The passing of former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, on December 26, 2021, marks another milestone in the history of the ecumenical “Church Struggle” against apartheid in South Africa. This era, starting somewhere in the late 1950s and gaining momentum in the 1960s, reaching its peak in the heady days of the 1980s as a broad coalition of community organizations, trade unions and religious organizations came together, broadly working in parallel with – at times uneasily aligned to – established liberation movements like the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), finally forced the National Party government to negotiate a transition to democracy, attained in 1994.
Some key figures, like Catholic archbishop of Durban, Denis Hurley OMI, and Dutch Reformed theologian C. F. Beyers Naudé, have died; others like Reformed pastor Allan Boesak and the Dominican Albert Nolan are now retired or semi-retired. What has passed is a certain era where Christian churches together took a principled stand , working with people of all faiths and none, and helped to bring down an evil regime and give birth to a democratic state.
One of the key figures in this was Desmond Tutu, key because in many respects his convictions and personality crossed Protestant and Catholic denominational boundaries, moving between traditional and liberation theologies, between a revolutionary commitment and a reconciling spirit. Revolution and reconciliation in Tutu were rooted in his theology (Biblical, Anglican, Black and African), a theology embedded in his spirituality, itself a product of his remarkable life. This article, in the form of a mini-biography, will try to explore the connections between these strands and Tutu’s life.