South Africa bid its final farewell to Archbishop Desmond Tutu with a requiem mass on Saturday morning in Cape Town’s Anglican cathedral, a sober and simple ceremony he had arranged himself.
Grey skies and a light drizzle welcomed mourners to St George’s Cathedral including Tutu’s family and friends but also the widow of the country’s last white president FW de Klerk and many priests arrived at the church in dribs and drabs.
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the eulogy after communion, describing Tutu as “our moral compass and national conscience.”
“Even after the advent of democracy, he did not hesitate to draw attention, often harshly, to our shortcomings as leaders of the democratic state.”
Ramaphosa handed a national flag — the only military tribute allowed here — to Tutu’s widow, Leah, as she sat in a wheelchair.
The cathedral can hold 1,200 worshippers, but only 100 mourners were allowed to attend the funeral because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Tutu’s coffin is made of clear pine following his request that it be “the least expensive possible” despite South African funerals often serving as an opportunity to show that one has spent lavishly on the deceased.
There are no gold handles, just simple pieces of rope to carry it, reminiscent of the sober belt of the Franciscan friars. On top, a bouquet of white carnations. Archbishop Tutu did not want any other flowers in the church.
The cathedral’s bells rang as Tutu’s casket was taken away after the funeral for a private cremation. His ashes are to be interred at the cathedral.
A close and long-time friend of Archbishop Tutu, former Bishop Michael Nuttall, was chosen by the deceased to deliver the sermon. When Tutu was Archbishop, Nuttall was his “number two”.
Nuttall called his relationship with Tutu “an unlikely partnership at a truly critical time in the life of our country from 1989 through 1996, he as archbishop of Cape Town and I as his deputy,” With humour, he described himself as “No. 2 to Tutu.”
“Our partnership struck a chord, perhaps, in the hearts and minds of many people: a dynamic Black leader and his white deputy in the dying years of apartheid,” Nuttall continued. “And hey, presto, the heavens did not collapse. We were a foretaste, if you like, of what could be in our wayward, divided nation.”
‘Love one another as I have loved you’
Two of Tutu’s daughters, Mpho and Nontombi, both church ministers, participated in the service along with former Irish President Mary Robinson and Graca Machel, the widow of two African presidents, Samora Machel of Mozambique and Nelson Mandela.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the head of the worldwide Anglican church, said in a video message shown at the requiem Mass that “when we were in the dark, he brought light.”
“For me to praise him is like a mouse giving tribute to an elephant,” Welby said. “South Africa has given us extraordinary examples of towering leaders of the rainbow nation with President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu…. Many Nobel winners’ lights have grown dimmer over time, but Archbishop Tutu’s has grown brighter.”
The week was marked by tributes to Archbishop Tutu throughout the country and beyond. South Africans remembered his tenacity and grace in the face of the oppressive regime in Pretoria.
In Soweto, where he preached for many years, he denounced the violence against high school students during the riots of June 1976, which were put down in blood. Little by little, he became the voice of Nelson Mandela, locked up on Robben Island. The police and the army threatened him but his dress saved him from prison.
“We used to get up in the morning and if we saw the military trucks, then we knew he would celebrate mass,” Mathabo Dlwathi, 47, told AFP. “They wanted him dead, but for some reason we can’t explain, it never happened. He would go into the church, say mass and leave.”
During demonstrations, “he was a shield for us,” recalled Panyaza Lesufi, now a senior member of the ANC, the historic party still in power.
Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel, spoke of the “indescribable courage” it took to stand up to the regime. “He stood resolute and fearless at the front of the demonstrations, his clerical robe fluttering in the wind, his cross a shield,” she described.
For his funeral, Shepherd Tutu chose, in his last message to men, the passage from the Gospel according to St John where Jesus addresses his disciples after their last meal. A message of love. “My commandment is this: Love one another as I have loved you.