Education International
Education International

Archbishop Tutu announces retirement from public life

published 26 July 2010 updated 26 July 2010

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is to withdraw from public life, after decades of struggling against apartheid and global injustices, to spend more time with his family – and watch cricket.

The Nobel peace laureate, and former teacher, often referred to as ‘South Africa's moral conscience’, announced that he would cut his workload to one day a week when he turned 79 on 7 October, before retiring completely in February 2011.

"I have done as much as I can and need time to do things I have really wanted to do," Tutu said in Cape Town during a nationally televised news conference. "I do want a little more quiet."

Since retiring as Anglican archbishop of Cape Town a decade ago, Tutu has travelled the world promoting peace efforts, advising politicians and serving on a committee of retired leaders known as the Elders – work he has pledged to continue.

He has remained a highly active and much loved figure at home, tempering his criticism of some of the country's leaders with his sense of humour and playful nature. At the opening ceremony of the football World Cup, which he described as one of the most significant events in the country since the end of white rule, he swapped his clerical robes for a football shirt and beanie and danced in his VIP seat.

"Instead of growing old gracefully, at home with my family, reading and writing and praying and thinking, too much of my time has been spent at airports and in hotels," Tutu said. "The time has now come to slow down, to sip rooibos tea with my beloved wife in the afternoons, to watch cricket, to travel to visit my children and grandchildren, rather than to conferences and conventions and university campuses."

Tutu trained as a teacher, and famously stated: "Education is the engine through which development can be powered, both for the individual in opening up new opportunities as well as for countries seeking to move out of the fierce grip of poverty."

However, his anger at the poor education offered to Black children turned him towards the clergy. His position in the church afforded him a degree of protection from the authorities, which he used to great effect in criticising the apartheid system, to the annoyance of the white minority government.

He was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1984. Two years later he became archbishop of Cape Town, the first Black South African to hold the position. In 1994, when an all-race election was held, he coined the term "rainbow nation", and introduced Nelson Mandela as president which, he said today, was one of the greatest moments of his life. "I said to God, 'God, if I die now, I don't really mind.'"

Instead of slowing down after the long struggle, Tutu threw himself into the efforts to rebuild the country. Mandela appointed him to head the truth and reconciliation commission to investigate human rights abuses committed during apartheid. The 30-month-long proceedings often featured harrowing testimonies, and Tutu broke down in tears in one of the first hearings as a disabled man described being tortured by security forces.

Afterwards, he continued to speak his mind – a trait that endeared him to ordinary people of all races in South Africa – but angered some of its new leaders.

He was especially critical of the former president Thabo Mbeki for his denial of the AIDS epidemic, and was against President Jacob Zuma leading the country due to his "moral failings". Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, also came under frequent verbal attack, prompting him to describe Tutu as "an evil little bishop".

Tutu said today that he was fortunate to have had the opportunity to "contribute in a small way to the development of our new democratic, exhilarating, exasperating nation."

Once he steps down, he will no longer be available for media interviews, and no new appointments will be added to his schedule.

"As Madiba [Mandela] said on his retirement: Don't call me, I'll call you," Tutu said.

The biggest beneficiary of his new lifestyle will be his wife, Leah, whom he married in 1955. Retirement will allow him to "serve her hot chocolate in bed in the mornings, as any doting husband should."