Nobel Peace Laureates

“True reconciliation is a deeply personal matter. It can happen only between persons who assert their own personhood and who acknowledge and respect that of others.”
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Desmond Tutu was born in 1931 in Klerksdorp, a small gold mining town in South Africa. His father was a teacher and his mother worked as a cook in an institution for blind women. She also did laundry for a white family. At the age of twelve his family moved to the capital city of Johannesburg.

In 1948, when Desmond was 17, the government of South Africa began a policy of strict racial segregation called apartheid. Under this system, South Africans who were not white were denied basic rights. The aim of apartheid was for the 4 million whites to maintain control over the 23 million non-whites in South Africa.

White people in South Africa owned most of the land and lived in cleaner, safer neighborhoods. Black and “Colored” people were forced into poor areas called townships where they lived in tin shacks with no water or electricity. They sometimes did not have enough food to feed their families and often could not get jobs. They also had to carry a “pass” with them at all times. If they were caught without the pass, they were arrested and put in jail. White people did not have to carry a pass and could go wherever they wanted at any time.

Hear Archbishop Tutu explain why the Global Call to Action is so important.

When he was a teenager, Desmond became very sick with tuberculosis and almost died. He had to be in the hospital for almost two years. After he recovered, he wanted to become a doctor and find a cure for tuberculosis. Though his grades were good in high school, his family could not afford to send him to medical school and so he decided to become a teacher just like his father.

Because he was black, Desmond was only allowed to teach in black schools. He soon discovered that the education that black students received was much poorer than the education of white students. Most of the black children only went to school for three hours a day. Since they were expected to become servants for white people, they weren’t taught math, science and other academic subjects.

Desmond decided that he could not continue being a teacher in this system. “I just felt I couldn’t be a part of this…I said to myself, sorry, I’m not going to be a collaborator in this scheme. Then I asked myself, 'What can I do?'" He found the answer to that question by becoming a priest in the Anglican Church and a leader of the struggle against the system of apartheid.

From the start, black South Africans, along with other non-whites had fought to end the hated system of discrimination. Some, angry after years of oppression, thought the only solution was to answer to the violence of apartheid with more violence. But Desmond Tutu believed non-violence was the answer. He worked to build a peaceful movement for democracy and against the violence of the government.

In 1976, police opened fire on 10,000 high school students in the town of Soweto who were protesting unfair treatment. This set off a period of protest called the Soweto Uprising, during which over 500 youth were killed by the South African government. In response, Desmond Tutu led peaceful marches that called for economic sanctions against South Africa. This strategy of divestment asked people in other countries to stop investing in South African businesses and stop buying South African goods.

In 1984 Archbishop Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent work to end apartheid and bring equality for the people in South Africa. In 1986 he became the first black person to be Archbishop in the Anglican Church of South Africa.

The strategy of divestment, along with protests by South Africans and people around the world, finally ended apartheid. On April 27, 1994 Desmond Tutu and all the other people of color in South Africa could vote together with whites for the first time. On that day, Nelson Mandela was elected as the first black president of South Africa. When Nelson Mandela won the election, Desmond Tutu remembers, “We were on cloud 9. It was like falling in love…it was the day of liberation for all of us, black and white together.”

Archbishop Tutu continues to be a world leader in the struggle for human rights. He believes that all people are God’s children, sisters and brothers, members of the same family. As in any family, when a member is sick or in need, the whole family pitches in to help. He would hope that in that spirit of compassion we would all help each other. He is deeply concerned about the spread of diseases such as malaria, TB and AIDS. He longs for a world where there are opportunities for everyone to receive an education, to have access to health care, clean water, to have a house and to be able to live with dignity. A world where people care for people rather than things, where there is enough for all and where we can celebrate our diversity of language, culture and faith.