‘Moral giant’: How the world reacted to Desmond Tutu’s death

The archbishop’s legacy as an ‘anti-apartheid hero’ is remembered in South Africa and around the world.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu became an icon of the non-violent struggle against apartheid [File: Mike Hutchings/Reuters]

The death of South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a veteran of the struggle against apartheid and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has seen condolences pour in from leaders around the world.

Tutu died on Sunday aged 90.

South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday announced the death of 90-year-old Tutu, saying his loss was “another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa.”

This is how the world reacted to the news of his death:

South Africa

“Desmond Tutu was a patriot without equal; a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead,” Ramaphosa said.

John Steenhuisen, leader of the South African opposition party Democratic Alliance, said “a true South African giant has left us today, but his spirit will live on in the everyday kindness we South Africans show each other, and in our continued effort to build a united, successful, non-racial South Africa for all … When we lost our way, he was the moral compass that brought us back.”


Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said Tutu’s passing was “a big blow not only to the Republic of South Africa, where he leaves behind huge footprints as an anti-apartheid hero, but to the entire African continent where he is deeply respected and celebrated as a peacemaker”.

“Archbishop Tutu inspired a generation of African leaders who embraced his non-violent approaches in the liberation struggle,” he said.

Nelson Mandela Foundation

The Nelson Mandela Foundation, dedicated to the South African anti-apartheid political leader and an ally of Tutu, praised the archbishop’s legacy.

“His contributions to struggles against injustice, locally and globally, are matched only by the depth of his thinking about the making of liberatory futures for human societies. He was an extraordinary human being. A thinker. A leader. A shepherd,” it said.

Amnesty International

Amnesty International South Africa Executive Director Shenilla Mohamed in a statement said Tutu’s commitment to rights and equality for everyone |served as a much needed moral compass during the turbulent apartheid era”.

“Even after South Africa obtained freedom in 1994, the Archbishop continued to be an outspoken, passionate human rights activist,” she added.

“He was never afraid to call out human rights violators no matter who they were and his legacy must be honoured by continuing his work to ensure equality for all.”

Bernice King

The daughter of Martin Luther King, the American Baptist minister and activist who campaigned for the rights of the Black community, also shared her sorrow.

“I’m saddened to learn of the death of global sage, human rights leader, and powerful pilgrim on earth … we are better because he was here,” Bernice King said.

United States

US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden said they were “heartbroken” to learn of Tutu’s death, calling him a “true servant of God and of the people”.

“His courage and moral clarity helped inspire our commitment to change American policy toward the repressive Apartheid regime in South Africa,” they said.

Dalai Lama

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama called Tutu a “true humanitarian”. In a letter to Tutu’s daughter Mpho Tutu, the Dalai Lama said they had enjoyed an enduring friendship, fuelled by their common desire for reconciliation.

“We have lost a great man, who lived a truly meaningful life. He was devoted to the service of others, especially those who are least fortunate. I am convinced the best tribute we can pay him and keep his spirit alive is to do as he did and constantly look to see how we too can be of help to others,” the Dalai Lama wrote.


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Tutu a “voice for the oppressed” adding the 90-year-old was a “tireless advocate for human rights”.

“Sending my deepest condolences to his loved ones, the people of South Africa, and everyone mourning this incredible loss,” he tweeted.

United Kingdom

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply saddened” by Tutu’s death, calling him a “critical figure” in defeating apartheid and building a new South Africa.

“He was a critical figure in the fight against apartheid and in the struggle to create a new South Africa – and will be remembered for his spiritual leadership and irrepressible good humour,” Johnson tweeted.


Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said Tutu was “a great little man who showed the power of reconciliation and forgiveness”.

“Tutu’s point was that injustice and abuse must not be forgotten, but that at the same time it must not be avenged if a society was to move on,” Stoere said.


Wasel Abu Yousef, member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, remembered Tutu as “one of the biggest supporters of the Palestinian cause”.

“He had always advocated the rights of the Palestinians to gain their freedom and rejected Israeli occupation and Apartheid,” Abu Yousef said.

Mohammed Shtayyeh, Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority said Tutu’s death was “a loss for justice, truth and peace in the world. … He loved Palestine and Palestine loved him”.

Pope Francis

The Vatican said in a statement Pope Francis was saddened and offered “heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones”.

“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.”

Bobi Wine

“A giant has fallen,” wrote Uganda opposition leader Bobi Wine on Twitter.

“We thank God for his life – a purposeful life, truly lived in the service of humanity. May his soul rest in peace. Condolences to all people world-over who were touched by his life and ministry.”


French President Emmanuel Macron said Tutu had “dedicated his life to human rights and equality between peoples”.

“His struggle for the end of apartheid and for reconciliation in South Africa will remain in our memory,” he tweeted.

European Union

European Council president Charles Michel offered sympathy to Tutu’s family, Ramaphosa and to South African people.

“A man who gave his life to freedom with a deep commitment to human dignity. A giant who stood up against apartheid. You will be deeply missed,” he wrote on Twitter.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said: “Desmond Tutu did a lot of good for the world. His legacy of resistance to apartheid and to inequalities lives on in today’s South Africa and for all humankind.”

Barack Obama

In a statement, former US president Barack Obama called Tutu “a mentor, a friend and a moral compass for me and so many others”.

“A universal spirit, Archbishop Tutu was grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but also concerned with injustice everywhere. He never lost his impish sense of humour and willingness to find humanity in his adversaries, and Michelle and I will miss him dearly.”


Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said: “One of his sayings is terse, but forceful and true: ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.'”

World Council of Churches

“His contagious sense of humour and laughter has helped to resolve many critical situations in South Africa’s political and church life,” the World Council of Churches said.

“He was able to break almost any deadlock. He shared with us the laughter and grace of God many a time.”

Queen Elizabeth II

The UK’s Queen Elizabeth II said she was “deeply saddened” by Tutu’s death, calling him a “man who tirelessly championed human rights in South Africa and across the world”.

“I remember with fondness my meetings with him and his great warmth and humour,” she said in a statement, adding that his 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.”

United Nations

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Twitter he is “deeply saddened” by Tutu’s passing.

“A towering global figure for peace and justice, voice of the voiceless and inspiration to people everywhere,” Guterres said.

“We will continue to draw strength from his humanity, passion and resolve to fight for a better world for all.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies