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Remembering Archbishop Desmond Tutu

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu's passing moved the world. Here, we compile a selection of tributes from his friends, colleagues and those inspired by his leadership.

On 26 December, we learned with deep sadness of the death of one of our founding members and beloved friend, Desmond Tutu. 

View our Desmond Tutu image gallery and watch the tribute video below.

In our statement at his time of passing, Mary Robinson, Chair of The Elders, said:

“We are all devastated at the loss of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Elders would not be who they are today without his passion, commitment and keen moral compass. He inspired me to be a ‘prisoner of hope’, in his inimitable phrase. Arch was respected around the world for his dedication to justice, equality and freedom. Today we mourn his death but affirm our determination to keep his beliefs alive.”

Watch Mary's video tribute.

Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson in South Sudan, 2012.
Photo: Adriane Ohanesian

Deputy Chair of The Elders Graça Machel said:

“I find myself profoundly saddened by the departure of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and simultaneously in celebration of his rich legacy. Amid these mixed emotions, I mourn the loss of a brother, my loyal friend and my spiritual leader.

Fighting for freedom from the trenches of South Africa required courage that cannot be described. Day by day, minute by minute, every step he took he was shaping the course of history. Every sentence he spoke impacted the lives of millions, and both unified and empowered those in the noble struggle against Apartheid.

How momentous a weight this must have been to shoulder. Arch created a moral space to confront both the oppressors and the victims and recognised that freedom had to be enjoyed alongside the respect for human rights. From the time of Apartheid until the end of his life, Arch’s leadership in the pursuit of justice has been unparalleled. I especially hold dear the instrumental role he played in the leadership of “The Elders”. At Madiba’s request, he accepted to Chair “The Elders” and led the organisation in our work to advance equality, justice and freedom globally.

I have come to revere Arch’s leadership. Having experienced it at a public and private level, I am overwhelmed by the void this departure and closure of this chapter leaves in our society and in the world.”

Read more of Graça Machel's reflections and watch her tribute video below.


Elder Emeritus Jimmy Carter shared this message:

“Rosalynn and I join the world in mourning the loss of our friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu. No words better exemplify his ministry than the three he contributed to a work of art at The Carter Center: love, freedom, and compassion. He lived his values in the long struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, in his leadership of the national campaign for truth and reconciliation, and in his role as a global citizen. His warmth and compassion offered us a spiritual message that is eternal. We send our condolences to Leah, his family, and to all who loved him.” 

Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter dicussing the formation of The Elders in 2007.Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter discussing the formation of The Elders in 2007.

Elder Emeritus Ela Bhatt paid tribute:

“With Archbishop Tutu's passing, the world has lost a true Gandhian fighter. Truth, reconciliation, and open dialogue were his weapons, which he wielded with love in his heart. He treated friend and foe alike, disarming each with his humour, empathy, and undivided attention.  It was an honour to work with him on peace building in Palestine, and Darfur. He sat in the dark with those who were suffering, and shared his light with them. He echoed my refrain of bringing women into all aspects of decision making, and championed the cause of the common people at every turn. He joked, and teased, and lightened the spirits of everyone he encountered. Despite his passing, I can still hear his childlike laughter.”

Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Ela Bhatt, The Elders

Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Ela Bhatt in New Delhi, 2012.
Photo: Tom Pietrasik

Gro Harlem Bruntland shared this memory of the first time she met Desmond Tutu:

“While sadness and a deep sense of loss dominates my feelings on this day, it illustrates how Arch touched all he met that it is his wonderful smile, his special laughter and the blink in his eyes, that dominates my memories of Desmond Tutu. 

I will never forget when we first met, as he received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1984. 

As former Prime Minister, and leader of the Labour Party, a key supporter of the anti-apartheid movement, I had the great privilege to meet him also in a personal capacity. 

On the broad stairs In front of the Oslo University Aula, after the ceremonies, we held hands, joined by a large number of enthusiastic followers, singing “We shall overcome”. 

As the call came, in 2007, to join the Elders, long lines of shared values, for a better and more inclusive world, with Madiba and Arch, came together in a renewed effort to pursue peace and human rights. 

I will forever be thankful for the bright shining light of determined commitment that Arch has meant in my own life, and for millions of others.” 

On Twitter Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Juan Manuel Santos joined their fellow Elders in responding:

Launch of Elders Desmond Tutu speaks at the launch of The Elders in 2007.


Elder Emeritus Fernando Henrique Cardoso remembers Arch's wisdom:

“The passing away of Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a moment of loss and sorrow in South Africa and throughout the world. I had the privilege to be with Arch in different occasions, in South Africa and in Brazil. He had a unique gift to combine wisdom with courage, hope with empathy, truth and justice with peace and reconciliation. His unyielding commitment to freedom and human dignity is an imperishable heritage which will outlast our time.” 

Nane Annan shared with love and sorrow Kofi Annan’s tribute to Arch at the Annual Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture in 2013:

“Desmond has always found the courage no matter how uncomfortable or dangerous, to speak truth to power. By giving voice to the excluded and persecuted, he has become  a symbol for justice and reconciliation. He reminds us of our common humanity and spirituality. As a fellow member of the Elders, I have seen first-hand how his mischievous personality, good humour and optimism inspire hope and change.” 

Desmond Tutu The EldersDesmond Tutu taking part in the 2009 Elders Board Meeting in Morocco.
Photo: Jeff Moore

Lakhdar Brahimi remembers Arch's compassion:

“Arch spoke truth to power under all circumstances and everywhere: to the Government in South Africa under apartheid and under the the ANC after Mandela. But also to a crowd when, during Mandela’s funeral, the crowd was disrespectful to President Zuma, although he had criticized  Zuma on more than one occasion. And he criticized President Bashir of Sudan to his face and Israeli Governments in Tel Aviv, in South Africa and elsewhere.

It is as a member of The Elders that I saw more of Arch and came to appreciate the huge importance of the man and his message in South Africa, for our continent and for the world.

Board meeting after Board meeting, visit after visit, it was a great joy to watch Arch perform – learn from his experience, admire his compassion, his intolerance of injustice suffered by others, his unlimited patience when listening to others, his unique sense of humour and his infectious laughter. He, better than anyone, made me understand the simple but deep meaning of Ubuntu: “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together”.”

Lakhdar Brahimi and Desmond Tutu The Elders
Lakhdar Brahimi and Desmond Tutu in Cyprus, 2008.
Photo: David Hands


The Elders' Advisory Council, on whose support and advice we depend, paid tribute.

Sir Richard Branson said:

“He was a tireless campaigner for justice, an unwavering champion of human rights and was never afraid to speak truth to power. Through a message of optimism, hope and love, he showed South Africa and the world how to set aside what divides, learn from the past and join together to build a better future.” 

Read more of Richard Branson's reflections.

Peter Gabriel said:

"When Richard Branson and I first began discussing the idea of a group of independent global elders with Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel, Mandela made clear that he would found and launch it, but needed someone else to lead it. The person he asked was his old friend Tutu.

With Mandela, Tutu and then Kofi Annan on board we had the foundation to bring this dream to life. Soon we had a really inspiring group who had all said yes to Mandela and we could not have imagined a better chair than the Arch.

He was never blind to suffering and his heart seemed big enough to hold the world. From the outset he taught us the Zulu concept of Ubuntu, by which he lived – you exist in relation to others, in how you connect with and respond to others.

There was no doubt that his most important human connection was his 66-year marriage to his fellow activist and campaigner Leah. The warmth and generosity of their love was an inspiration to all of us who spent time with them.”

Read more of Peter Gabriel's reflections.

Jean Oelwang said:

“Arch embodied what it is to live a meaningful life, to be the greatest human being you can be – by being in service to others.

At the heart of this incredible life was his partnership with Leah. She was not just by his side; she was his side.

Arch and Leah’s deep connection lifted humanity and helped love The Elders - and all of us - into being.”

Jean said more in the tribute video below:

Mabel van Oranje said:

“I am heartbroken by the death of my dear friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I got to know him, and I had the honour and pleasure of working with him when he was Chair of The Elders and I was their first CEO. Arch was always willing to stand up for those who were unheard.” 

Read more of Mabel van Oranje's response.


Desmond Tutu The Elders

Archbishop Desmond Tutu with The Elders in Cape Town, 2013.
Photo: Jeff Moore


Randy Newcomb said:

“Our hearts are extraordinarily heavy with sadness with the recent loss of Archbishop Tutu.  A champion of justice and mercy, the Arch’s life represented a vision of a kinder, more joyous, and better world for all. He taught us the indispensable meaning of Ubuntu, “I am, because you are”. This sense of shared humanity has come to animate so much of what we hope for and aspire to in the world.

We will desperately miss his wisdom, his infectious laughter, and his kindness to all no matter their station in life. While we have lost a dear friend and a brother, our hearts are lifted knowing that the Arch has inspired thousands upon thousands to follow in his footsteps by living a life defined by Ubuntu.”

Our generous supporters at the Dutch Postcode Lottery said:

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and are sending our heartfelt condolences to all who have been touched by this loss. It is with deep respect that we bid farewell to the man whose integrity, compassion and moral leadership have been crucial to a more just and equal world. 

We are very honoured and grateful that Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been international ambassador for the Postcode Lotteries since 2012. His inspiration and wisdom will continue to guide us in our worldwide work to support organisations working towards a better world.”  

Don Gips said:

“I am deeply saddened by the news of the passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Arch was a happy warrior who fought against injustice in all forms and will be sorely missed. Despite this tragic loss, he would encourage us to keep his light shining by committing to joyously continuing the fight for a fairer and more just society.”  

Shannon Sedgwick Davis shared this memory:

“On an Elders trip to Darfur in 2007, one blisteringly hot afternoon in the camps when I was particularly struggling against despair, Arch stepped into a throng of refugees and started to dance. His bald head, his white collar, his beaming face flashed in the dusty crowd of people who didn’t know when they would get their next meal, who didn’t know if their children would live through the night, who broke into laughter when they saw him, who joined him in song. 

How did he do it? How did he bring joy to such deadly and devastating circumstances? How did he find happiness amidst such staggering sadness? 

He said, “Sister Shannon, it’s not that I’m not sad. It’s that I choose joy. Even when we’re crying—especially when we’re crying—we have to work to find joy in the world.” 

Thank you dearest Arch for teaching me so well. I’m forever changed and grateful.”  

Desmond Tutu The Elders in Sudan

In 2007 Desmond Tutu and Lakhdar Brahimi meet young Darfuris during their visit to Otash, a camp for internally displaced people in Nyala, Darfur.

Dr Lulit Solomon said:

“Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s faith gave him the courage to confront challenges head-on in the pursuit of peace, justice and a better world for everyone.

His boundless good humour, empathy, and compassion are an inspiration to all of us, and a reminder of the necessary tools for moral leadership in the world today.

His beaming smile shall never dim. He is with his God now.”  

Rest in peace Arch." 

Sally Osberg remembers Arch's all-encompassing love:

“Of the many vivid memories I have of Archbishop Tutu, two stand out.

The first is of Arch on the stage of Oxford’s New Theatre,  grand in his Archbishop’s purple and black,  arms stretched out to embrace the audience with his message that human beings are “made for goodness.”

The occasion was special. Arch was  being honored by the Skoll Foundation’s founder and chair Jeff Skoll with our inaugural Skoll Global Treasure Award.

To make what was already a brilliant occasion even more memorable, Peter Gabriel joined us to celebrate his beloved friend “The Arch” by singing for him. Now imagine Arch, Jeff Skoll, and the entire gathering of more than 1,000 people on their feet and swaying to “Biko,” Peter’s immortal tribute to Bantu Stephen Biko, the South African activist who gave his life to the fight against apartheid. I can still see the Arch dancing… Here was a man who truly stepped to the beat of his own drummer, and did so with irrepressible faith and an all-encompassing love.

The second memory is just as meaningful, but took place not on a stage but on the walks Jeff and I took with Arch to our various destinations in Oxford—walks along back streets and alleys and  through kitchen corridors. With every step, the Arch acknowledged everyone, people too often invisible: servers and cooks, loiterers and stage hands, smokers and vagrants. And to a man and woman, all raised their eyes to connect with this man walking among them, sensing his grace even if they didn’t recognise him, this man who greeted them as  brothers and sisters.

Jeff and I will be forever grateful to have come to know Arch through the Elders. We mourn the loss of a human-being who wore his greatness lightly, who made us laugh and weep, and who summoned us all to continue fighting the good fight.”  

The Elders: Skoll Foundation and Desmond Tutu

L-R: Peter Gabriel, Jeff Skoll, Desmond Tutu and Sally Osberg.

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