Peace Profiles: Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Peace & Human Rights

‘Peace profiles’ is a series by Academi Heddwch Cymru, which aims to draw attention to peace figures from around the world who have had a role in Welsh peace history.

On December 26th, 2021, media outlets reported the passing of one of South Africa’s most treasured theologians, Desmond Tutu. Born on October 7th, 1931, to a poor family, Tutu trained as a teacher in early adulthood before he was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1960. In 1962, Tutu left South Africa and moved to the United Kingdom to study theology at King’s College London, before moving back to Africa in 1966 to teach at the Federal Theological Seminary, then at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. However, a London-based position with the Theological Education Fund as Director for Africa meant that Tutu would have to return to the UK – a move which was initially refused by the South African authorities, who were suspicious of the TEF’s views on apartheid.


During the mid-1970s, Tutu emerged as a key figure within the liberation movement and became a household name across the globe. In 1975, Desmond Tutu returned to Africa and was appointed Bishop of Lesotho. In 1978, the SACC (the South African Council of Churches) elected Tutu as the first black general secretary. Immensely popular and well-respected, Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, for which he had previously been nominated in 1981, 1982, and 1983. Some, namely the Organisation of African Unity, saw this as one of the final nails in the coffin of apartheid. However, the South African government and mainstream media (who detested Tutu) either downplayed or criticised the award. The South African Broadcasting Corporation and The Citizen, both pro-government outlets, were extremely critical of Tutu. But, by the 1980s, Tutu was an icon for many black South Africans; his status was rivalled only by Nelson Mandela. In 1983, Tutu became a patron of a new anti-apartheid group, the United Democratic Front (UDF). By 1985, Tutu’s condemnation of apartheid to Western leaders (including visits to Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan) led to him being ”public enemy number 1” in the eyes of South African authorities. In 1986, Tutu was appointed as archbishop of Cape Town. This effectively made him head of the Anglican Church in his homeland.

‘Tutu fought with unremitting courage to make his country acknowledge the historic outrage that marked its life for most of the later 20th century – the system of racial discrimination codified in law after the victory in 1948 of the Nationalist Party, and maintained until 1990.’

Rowan Williams’ reflection on Desmond Tutu in ‘New Statesman’.

Despised by the conservative white minority in South Africa, Tutu was viewed as an agitator and a traitor by those who supported apartheid. His support of international sanctions against South Africa, and his sympathy towards anti-apartheid groups, deepened resentment towards Tutu. Despite being committed to non-violence, and censuring those on all sides who used violence, Tutu was sympathetic towards black Africans who became violent, as their non-violent tactics had failed to overturn apartheid. After Tutu signed a petition calling for the release of Nelson Mandela, a correspondence began between the two.

Desmond Tutu & Wales

It may come as a surprise to some that this celebrated activist and theologian also shares a connection with modern Welsh peace history. Desmond Tutu’s friendship with Dr. Rowan Williams (a Welsh peace figure, who will be explored further in the series) deepened his involvement with Wales. In September 2012, media outlets in the UK erupted with news of the Archbishop’s imminent arrival. However this was not the first visit that Tutu had paid to Wales, having visited previously in 1986, 1998 and 2009. Tutu’s framing of the issue of peace, which he viewed through the lens of faith, meant that his campaign against apartheid resonated with spiritual communities around the world.

At the Royal Welsh Showground (Llanelwedd) in May, 1986, the Archbishop preached to thousands of people. Tutu was invited as part of the Council of Churches in Wales’ God’s Family Festival, where he preached about the worldwide implications of belonging to God’s family. To celebrate the achievements of the Welsh Government’s Wales for Africa programme, the Archbishop visited Wales in October 2012. During the visit, Tutu expressed gratitude for the support of Wales in the campaign against apartheid.

“You may have forgotten that once South Africa had something called Apartheid and we got incredible support from you people here in Wales. . .It wouldn’t have happened – certainly it wouldn’t have happened as quickly as it did – had it not been for people like yourselves who helped us.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu during a trip to Cardiff in October, 2012.

Desmond Tutu received an honorary doctorate from Cardiff University in 1998, in addition to one from Bangor University in 2009. His support of Welsh peace efforts, such as the Wales for Africa programme, encouraged both Welsh people and the Welsh Government to continue this tradition.