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Desmond Tutu, exuberant apostle of racial justice in South Africa, dies at 90

“If you do this again,” he scolded a crowd in nearby KwaThema after the murder of another alleged informer, “I will find it difficult to speak out for our liberation. We must be able, at the end of the day, to walk with our heads held high. Freedom must come, but freedom must come in the right way.”

Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s ebullient apostle of racial justice and reconciliation who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his struggle against the system of white domination known as apartheid, died Dec. 26 in Cape Town, South Africa. He was 90.

The cause of death was complications from cancer, according to Roger Friedman, spokesman for the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Intellectual Property Trust. Archbishop Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997, and he was hospitalized on several occasions in recent years to treat infections associated with his cancer treatment.

A small, effervescent man with a crooked nose and infectious toothy grin, Archbishop Tutu served as Black South Africa’s informal ambassador to the world during the dark days of repression and as a crucial voice in the campaign for racial equality that culminated with Nelson Mandela’s election as the country’s first Black president in 1994. Throughout the struggle, he preached nonviolence even while denouncing apartheid as “an evil system.”

After the fall of apartheid, Archbishop Tutu chaired the controversial Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought with mixed success to heal the wounds of the apartheid era. He went on to become an international spokesman and campaigner for human rights around the world.

Archbishop Tutu explained his devotion to social justice in religious terms, saying his Christian faith demanded that he speak out for the underdog and the oppressed. He also believed that South Africa, with its unique combination of the developed and developing worlds, was a “rainbow nation” and microcosm of global issues, including race and poverty. “Once we have got it right,” he said, “South Africa will be the paradigm for the rest of the world.”

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