ARCHBISHOP Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Laureate and constant thorn in the side of white and black governments alike, sails off into retirement today pledging to keep out of the spotlight from now on – well, almost.
Known affectionately as “the Arch”, the moral voice of modern South Africa chose yesterday – his 79th birthday – to confirm that he was bowing out of public life and would honour only the appointments that had already been scheduled.
Barack Obama immediately praised Archbishop Tutu as a “moral titan” and a dedicated peacemaker.
“It is with deep appreciation that I note Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s retirement from public life today on the occasion of his 79th birthday,” the US President said.
“For decades he has been a moral titan – a voice of principle, an unrelenting champion of justice, and a dedicated peacemaker.”
Dan Vaughan, a manager at the Desmond Tutu Peace Office in Cape Town, said: “He is quite determined to retire, even if he will sometimes say something in public or make an appearance or two … He will be doing some of the things he has been unable to do, like interacting with students. But he also wants to do a lot of reading; he has always wanted to read more.”
The Archbishop is one of the most widely respected figures in the country and across the racial divide. He and his wife, Leah, have been on a study ship, the Semester at Sea since August, setting off from Canada. It docked at Cape Town a few days ago and sails off again today on the next leg of a round-the-world voyage.
“They leave on Friday for Mauritius, and they will also stop over in India, Vietnam, Japan and Hawaii, among other areas,” Mr Vaughan said.
Two months ago, Archbishop Tutu, also a frequent critic of “black fat cats” in post-apartheid ANC governments, promised to retire from public life when he reached his next birthday, saying he planned to concentrate on “growing old” at home with his family.
His office is winding down already. Mr Vaughan said that staff were going through the Archbishop’s papers and other effects, which would be catalogued and put into archives.
In the darkest days of apartheid, when Nelson Mandela was in prison and the African National Congress was banned, Archbishop Tutu was often the lone black voice against the white regime.
He entered the public arena from the pulpit in the 1960s and launched his fight against white domination when he took over as general secretary of the South Africa Council of Churches in 1978. In that position, he became one of the best-known voices of the anti-apartheid movement and took the campaign for justice and reconciliation across the world.
After apartheid fell in 1994, he took over the highly controversial Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at which crimes committed by the apartheid government and against it were forgiven if the perpetrators made full, frank and sincere apologies.