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Desmond Mpilo Tutu, South Africa's retired archbishop and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has celebrated his 80th birthday.

Known as "The Arch", Tutu is a much-loved figure in his country, mostly for the role he played in ending apartheid.

Friday's birthday celebration, however, was not without controversy.

Earlier in the week he branded South Africa's government, which is led by the African National Congress party, "worse than apartheid" over suspicions that a delay in issuing a visa to Tibet’s Dalai Lama was due to pressure from China.

As a result, the Dalai Lama was unable to attend Tutu’s celebration, but still delivered a message wishing the archbishop well.

Among those in attendance were Graça Machel, Nelson Mandela's wife, and Bono, lead singer of Irish rock band U2.

Sparked debate

Al Jazeera's Tania Page, reporting from Johannesburg, said that Tutu's stinging attack on the government had sparked debate over the current government’s political direction.

Page said that the spat had highlighted "Tutu's ongoing relevance as the country's moral compass".

Susan Booysen, political analyst at the University of the Witwatersrand, said, "He has the gravitas, like no other leader, to say things and be heard.”

South Africans interviewed by Page said that the icon still symbolised perseverance and achievement for the country.

"There's still one person who still has the guts to challenge the government which we're living under, so it's a good thing what he did," said one interviewee.

Another South African interviewed said, "I hope to grow as old as him and to achieve as many things as he did in our country."

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies