President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday night paid tribute to “the fallen big tree” Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, saying: “My Fellow South Africans, today is the saddest of days”.
He added: “Our nation and the world awoke this morning to the sad news that Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu passed away peacefully in Cape Town at the age of 90.
“In this season of cheer and goodwill, at a time when many people are celebrating with family and friends, we have lost one of the most courageous and beloved among us.”
Ramaphosa said Archbishop Tutu “was one of our nation’s finest patriots”.
The Arch, as he was affectionately known, had been suffering from prostate cancer and in recent years his health had taken a turn for the worst.
“He was a man of unwavering courage, of principled conviction, and whose life was spent in the service of others. He embodied the essence of our humanity,” said the president in a televised speech that was broadcast live.
“Knowing he had been ill for some time has done little to lessen the blow dealt to South Africa this sad day. Uwile umthi omkhulu (the big tree has fallen).”
Ramaphosa said South Africa had lost a person who carried the burden of leadership with compassion, with dignity, with humility and with such good humour.
“We are comforted in the knowledge that he has left an indelible mark in the lives of the millions of people who had the privilege and honour of knowing him,” said the president.
“Like many of his time, he was a witness to the gravest injustices and the most intolerable cruelty.
“In his ministry, in his struggle against apartheid, and as Chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he saw the depths to which human beings could descend in the subjugation of others.
“And yet, his faith in humanity, like his faith in God, was unwavering.”
Ramaphosa said the Arch knew in his soul that good would triumph over evil, that justice would prevail over iniquity, and that reconciliation would prevail over revenge and recrimination.
“He knew that apartheid would end, that democracy would come. He knew that our people would be free,” said the president.
“By the same measure, he was convinced, even to the end of his life, that poverty, hunger and misery can be defeated; that all people can live together in peace, security and comfort.
“He was a man of faith who, throughout his life, gave expression to the Biblical teaching that without actions, faith is dead.”
For Desmond Mpilo Tutu, it was not enough that he should preach peace.
“He had to join with the people of this country, and indeed the people of all countries, in working – tirelessly and diligently – for the attainment of peace,” said Ramaphosa.
“It was not enough for him to bring God’s blessings to the poor and the needy. He had to join the struggle for social justice, for development, for transformation, so that all may have the necessities of life.
“His brave and often critical voice lost none of its vigour when apartheid ended. He continued his work as a tireless campaigner for the rights of the oppressed.”
The president said Archbishop Tutu was frank and forthright, speaking truth to power, even when this meant criticising the democratic government.
“It was through both his words and his actions that he earned his distinguished place in the history of our nation’s struggle for freedom,” said Ramaphosa.
“It was for these words and these actions, at the height of the brutality of the apartheid state, that he was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize.”
It was an honour that he accepted not for himself, but for all South Africans who stood for freedom, for peace and for justice.
And it was in receiving this great honour in Oslo Archbishop Tutu said: “There is no peace because there is no justice.”
It was a fundamental principle to which he held throughout his life, said Ramaphosa, adding: “It is a principle to which we must remain true as we mourn his passing.
“Our country will not know the peace we seek until all have justice, until all have a place to sleep and enough to eat, until all children have an education, until all women feel safe in their homes and on our streets.
“In the days to come, we will mourn this global icon of peace and freedom. We will pay tribute to a life lived in the service of God and in the service of his fellow woman and man.
“We will recount his achievements, we will recall his teachings and we will cherish fond memories of this man who always tempered criticism with compassion.”
President Nelson Mandela said of the Arch that his was a voice that was “sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid, and seldom without humour”.
Ramaphosa said: “If we truly wish to honour his memory, let us reaffirm, through our actions, his conviction that it is only through justice that we may attain peace.
“Let us declare, and let us demonstrate, that even though the body has departed, the spirit lives on, the struggle continues, and the dream endures.
“Tonight, we carry in our thoughts and prayers Mam Leah Tutu and the Tutu family. Our entire nation shares in your loss and your grief.
“Know that, even at this moment of great pain, we rejoice in a life that was dedicated to the betterment of others.
“We acknowledge the tributes paid to Archbishop Tutu by people across the country and around the world.”
The president said in honour of the life and contribution of Archbishop Tutu, the government will be led by the Anglican Church in the conduct of his funeral.
Ramaphosa said there will be a period of mourning during which the national flag shall fly at half-mast at all flag stations countrywide and at South African diplomatic missions abroad.
This will be observed from the time of the formal declaration of the funeral until the night before the funeral service.
Details of the funeral and memorial services will be announced in the next few days.