Life and History of Desmond Tutu For Kids

When Desmond Tutu was a child, he got sick a lot. He had a disease, called polio, that left his right hand disabled. Later, at 16, he became so ill with tuberculosis that he had to be in the hospital for months. While he was there, his priest visited him often. Desmond had become friends with Father Trevor Huddleston after joining his church, but he had first seen him many years before. 

When Desmond was a little boy, Father Huddleston was walking through Desmond’s neighborhood. This was strange in itself. At the time, blacks in South Africa were required to live only in certain areas. So white men rarely came to Desmond’s neighborhood, unless they were policemen. Father Huddleston was clearly not a policeman: He was dressed strangely, with a stiff white collar and black shirt. Stranger still was what Father Huddleston did: he stopped, tipped his hat, and said a warm “hello” to Desmond’s mother. 

For a white man to treat his mother–a black woman–with kindness and respect was truly remarkable to Desmond, even as a small child. Many white people in South Africa either ignored blacks or were rude, or even cruel to them. Later, Desmond would learn that Father Huddleston worked tirelessly to help make South Africa more fair and kind to its black citizens. But that simple hello in the street showed him that all kinds of people were capable of compassion. All kinds and colors of people were human. And that planted the seed of the idea that he would spend his life striving to make it a reality. The idea of a South Africa where all people, black and white, lived together in a peaceful “rainbow” society.

When Desmond graduated high school after his bout with tuberculosis, he studied to become a teacher. He joined the debate club at his college, where he met Nelson Mandela, a young lawyer, who would become president of South Africa decades later. After graduating, Desmond got a job as a high school English teacher. He met a friend of his sister’s, Leah, who was also studying to be a teacher. The two began dating and decided to marry in 1955.  

But as Desmond was starting out in the world, the country was going through changes that would force him to take a different path than he had planned. South Africa was about to enter a very dark period of its history. Both Desmond and Nelson Mandela would play a big part in helping the country climb out of this period. 

South Africa had long had laws that tried to keep black and white citizens separate from each other. But in 1948, the country elected a government that wanted to be much more strict about making sure these laws were followed. They created a system of laws called Apartheid. They forced blacks to live in certain, limited areas. Blacks had to get special passes if they wanted to visit a white area. They couldn’t own land. They couldn’t vote. Blacks and whites couldn’t marry each other. They couldn’t even go to the same beaches.  

As Desmond and Leah started their life together, things were getting worse. The government passed a law that forced black South Africans to go to separate schools, and then didn’t pay black teachers as much as whites. Desmond and Leah decided to quit teaching. Desmond had been volunteering in their Anglican church and decided to become a priest. Meanwhile, Leah started school to become a nurse. 

Desmond studied to become a priest in South Africa and then in London. When he and his family moved back to South Africa in 1967, he began to speak out against Apartheid, cautiously at first. He wrote about how the church should help solve issues facing blacks in South Africa and beyond. When students at a university protested policies that supported Apartheid, Desmond gently stepped past the police dogs that surrounded the protesters and began to pray with them. Desmond would become known for this warmth and gentleness when facing tense situations.

Desmond was becoming a leader in the church as he spoke out more. He became a bishop, which is a very respected leader in the church. In 1978, he became the leader of the South African Council of Churches, which worked with many different Christian churches throughout South Africa. He was the first black man to hold this influential position. He used it to spread his message even further. He shared his vision of South Africa as a rainbow nation far and wide. 

Desmond was committed to working towards this rainbow society without violence, and even with gentleness and humor. He went to protest marches and committed civil disobedience, such as visiting beaches that were supposed to be whites-only. Civil disobedience is when you protest an unfair law by breaking that law, but in a peaceful way, which could still get you in trouble. And Desmond and other protesters DID get in trouble: Desmond was arrested and fined, and the authorities were violent with many others. 

Desmond also visited other countries, trying to get people around the world to care about the situation in South Africa. He met the Pope and the leader of the United Nations. He even asked leaders of other countries to boycott, or refuse to buy things, from South Africa. When he returned to the country after a speaking tour, the government took away his passport, which meant he couldn’t leave the country. They gave it back a year later, but this would happen a few more times as he traveled the world to speak out against Apartheid. Still, Desmond knew that if the leaders of other countries didn’t put pressure on South Africa’s government, it would be very hard to change things.  

Then, in 1984, Desmond won the Nobel Peace Prize. He gave a speech to accept the prize. In it, he told how Apartheid had caused people to mistrust and hate each other. He told how the police used violence against everyday people and peaceful protesters. He told how South Africa was a beautiful country of rolling mountains and sunshine, where people just wanted to live in peace with their families. He told how Apartheid had made that impossible for blacks and even many whites. 

Many people around the world learned from news coverage what Apartheid was really like for the first time. Governments finally decided to sanction South Africa, meaning they made laws that made it harder for South Africa to buy or sell things to other countries. 

Meanwhile, Desmond returned to South Africa, where he continued to speak and march against Apartheid. The government was starting to listen. Desmond and other activists met with the president of South Africa, Pieter Botha. But he still wasn’t willing to make many changes. 

But Desmond’s influence was growing. People loved to be around this warm, joyful man, who made everyone feel valuable and loved. In 1986, the church made Desmond archbishop of Cape Town. As the archbishop, he got to move into a big, beautiful house set aside for him. This angered the government because the house was in a whites-only area. But Desmond used his superpower and turned a tense situation into an opportunity to show kindness. He had a playground built on the lawn, and let anyone come to play or swim in his pool.

Finally, things began to change. In 1990, a new president was elected. F.W. de Klerk showed signs that he would be willing to end apartheid. He freed Nelson Mandela from prison after nearly thirty years and refused to punish peaceful protesters. After long talks with Mandela, Tutu, and others in the anti-apartheid movement, de Klerk agreed to put an end to Apartheid. 

In the next election, all South Africans were allowed to vote. Black South Africans, voting for the first time, lined up for hours to cast their ballot. Desmond dropped his vote into the ballot box in front of cheering supporters, then jumped up and down, saying he felt two inches taller than when he came in. He said a new South Africa began that day, “where all of us, black and white, will be holding hands and working for a common prosperity.”  Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa. Today, South Africans commemorate this election every April 27th as Freedom Day. 

But the story didn’t end there. South African society still had a lot of work to do if all people were going to live in peace together. Think of a time when you had a big argument with a sister, brother, or friend. A time when you hurt each other’s feelings. It probably took some time to feel better and learn to be friends again. The whole country of South Africa felt this way. It would take time and work to help everyone feel like they could live and work peacefully together. Apartheid had been in place for more than 50 years. Many black people didn’t trust whites because of how badly they’d been treated. Many white people were afraid that the new government, led by a black man, might treat them just as badly in return. 

But Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu came up with a better plan. They formed a group, which Desmond led, called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They would help South Africans talk to each other. People who had been hurt by the old system would get to tell their stories. And so would people who had hurt others. They would be honest. They would listen to each other. Finally, they would be able to forgive each other.  

As Desmond put it, “I am human because you are human. My humanity is caught up in yours.” It’s important to remember when we’re angry with someone, they are still a person, just like us. We have to live with other people. Saying I’m sorry is one of the hardest things you ever have to do if you mean it. And waiting for someone to say they’re sorry to you is just as hard. But things start to get better right afterward.