Desmond Tutu was a black, South African, Christian male but in a world where colour, caste, class, ethnicity, religion, citizenship, sexuality and gender matter, he transcended all of that to be a human being who respected equal rights and dignity of all.

As a black, he spent much of his life amidst the widespread structural, legal, policy and social discrimination and oppression that was prevalent in South Africa. But he was among those who defied, resisted and struggled to transform these unjust realities. While standing firmly with oppressed black people, he also embraced and worked alongside the small number of whites who identified with principles of equal rights and dignity and were willing to fight for them.

As a Christian and an Archbishop, his practice and preaching indicated that religious and spiritual values are linked to and must inspire and contribute towards more just and humane politics, laws, policies, institutions, economics and social relationships. And that religious leaders must take clear positions on what is just and unjust and that liberation of the oppressors is only possible through the liberation of the oppressed. He worked alongside people of other churches, other faiths and people who didn’t claim allegiance to any institutional religious community to build a more just South Africa and world.

Past the age of 60, an age where many retire, he was among the black South Africans who voted for the first time to elect political leaders for their country. He remained engaged and committed to build a better future by confronting and addressing past injustices. His best known role in the secular social- political sphere was to head the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Seeking truth about the disappeared  

His compassionate and principled leadership had empowered many survivors of rights violations, families of victims, affected communities and perpetrators to come forward and tell their stories at the TRC. The process he led provided for exposing and acknowledging many bitter truths about apartheid era crimes and sufferings and discovering the fate and whereabouts of many who had forcibly disappeared. Based on the recommendation of the TRC, a Missing Persons Task Team (MPTT) was set up to continue tracing the fate of the forcibly disappeared in political circumstances. One of the most moving moments of my time in South Africa in 2013 was attending the handing over of remains and reburial according to religious and cultural traditions of disappeared persons whose graves had been found, remains exhumed, identified and handed over to relatives.


The TRC led to the provision of reparations, although this was a weak point in the follow up of the TRC. Economic justice has been too little and too slow. During my stay in 2013, I noticed that most whites lived in affluent areas while most blacks lived in poor townships. Public transport around Johannesburg was never used by whites. I also learnt that the minority white population owned most of the land. In desperation and anger, some victims had started pursuing lawsuits for reparations against multinational corporations that had conducted business with the apartheid government.

On the other hand, a form of reparations that was very striking and educative for me were monuments such as the Apartheid Museum, Hector Pieterson Museum, Regina Mundi Catholic church and Constitutional Hill, a former prison for political prisoners including Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, which had been converted to a museum and location of the highest court.

Forgiveness and criminal prosecutions 

The TRC led to both amnesty and prosecutions, and Tutu was an advocate of both. Perpetrators were encouraged to come before the TRC and make full disclosure of their involvement and knowledge of crimes and this was an essential first step towards amnesty. In April 2019, 16 years after the 2003 report of the TRC, Tutu, together with nine other former commissioners of the TRC, joined the families of the victims in voicing outrage at the delays in prosecutions for apartheid era crimes and called for an inquiry into the political interference that blocked the cases, saying “the story of post-apartheid justice in South Africa is a shameful story of terrible neglect. The families feel justifiably betrayed by South Africa’s post-apartheid state, which, to date, has turned its back on them. No expression of regret, remorse or apology has been offered by anybody in authority for the deep betrayal of victims of past atrocities. …We owe them answers and we owe them an apology.”

An unforgettable memory for me in South Africa was in 2019 when I observed the historic re-opening of the trial of Ahmed Timol, a young anti-apartheid activist killed in police custody in 1971. The family members had worked hard to overturn a 1972 apartheid era inquest that had said Timol committed suicide and a new inquest was started in 2017. A policeman was charged in 2018 and an appeal by accused was overruled in 2019 but the accused died in September 2021 before the trial could conclude.

Rights, dignity and equality beyond apartheid 

After the disposal of apartheid, Tutu had become an important advocate for many causes such as climate justice and rights and dignity of people with different sexual orientations and gender identities. Two of his famous quotes were that he wouldn’t worship a homophobic God and that he would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven and would rather go to hell. He said that he was passionate about the campaign for free and equal campaign for rights of people with different sexual orientations and gender identities, as he was about apartheid and that for him, both were equally important.

Concerns on Sri Lanka

Tutu was a strong believer in international solidarity during and after apartheid. He demanded boycotts and international pressure to end apartheid in South Africa and later on supported campaigns for rights, dignity and equality in other countries such as Palestine and Sri Lanka. Tutu’s compassionate, forthright and powerful words are likely to have contributed towards shaping and shifting world opinion towards Sri Lanka, particularly of states in Afric and Latin America, at significant moments.

In 2008, when the Sri Lankan government wanted to become a member of the UN Human Rights Council, Tutu demanded from governments across the world to prevent that, saying that Sri Lanka was disqualified as it didn’t fulfill the criteria of upholding the highest standards of human rights, citing systemic abuses by government forces such as disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture. Sri Lanka’s bid failed. In 2012, Tutu and Mary Robinson urged the member states of the UN Human Rights Council to support accountability for the terrible violations of international law in Sri Lanka, establish mechanisms to monitor progress on the steps the government was taking on accountability and if there was insufficient progress, for the Council members to support the establishment of an independent investigation. The Council passed a significant resolution supporting monitoring and reporting on Sri Lanka by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In 2014, Tutu, together with 38 others, urged the Council to establish an independent international investigation in the form of a Commission of Inquiry on Sri Lanka to put the country on the path to justice and reconciliation. Finally, the Council adopted a resolution that established an independent international investigation by the UN. The opposition from the Sri Lankan government to the two resolutions in 2012 and 2014 was only supported by 15 and 12 countries respectively of the 47 member body in contrast to 2009 where 29 of the 47 countries supported the Sri Lankan government. In 2013, when the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was scheduled in Sri Lanka, Tutu said that if the government had not been doing things with integrity, the world had to apply all the screws that it could and that a boycott of the CHOGM could be one of them. The meeting went ahead but it turned out be the CHOGM with lowest ever number of heads of governments with only 27 of the 53 of them participating.

Tutu’s concerns on Sri Lanka have ranged from rights of minorities to accountability for past crimes. On May 18, 2010, exactly a year after the end of the war in Sri Lanka, Tutu, together with Lakdhar Brahimi, wrote that “If Sri Lanka is to build a more inclusive and democratic state for all its ethnic communities, there is an urgent need for far-sighted political leadership, able to reach out to all communities and serve all its citizens. This has, so far, been lacking”. Tutu and Brahimi insisted that respect for minorities, human rights and the rule of law must become centre stage in Sri Lanka’s future, highlighting the importance of repealing state of emergency and re-establishing the Constitutional Council. They also highlighted the importance of devolution and accountability for past crimes by all parties and suggested that an independent international inquiry would be the best option. In 2012, Tutu, together with Mary Robinson, expressed concern that if nothing changed, the crimes that remain unaddressed would continue to haunt Sri Lanka’s people and could ignite violence once again. In 2014, Tutu, with 38 others,highlighted that “The biggest issue Sri Lanka faces is a systemic lack of respect for the rights of its citizens, particularly – but not exclusively – its minority citizens. This is rooted in a culture of impunity that is in turn rooted in a failure to hold to account those, on both sides, who committed some of the worst atrocities this century”. They also said that “A number of unresolved issues remain, including ongoing human rights violations, credible allegations of crimes against humanity and war crimes, and the lack of progress towards longer-term political solutions and reconciliation. Left unaddressed, these issues could lead to renewed conflict”.

Tutu as an inspiration and challenge 

Archbishop Tutu’s contribution towards a better South Africa through a progressive constitution, equal political opportunities for all, rewriting of history and changed attitudes of different communities towards each other is undisputed. He also contributed much towards people beyond South Africa, including in Sri Lanka. For us in Sri Lanka, quoting and admiring Tutu’s principles, life and work in South Africa is easier than reflecting on what he said about Sri Lanka, much of which is still valid today.

Tutu leaves behind a legacy that is easy to admire and appreciate. But the best and most difficult is to follow his examples in compassionately defying and resisting injustice, proactively standing for justice in words and deeds and being sensitive to rights and dignity of all while being rooted locally.