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Remembering the legacy of Archbishop Desmond Tutu


Archbishop Desmond Tutu died today in Cape Town, South Africa. He was 90 years old. Tutu was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and had been hospitalized several times in recent years. The Nobel Peace Prize-winner was a human rights activist and champion of social justice. He was also known for his jovial spirit and distinctive laugh. To hear more about Tutu's death and what it means, we called journalist Kate Bartlett. She joins us today from Cape Town, South Africa.

Kate, thanks so much for joining us.

KATE BARTLETT: Thanks for having me.

NADWORNY: So, Kate, can you tell us a bit about Desmond Tutu's life and legacy? What has he meant to the people of South Africa and to the fight for social justice more broadly?

BARTLETT: Desmond Tutu is an icon in South Africa, much like Nelson Mandela was before him. And they're often mentioned in the same breath. And he's just an absolute hero here and also for many around the world. And during the apartheid years, he was instrumental in campaigns of civil disobedience. He endorsed the economic boycott of the apartheid regime. He spoke out against white minority rule here in South Africa. And for this, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. So he was a thorn in the side of the apartheid government for many years.

But interestingly, after the advent of democracy in South Africa, Tutu kept up his criticism wherever he found fault with politicians or wherever he saw injustice, especially in recent years.

NADWORNY: I understand you spent the day interviewing South Africans around Cape Town about Archbishop Desmond Tutu and how they're feeling. What were some of the sentiments expressed?

BARTLETT: People were generally very sad, if not surprised at the archbishop's passing. But coming so soon after Christmas, people were very saddened and basically just said he was a giant of human rights for South Africa and the world who would be greatly missed. I spoke to a 44-year-old project manager who had come with his wife to place some pink flowers at the cathedral. And while we were speaking, he just broke down in tears. He said he had been an altar boy at the Anglican Church for many years and actually met with Desmond Tutu several times.

BRENT GOLIATH: I was very emotional this morning when he passed away. I thank God that he's been with us.

NADWORNY: Wow. That was Brent Goliath reflecting on the loss of Desmond Tutu. Looking forward, what's planned for the days ahead? How will Desmond Tutu be memorialized?

BARTLETT: Apparently, he's going to lie in state at the cathedral in Cape Town for the next few days. And yeah, we're hearing talk of a funeral in about a week's time or so. In the meantime, to memorialize him, the city of Cape Town has lit up the iconic Table Mountain in purple. It's all backlit in purple, and it will be every night this week - purple, of course, being the color of the archbishop's robes.

NADWORNY: Looking at the inequality that persists in South Africa and around the world, what do you think his passing means for the country and the globe?

BARTLETT: A lot of people I spoke to said they just don't know who will fill his shoes. He's a rare government critic here. And he's been very vocal. He's a champion of women's rights in South Africa. He's a defender of the LGBTQ community. Obviously, he was a staunch proponent of racial justice. So a lot of people said that will be missed in South Africa. He is the moral conscience of the country. He's the moral compass. And I think the world will feel that loss, too, because Tutu regularly spoke out on international human rights issues like Tibet, Palestine, the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. He was a great friend of the Dalai Lama's as well.

NADWORNY: Kate Bartlett is a journalist covering southern Africa. She joined us from Cape Town. Thanks so much, Kate.

BARTLETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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