A letter to young people after the death of Archbishop-emeritus Desmond Tutu

It has only been a few days since the funeral service of the Arch, but I feel it necessary to write to young people in South Africa, the rest of the continent and across the globe, about the Arch and the need to learn from him and to preserve or continue his rich legacy. He started out in a very poor township in South Africa and, with the support of others, became a world-renowned leader. If he could do it, any child who longs to do it, who nurtures certain values and disciplines and work hard, can also do it.


Most of you to whom this letter is directed were only born when apartheid came to an end in South Africa, so the first recollection you may have of him was when he was chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the mid1990s. By that time, he was already very active and known in South Africa for at least 20 years, since the mid70s and had actually won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, the second South African to do so after Chief Albert Luthuli won it in 1960. The Nobel Prize not only gave him local prestige, but gave him a global platform from which he could express his views. Two years after that, he became the Archbishop of Cape Town and this gave him an even greater global and also an institutional platform. It is important to know that he was not only an individual with a unique message, but he was part of a collective, in this case the global church, and he was supported by this body.

The Arch actually wrote a letter to the apartheid Prime Minister in the early 70s to warn him that a crisis may soon erupt amongst the students, and it did. On June 16, 1976 (what we today celebrate as Youth Day), students in Soweto and in other parts of South Africa took to the streets to protest Bantu Education and particularly the enforcement of the Afrikaans language in black schools.  

Nowadays, we talk about the Arch as having been a prophet. A prophet is not only someone who can foresee and foretell things, a prophet is also someone who “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable”. This is what he did consistently, and as he did it, he grew in wisdom and stature.


Before he was a priest, he was a teacher so he took a keen interest in what was happening in the schools and in the profession that he and his wife Leah had left behind because of something called “Bantu Education”. His mentor at the time, Fr Trevor Huddlestone, had also written and spoken and warned about this policy of under-educating young black people, of giving them an inferior education and what the end result of this could be. As we reflect on this today, we need to also ask about the state of education in South Africa today, and what the end result of this might be now. Education should not only be about acquiring information and knowledge: it should also be about acquiring wisdom and real practical skills which can be used to navigate your place in the world and build real community.

As a young man, the Arch struggled with his health and almost died. Fr Huddlestone visited him in the TB hospital for many months and kept on encouraging him. He even gave the young Desmond a manuscript of his book to read. Imagine that, a teenager being given a manuscript of a book that will soon be published! This pastoral support and the medical support he received probably saved his life. Some of his friends, when they heard that he was about to leave the teaching profession and become a priest, questioned his choice and thought he would make a great English professor. They could see his skill at that time already and his vocabulary must have impressed them considerably. When he started writing sermons as a priest, he would use English words and expressions that his congregation probably struggled with, so Church became an educational place besides being a place of faith and spirituality.


His first desire was to become a medical doctor; because his parents lacked the funding he needed for that, he became a teacher and only then he became a priest! Many of you reading this letter might also be wondering what you should do with your life: there is nothing wrong with experimenting in different professions until you find your real calling, your real vocation, whatever that might be.


Someone once said to me: “Join the church and see the world”. This has certainly been my experience. In the case of the Arch, soon after he was ordained, Fr Huddlestone arranged for him to study at Kings College in London. This catapulted him into a society that was very different from apartheid South Africa and from there he could travel Europe and the rest of Africa. He did this for most of the 1960s and returned to South Africa as a theological lecturer and then became the first black Dean of the Anglican Cathedral of Johannesburg. This was a very high profile position in the most important City in South Africa. Some of the wealthiest families in the country (eg the Oppenheimers) would be members of his congregation so he could have express his views to them, test it and gain their support.  


One of the lessons one can learn from his life is that it is important to have a strong support group around you. The Arch was particularly fortunate to have a religious community as support when he was still young. For the rest of his life, he asked religious communities across the globe to pray for him. You can do the same: ask people to pray for you.

It is important to build this support network and to nurture it. Without a support network, it is very difficult to move forward in life. I know of young people who would have given up on their dream of studying if it had not been for support given to them by people who were knowledgeable and connected to others. The investment in a couple such as Desmond and Leah Tutu was not an individual investment, but the investment in good leadership for a people that needed to be encouraged. Such leaders learn to also connect with and support other leaders, and this happened when Desmond Tutu supported the students who were being led by Steve Biko. Barney Pityana and Mamphele Ramphele tell of how this young priest supported them when the police mishandled him. Tutu stood in solidarity with the students in the post 1976 era and earned their respect. By the time Biko was killed, it was Desmond Tutu who was asked to preach at his funeral service. The hand-written sermon for this funeral is now publicly available at the Tutu headquarters in Buitenkant Street in Cape Town.


Here is an important lesson: keep a record of your reflections. Nowadays not many people would write down what they think, but they often type on their phones. Find a way to save and keep this in a safe space, even if it is only to write a memoir one day or even if it is just for your family to read it one day. Some people do this through their diaries, others do this through other writings. The more you can reflect on your day or week and write it down and keep it, the better.


It was ultimately the Arch’s spirituality, a daily discipline that he nurtured, that carried him for many years. He had a discipline of at least 5 hours of silence per day. He would wake up by 4h30 and retire soon after 9pm. He also rested after lunch. He was very transparent, even luminous, about his prayer discipline and world leaders knew that when the Arch was at prayer, no-one could disturb him.  Nelson Mandela was also put through 27 years in single cell, so even though he would not have spoken about himself as very religious or spiritual, he actually was as he spent many hours writing and reflecting. We can learn from these two great men as we face new challenges of economic inequality, climate injustice, patriarchy and other forms of violence in our world today. We can all become prophets of peace and justice if we learnt from men and women such a Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and many others.

The Arch would say: “Do your little bit of good wherever you are. It’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world”.

He also told a group of young people that I accompanied: “Go make life beautiful … especially for the poor”. May we heed these words and follow his example.

Rev. Edwin Arrison on 6 January 2022, the Feast of the Epiphany.

Go make life beautiful… especially for the poor.”

— Desmond Tutu


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