Skip to main content

A woman carries a flower bouquet past a portrait of South African anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu, outside the St George's Cathedral, in Cape Town, on Dec. 31.MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

South Africans of all walks of life are paying their respects to Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Anglican archbishop whose plain pine casket is on view Friday in St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Cape Town.

“He was a moral giant. He was a moral and spiritual giant loved and revered for fighting for equality for all people,” said Rev. Michael Lapsley, on the steps of the historic stone cathedral after Mr. Tutu’s coffin was carried in amid music, incense and prayers.

Anglican clergy – women and men, Black and white, young and old – lined the street to honour the cortège carrying Mr. Tutu’s body to the church. Members of the Tutu family accompanied the casket into the cathedral.

People began filing through the lofty cathedral to light candles and view the small, simple coffin with rope handles which Mr. Tutu had said he wanted to avoid any ostentation or lavish expenditure. Many sat in the pews to pray and reflect on Mr. Tutu’s life.

More than 2,000 people visited the cathedral on the first day of viewing on Thursday. A requiem mass for Mr. Tutu will be held on New Year’s Day before he is cremated and his remains placed in a columbarium in the cathedral.

“His work did not stop with the end of apartheid,” Rev. Lapsley said, in reference to South Africa’s regime of racial oppression which Mr. Tutu prominently opposed and which ended in 1994 when South Africa held democratic elections.

“Archbishop Tutu bravely championed the equality of all people. He transformed the church by bringing women into the clergy. He championed the LGBTQ community for whom he is a hero all over the world,” said Rev. Lapsley, Canon of Healing at the cathedral.

An anti-apartheid activist priest whose hands and one eye were blown off by a letter bomb sent by South African agents in 1994, Rev. Lapsley said Mr. Tutu helped him find reconciliation and a new role in the church.

One of the first women priests ordained by Mr. Tutu, Rev. Wilma Jakobsen, said he radically changed South Africa’s Anglican church.

“The face of the church has changed. It has women priests and women in positions of leadership. It has people of all colours. Our church welcomes LGBTQ people. That’s all thanks to the leadership of Archbishop Tutu,” said Rev. Jakobsen, who served as Mr. Tutu’s personal chaplain when he was archbishop.

At the height of apartheid, Mr. Tutu mixed all races in the church, Rev. Jakobsen said.

“I was intentionally placed in Mitchells Plain and other white priests were intentionally put in Black communities. And Black priests were intentionally placed in white communities,” Rev. Jakobsen said. “Archbishop Tutu did not wait for approval to do that, he just did it. It was a direct challenge to the apartheid regime.”

After the viewing Friday, Mr. Tutu’s body will remain alone in the cathedral, “a place that he loved,” according to a statement from Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba.

The cathedral, the Anglican church’s oldest in southern Africa, dating back to 1847, shows the changes encouraged by Mr. Tutu. The Crypt Memory and Witness Center has public education programs to encourage healing and social justice.

The graceful stone structure built by British colonialists beneath Cape Town’s soaring Table Mountain was converted by Mr. Tutu into a centre of anti-apartheid activity. When the apartheid regime banned political gatherings, Mr. Tutu held meetings in the cathedral where participants bowed their heads ostensibly in prayer and heard political speeches. Nelson Mandela called it the “People’s Cathedral.”

With her gray hair pulled back in a ponytail tinged with purple, and wearing a brightly coloured rainbow mask,” Rev. Maria Claassen said she was paying homage to Mr. Tutu.

“He was a very humble man but to sit in the same room with him, you could feel the strength of his presence, of his convictions,” said Rev. Claassen, an Anglican priest in Cape Town’s Durbanville area. “He inspired us and now we celebrate his life.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.