Modest requiem for a titan: South Africa set for Tutu farewell

·3-min read

South Africa started bidding farewell on Saturday to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the last great hero in its struggle against apartheid, in a funeral stripped of pomp but freighted with tears and drenched in rain.

It started with a hymn and a procession of clerics down the aisle burning incense and carrying candles in the church where Tutu will also be buried.

Tutu died last Sunday at the age of 90, triggering grief among South Africans and tributes from world leaders for a life spent fighting injustice.

Famous for his modesty, Tutu gave instructions for a simple, no-frills ceremony, with a cheap coffin, donations for charity instead of floral tributes and an eco-friendly cremation.

The requiem mass started at 10 am (0800 GMT) at Cape Town's St. George's Cathedral where, for years, Tutu used the pulpit to rail against a brutal white minority regime. That is where he will be buried.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who will deliver the eulogy, accorded Tutu a special category funeral, usually designated for presidents and very important people.

He will also hand South Africa's multicoloured flag to Tutu's widow, Leah -- a reminder of her husband's description of the post-apartheid country as the "Rainbow Nation".

South Africa has been marking a week of mourning, culminating with two days of lying in state.

Several thousand people, some of whom had travelled across the country, filed past a diminutive rope-handled casket made of pine, adorned simply by a bunch of carnations.

Under a grey sky and drizzle, mourners were ushered into the cathedral. Rains, according to historian Khaya Ndwandwe "are a blessing" and shows that Tutu's "soul is welcome" to heaven.

Mourners included close friends and family, clergy and a guests, including former Irish president Mary Robinson, who is to read a prayer.

Others mourners were Elita, the widow of the last apartheid leader FW de Klerk, who died in November.

Conspicously absent from the funeral is one of Tutu's best friends, the Dalai Lama. He failed to travel due to advanced age and Covid restrictions, his representative Ngodup Dorjee, told AFP outside the church.

Tutu's longtime friend, retired bishop Michael Nuttall, who was Anglican Church dean when Tutu was the archbishop of Cape Town, will deliver the sermon.

The two forged a strong relationship, illustrating for many how a white leader could work for a black leader. Nuttall went on write a memoir titled "Tutu's Number Two" about their friendship.

- Fighter -

Under apartheid, South Africa's white minority cemented its grip with a panoply of laws based on the notion of race and racial segregation, and the police ruthlessly hunted down opponents, killing or jailing them.

With Nelson Mandela and other leaders sentenced to decades in prison, Tutu in the 1970s became the emblem of the struggle.

The purple-gowned figure campaigned relentlessly abroad, administering public lashings to the United States, Britain and Germany and other countries for failing to slap sanctions on the apartheid regime.

At home, from his pulpit, he slammed police violence against blacks, including the gunning down of school students during the 1976 Soweto uprising. Only his robes saved him from prison.

Cabinet minister and anti-apartheid activist Patricia De Lille recalled the many protest marches Tutu led.

His presence, she said, was like an invisible shield and police would not shoot or fire teargas "because they were afraid of him," she said.

- Humour -

After apartheid was dismantled and South Africa ushered in its first free elections in 1994, Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which exposed the horrors of the past in grim detail.

He would later speak out fearlessly against the ruling African National Congress (ANC) for corruption and leadership incompetence.

Tutu's moral firmness and passion went hand-in-hand with self-deprecatory humour and a famously cackling laugh.

For his funeral, Tutu picked as a guiding quote the scripture from the New Testament's Gospel of St. John where Jesus addresses his disciples after their last supper.

It reads: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."

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