journey?”

What, indeed?

Mohamed Hamaludin is a Guyana-born journalist who worked for several years at The Guyana Chronicle in the 1970s and on publications in the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands before emigrating in 1984 to the United States, where he worked at The Miami Times, the Miami Herald and the South Florida Times.  Though now retired, he writes a column for The South Florida Times ( in which the above column first appeared. He may be reached at

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  • Thomas Obazee  On 02/12/2022 at 5:24 am

    Point of Correction: Desmond Tutu was an Anglican Church Archbishop, not a Catholic Church Archbishop. Thanks.

    • Kman  On 02/13/2022 at 1:00 pm

      Thank you for pointing that out, as l was just going to check on that as l always thought he was an Anglican.

      That was a super mistake Mo.

  • Carl D'Agostino  On 04/09/2022 at 9:54 am

    “This is a lesson still to be learned in the United States, where Republican leaders are shamelessly trying their best to make Americans forget about slavery …”

    Another big lie cultivated by the democrat left in the US. Republicans want us to remember the truth about slavery and its horrors. The democrats were the slave holders who wielded their whips and terror on the slaves. They created Jim Crow, segregation and dehumanization of African Americans. We republicans want the record of slavery to be remembered in our national memory. Republicans were formed in 1854 as the anti slavery party, defeated the slave holding aristocratic southern Confederacy (at a cost of 400,000 Civil War Union casualties), freed the slaves and passed the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Republicans helped create schools and colleges for the former slaves, created the Freedmans Bureau and other resettlement agencies. The record of slavery appears in all American history textbooks. Since the democrats have no sensible policies to offer the voters they constantly play the false race card accusations as exhibited by the quote to distort the truth.

    • Chris  On 04/10/2022 at 2:11 am

      Much of what you state is true. But you fail to acknowledge that there has been a major role reversal in American politics (a paradigm shift) in the past 50 years.

      Historically, Southern Democrats fought tooth and nail to protect slavery whilst in the Republican north they fought valiantly to end slavery, culminating in the bloody Civil War.

      Today, Republicans are stubbornly reluctant to admit that American society is one where White privilege is alive and well. In this regard, they strongly oppose things like CRT (critical race theory) and the fact that Whites are a privileged class in America.

      So, White privilege is not a Democratic or Republican issue, per se, it’s an American blight.

      Black people, whilst being unjustly and brutally denied basic human rights for centuries, built America with their blood, sweat and tears. And that is indisputable!

      Now, the time has come to end systemic and built-in injustices, racism, and white privilege in America and to treat everyone equally.

      • Thomas Obazee  On 04/10/2022 at 3:12 am

        You hit the nail on the head. Can’t agree with you more. May God bless you, Chris.

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