South African anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu, described as the country’s moral compass, died on Sunday aged 90, sparking an outpouring of tributes for the outspoken Nobel peace laureate.
Tutu, who had largely faded from public life in recent years, was remembered for his easy humour and characteristic smile — and above all his tireless fight against injustices of all colours.
“The passing of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa,” he said, weeks after the death of FW de Klerk, the country’s last white president.
“A universal spirit, Archbishop Tutu was grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but also concerned with injustice everywhere,” Obama said in a statement.
“If it was not for him, probably we would have been lost as a country,” said Miriam Mokwadi, a 67-year-old retired nurse, outside the cathedral.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said Tutu had “inspired a generation of African leaders who embraced his non-violent approaches in the liberation struggle”.
The Vatican said Pope Francis was saddened and offered “heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones”.
A tireless activist, Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for combating white minority rule in his country.
And he retired in 1996 to lead a harrowing journey into South Africa’s brutal past as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which lifted the lid on the horrors of the apartheid regime.
He challenged Mandela over generous salaries for cabinet ministers and stridently criticised the corruption that mushroomed under ex-president Jacob Zuma.
Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and repeatedly underwent treatment.
The archbishop had been in a weakened state for several months and died peacefully at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) on Sunday, according to several of his relatives interviewed by AFP.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation called Tutu “an extraordinary human being. A thinker. A leader. A shepherd.”
Tutu was born in the small town of Klerksdorp, west of Johannesburg, on October 7, 1931, to a domestic worker and a school teacher.
He lived for a while in Britain, where, he recalled, he would needlessly ask for directions just to be called “Sir” by a white policeman.
And he did not shy away from his own end.
“I hope I am treated with compassion and allowed to pass on to the next phase of life’s journey in the manner of my choice.”