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Desmond Tutu waves during a speech against apartheid, to a crowd of demonstrators, on Jan. 8, 1986, outside the South African Embassy in Washington.Dennis Cook/The Associated Press

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the liberation movement leader who rallied South Africa and the world to defeat apartheid and then persisted as a fighter for moral justice to the end of his life, has died from cancer in Cape Town at the age of 90.

Millions of South Africans on Sunday mourned the loss of the last remaining giant of the anti-apartheid movement. He was South Africa’s last living Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and the last icon of an era when moral courage and sacrifice helped to topple white-minority rule.

Born to a teacher and a domestic worker in a Transvaal mining town, Desmond Tutu was a survivor of polio and tuberculosis as a child. He rose to become an Anglican bishop and a charismatic leader of the South African liberation struggle in the 1970s and 1980s, when Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid figures were in prison.

As the leader of countless marches and demonstrations against South Africa’s regime, he suffered volleys of tear gas, arrest by the police and confiscation of his passport. But he refused to back down from his calls for non-violent resistance. He pushed Canada and other countries to seek sanctions against the apartheid regime, one of the key historic steps in ending it.

In February, 1990, he stood on a city hall balcony in Cape Town with Mr. Mandela, who gave his first speech after 27 years in prison.

As apartheid died in the early 1990s, Archbishop Tutu dared to dream of an ethnically diverse “rainbow nation” – a term he famously coined – that would emerge from the ashes to inspire the world to greatness. Even when this dream was later tainted by the corruption and greed of many politicians in South Africa’s democratic era, he endured as the moral conscience of his country and the world, refusing to remain silent on injustices anywhere. “I wish I could shut up, but I can’t and I won’t,” he said in 2007.

Diminutive and owlish in appearance, he charmed the world and disarmed his enemies with mischievous humour, an infectious giggle and a biting wit. He had a habit of rousing crowds at lengthy funerals by urging them to dance. “Be nice to whites,” he told an audience in 1984. “They need you to rediscover their humanity.”

In the late 1990s, in an ambitious attempt to heal the country’s deep racial wounds, he became the chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, documenting the crimes of apartheid in a marathon series of public hearings. He presided over the hearings with emotion and empathy, inspiring similar truth and reconciliation commissions in Canada and elsewhere. “We have looked the beast in the eye,” he said as he presented his commission’s five-volume report in 1998.

City of Cape Town marshalls prepare flowers on Dec. 26, 2021, beneath a picture of the late South African Nobel Peace Price Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the wake of his death outside St. George's Cathedral in Cape Town.AFP Contributor#AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Later, when it became clear that South Africa’s African National Congress government was reluctant to prosecute hundreds of the apartheid crimes the commission had documented, he spoke out tirelessly for justice for the victims, renewing the call repeatedly in recent years.

In the final decades of his life, Archbishop Tutu – who became Archbishop Emeritus of the Anglican Church after his retirement – continued to campaign for global causes. He spoke out against homophobia, climate change, environmental destruction, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the oppression of persecuted peoples in places such as Tibet, Myanmar and the Palestinian territories. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” he once said.

Archbishop Tutu was unwilling to stay silent when the ruling African National Congress drifted into corruption and cronyism, especially during the presidency of Jacob Zuma from 2009 to 2018. This made the archbishop increasingly a hate figure for Mr. Zuma’s acolytes, who remain a powerful minority in the party today. In 2013, the Zuma government barred Archbishop Tutu from speaking at Mr. Mandela’s funeral – a snub that wounded him deeply, he later admitted.

Even after the news of his death on Sunday, some Zuma supporters continued to denounce him bitterly – including one of Mr. Zuma’s daughters, Dudu Zuma-Sambudla, who retweeted a comment by a South African who called Archbishop Tutu “an evil man.” It was a revealing sign of the feuding and factionalism that have badly damaged South Africa and the struggle for justice in recent years.

But despite the insults hurled by the Zuma faction, there was an outpouring of grief and tributes from most leaders in the country and around the world.

“The passing of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement on Sunday.

“Desmond Tutu was a patriot without equal; a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead. A man of extraordinary intellect, integrity and invincibility against the forces of apartheid, he was also tender and vulnerable in his compassion for those who had suffered oppression, injustice and violence under apartheid, and oppressed and downtrodden people around the world.”

The Canadian High Commission in South Africa joined in the tributes, recalling how Archbishop Tutu met with Canada’s then prime minister, Brian Mulroney, in 1984 after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. The meeting was later described as a turning point in the international response to apartheid, leading to tougher sanctions against the regime, the High Commission said in a tweet on Sunday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the death of Archbishop Tutu was an “incredible” loss to the world. He was “a voice for the oppressed and a tireless advocate for human rights – and the world is a better place because he was in it,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Economic justice for Canada’s Indigenous people was one of the causes Archbishop Tutu embraced. In 1990, he visited the remote community of Osnaburgh, part of the Mishkeegogamang Ojibway First Nation in northwestern Ontario. He said he was deeply distressed to witness its poverty and unemployment, and the loss of its land to hydro dams and flooding. Pledging to take its cause to the Canadian government, and comparing its plight to the extreme inequality of apartheid South Africa, he led the Ojibway people in an inspirational chant: “We will be free.”

Many other global leaders mourned his death. U.S. President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, said they were heartbroken. “Desmond Tutu followed his spiritual calling to create a better, freer and more equal world,” they said in a statement.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called Archbishop Tutu “an unwavering voice for the voiceless” and “a towering global figure for peace.”

But it was in South Africa where his death was most keenly felt. On Sunday night, Mr. Ramaphosa gave a televised speech to the country to pay tribute to Archbishop Tutu, praising him for “speaking truth to power” even when it meant criticizing the postapartheid government. He announced that South African flags will fly at half-mast during a period of mourning after the funeral details are formally declared.

“If we truly wish to honour his memory, let us reaffirm, through our actions, his conviction that it is only through justice that we may attain peace,” Mr. Ramaphosa said in his speech.

Mourners flocked to St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, the Anglican church most closely associated with Archbishop Tutu for decades, to pay their respects and leave flowers for him on Sunday.

The City of Cape Town announced a seven-day period of mourning, during which it will light up its city hall and Table Mountain every night in purple, the colour of the archbishop’s clerical robes.

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