Tutu Receives the Nobel Peace Prize Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Bishop Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 in recognition of his role as a unifying force and strong voice in the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa.

Summary of Event

Bishop Desmond Tutu’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in recognition of his lifelong opposition to apartheid, the system of racial separation in South Africa under which the white minority owned more than 87 percent of the total area of the country. South Africa’s five million whites enjoyed the best housing, employment, and schools while denying the nation’s twenty-two million blacks a voice in the government. The country’s white minority government branded Bishop Tutu as a subversive, a troublemaker, and a traitor. To the liberal whites, blacks, and clergy of South Africa, on the other hand, he stood as a freedom fighter and an apostle of racial equality. Nobel Peace Prize;Desmond Tutu[Tutu] Apartheid;resistance and protest [kw]Tutu Receives the Nobel Peace Prize (Dec. 10, 1984) [kw]Nobel Peace Prize, Tutu Receives the (Dec. 10, 1984) [kw]Peace Prize, Tutu Receives the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1984) [kw]Prize, Tutu Receives the Nobel Peace (Dec. 10, 1984) Nobel Peace Prize;Desmond Tutu[Tutu] Apartheid;resistance and protest [g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1984: Tutu Receives the Nobel Peace Prize[05610] [g]Norway;Dec. 10, 1984: Tutu Receives the Nobel Peace Prize[05610] [c]Human rights;Dec. 10, 1984: Tutu Receives the Nobel Peace Prize[05610] Tutu, Desmond Botha, Pieter W. Reagan, Ronald Vorster, John

Tutu first became aware of the needs of underprivileged people as a boy growing up in the western Transvaal gold mining town of Klerksdorp. When he was twelve, his family moved to Johannesburg, where his mother found employment as a cook in a school for the blind. While his mother worked at the school, Tutu found a role model in a controversial Anglican priest named Father Trevor Huddleston. Huddleston, Trevor Tutu, even though still a boy, was so impressed by Huddleston’s dedication and compassion that he decided to devote himself to a life of service.

Tutu also acquired firsthand knowledge of the problems of deprived people when he was growing up. While he was attending high school in a black township outside Johannesburg, he supported himself by caddying at an all-white golf course. At the age of eighteen, he had to abandon his plan to attend medical school because his father, who was a teacher, could not afford the tuition. After graduating from Bantu University and the University of Johannesburg, he became a high school teacher. He and many other teachers, however, resigned from Munsieville High School in Krugersdorp after the government introduced the inferior state-run system of “Bantu education” in 1957.

Guided by the memory of Father Huddleston’s work on behalf of South Africa’s oppressed people, Tutu decided that he could do the most good for South Africa’s blacks as a churchman. He was ordained at St. Petersburg’s Theological Seminary in 1960, the year of the Sharpeville massacre, in which more than seventy blacks were killed and two hundred were injured in a peaceful protest against apartheid. Sharpeville Massacre (1960) After doing graduate study in England, Tutu set out to spread God’s word, “whether it’s convenient or not.” He lectured at the Federal Theological Seminary and at the National University of Lesotho before returning in 1972 to England, where he administered scholarships for the World Council of Churches. He returned to South Africa in 1975 to become the first black Anglican dean of Johannesburg. As dean, Tutu was expected to live in a large mansion in an exclusive all-white suburb. He spurned Johannesburg’s posh suburban deanery, however, and instead lived with the masses in Soweto.

Desmond Tutu.

(The Nobel Foundation)

Tutu first became involved in the politics of his country during his first year as dean. In the spring of 1976, Tutu encouraged the rebellious youth of Soweto to convert their violent outbursts into peaceful demonstrations. In a letter written on May 6, 1976, Tutu apprised the prime minister of South Africa, Balthazar Johannes Vorster, of the severity of the situation, but his warning was ignored. The validity of Tutu’s words was borne out on June 16, 1976, when six hundred blacks were killed during the Soweto riots. Soweto student rebellion (1976)

In 1978, Tutu assumed the position that catapulted him to prominence as an ardent champion of the freedom struggle in South Africa. As secretary of the South African Council of Churches South African Council of Churches (SACC), Tutu became the spiritual leader of thirteen million Christians. During Tutu’s seven-year tenure, the SACC filled the void left by the banning of the main African nationalist parties. Legal and financial aid was given freely to detainees, victims of apartheid, and families of political prisoners. Tutu openly sponsored the aims of the banned African National Congress, South Africa’s largest black underground organization, which fought against apartheid and for universal suffrage. In the grand tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, he also led many peaceful antigovernment demonstrations, warning the government that violence was inevitable unless Pretoria shared power with South Africa’s black majority. He and many of his followers were jailed numerous times.

On two monumental occasions in 1979, Tutu intentionally crossed the fine line that he constantly had walked with the authorities while serving as secretary of the SACC. Tutu outraged government officials with his opposition to the Group Areas Act, Group Areas Act (South Africa, 1950) the 1950 law under which blacks were shifted from urban areas to desolate tribal lands. Following a visit to one of these squalid refugee camps, Tutu lashed out at the government, likening the camps to the Nazis’ “final solution.” In that same year, Tutu began speaking out at home and abroad against foreign investment in South Africa. In the fall, he was almost banned from participating in social and political activity in South Africa when, in a television interview, he asked the people of Denmark to refrain from buying coal from his homeland. Even though the government retaliated by withdrawing his passport, Tutu continued to attack South Africa’s segregationist policies by supporting a nationwide school boycott and by warning that the arrest of protesters would lead to an outbreak of rioting.

Tutu’s finest hour, however, took place in 1981. After the Anglican Church issued a statement declaring apartheid a heresy, the South African government counterattacked by appointing a commission of inquiry into the affairs of the SACC to determine whether it was a subversive organization that had sponsored terrorist activities in South Africa. Testifying before the all-white commission in a government office building in Pretoria, Tutu delivered a major public denunciation of apartheid and an exposition of the theology of liberation. Brandishing an old leather-bound Bible, he said that the Bible is the most radical of books because it teaches that all people are created in the image of God. In the end, the commission recommended no action against the council of churches.

Despite the fact that he was frequently denied the right to travel abroad in his last years as secretary of the SACC, Tutu persisted in his role as a proponent of racial equality and nonviolence. His constant message to the international community was that economic pressure had to be brought to bear on South Africa if change was to be accomplished without violence. By 1984, Tutu had been so successful in his campaign to disinvest South Africa that the Pretoria government described his citizenship as “undetermined” and allowed him to travel only on temporary documents.

In September, 1984, Tutu was given special permission to visit the United States for three months so that he could serve as a visiting professor at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. Ironically, it was during this visit to the United States, a country that had refused to disinvest in South Africa, that the Nobel Committee chose Tutu as the 1984 Nobel peace laureate. Upon hearing the news of his selection on October 16, 1984, Tutu told reporters that if change did not occur soon, a bloodbath would be inevitable in South Africa. He added: “We don’t want that bloodbath. We are trying to avoid it.” Fortunately, by virtue of many factors, the bloodbath was avoided, and South Africa achieved a remarkably peaceful transition to black majority rule only a decade after Tutu’s receipt of the Nobel Prize.


It is not surprising that the reaction in South Africa to Bishop Tutu’s Nobel Prize was mixed. In Pretoria, government officials ignored the Nobel announcement altogether. President Pieter W. Botha chose not to express his feelings and released a “no comment” response from his office. Reaction to Tutu’s selection for the prize was much more hostile from the Afrikaans-language newspaper Beeld, which gave vent to the anger of the supporters of apartheid: “To South Africans who have so often read about his vicious verbal attacks, Bishop Desmond Tutu . . . must be one of the strangest recipients yet to receive a Peace Prize.” The Organization of African Unity, on the other hand, took the opposite stance, calling Tutu’s award “an urgent reminder to the racist authorities of Pretoria that their inhuman regime is doomed.” At the Johannesburg airport, hundreds of supporters gave Tutu a hero’s welcome when he returned from the United States, cheering and waving antiapartheid signs.

News of Tutu’s prize also had an impact on the Anglican Church itself. At the time the Nobel organization was making its decision to award the peace prize to Tutu, the white and black diocesan electors in Johannesburg were considering him as a candidate for bishop. Because the electors were clearly divided along racial lines, the national Anglican hierarchy decided to intervene, and on November 3, 1984, Desmond Tutu left the South African Council of Churches to become the first black Anglican bishop of Johannesburg, the largest diocese in South Africa.

Bishop Tutu’s peace prize had a positive effect on world politics as well. Being a Nobel Prize winner provided Tutu with a platform from which he could force those nations taking part in what U.S. president Ronald Reagan had called “quiet diplomacy” to become more vocal in their protest against apartheid. During the week preceding his acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Oslo, Norway, Tutu visited President Reagan, who defended his policy of condemning apartheid while keeping U.S. business interests in place in South Africa. While he was in New York, Tutu also gained the support of former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, Carter, Jimmy who likened the mentality of the white South Africans to that of the Ku Klux Klan.

By the time Bishop Tutu’s three-month tenure as visiting professor at the General Theological Seminary had ended, thirty-one demonstrators had been arrested in the daily rallies being held outside the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. The demonstrations then spread to eight major cities across the United States. As a result of the pressure that Tutu’s call for economic pressure had placed on the United States, President Reagan decided in 1985 to order a ban on imports of krugerrands, the gold pieces that constituted one of South Africa’s major exports. After the United States began to withdraw investments from South Africa, other nations rapidly followed suit. Tutu had successfully shifted the focus from himself to the problems of his fellow blacks in South Africa.

The full impact of Tutu’s peace prize cannot be measured, but there is no doubt that the worldwide attention his Nobel Prize speech received had long-term consequences for his homeland. The reforms that were set in place by President F. W. de Klerk De Klerk, F. W. in 1989, culminating in the release from prison of black antiapartheid activist Nelson Mandela Mandela, Nelson in 1990 and the lifting of economic sanctions by the United States in 1991, resulted in large part from the campaign that Tutu waged for economic pressure. Although Tutu alone was not responsible for the erosion of apartheid in his homeland in the 1990’s, his receipt of the Nobel Prize certainly contributed to the demise of apartheid by putting his nation’s problems in the international spotlight. Nobel Peace Prize;Desmond Tutu[Tutu] Apartheid;resistance and protest

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, John. Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorized Biography of Desmond Tutu. New York: Free Press, 2006. Comprehensive biography by a longtime associate of Tutu. Includes glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Bishop Tutu: ’Person of the Year.’” Christian Century 102 (January 2, 1985): 3-4. Reports on positive and negative reactions to Tutu’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize and also discusses the potential impact of the prize on disinvestment in South Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Canine, Craig. “A Parable and a Peace Prize.” Newsweek, October 29, 1984, 89. Effectively describes the process by which Tutu was selected by the Nobel Committee and reports the immediate reactions of Tutu himself, of the South African government, and of Tutu’s black countrymen.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Stephen M. Apartheid’s Rebels. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. Does not discuss Tutu’s contributions in great detail, but offers useful explanation of Tutu’s connection with the African National Congress.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guelke, Adrian. Rethinking the Rise and Fall of Apartheid: South Africa and World Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Discusses the nature and significance of South African apartheid and the reasons the apartheid system ended, with particular attention paid to the international antiapartheid movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hammer, Joshua. “Urging Nonviolent Change in His Tortured Land, South Africa’s Desmond Tutu Wins the Nobel Prize.” People, December 17, 1984, 185-186. Provides a brief, informative introduction to Tutu’s life, work, and philosophy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Magnuson, Ed. “Fresh Anger over Apartheid.” The Nation 124 (December 16, 1984): 46-47. Focuses on the effect that Tutu’s peace prize had on President Reagan and on the protest movement in Washington, D.C. Provides a fascinating look into the politics behind disinvestment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ostling, Richard. “Peace: Proud and Sad.” Time, October 29, 1984, 62. Refreshingly objective portrait of Tutu examines the “tricky tightrope” he had to walk while trying to appease both the white establishment and black militants in South Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sparks, Allister. The Mind of South Africa. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. Historical work examines the changes that took place in South Africa in the 1980’s. A chapter dealing with the activities of the Catholic Church in South Africa describes Tutu’s 1981 confrontation with the government’s commission of inquiry into the “subversive” activities of the South African Council of Churches.

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Categories: History