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Anti-apartheid icon Desmond Tutu dies at 90

Johannesburg - South African anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu, described as the country's moral compass, died on Sunday aged 90, sparking an outpouring of tributes for the outspoken Nobel Peace Prize winner.

The small-statured Tutu, who had largely faded from public life in recent years, was remembered for his easy humour and characteristic smile - and above all his tireless fight against injustices of all colours. South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa honoured this fight in a tribute to Tutu, announcing the archbishop's death.

"The passing of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is another chapter of bereavement in our nation's farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa," he said in a statement.

"Desmond Tutu was a patriot without equal; a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead," he said.

"A man of extraordinary intellect, integrity and invincibility against the forces of apartheid, he was also tender and vulnerable in his compassion for those who had suffered oppression, injustice and violence under apartheid, and oppressed and downtrodden people around the world."

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The South African cricket team wore black armbands in his honour of the first day of the first Test against India in South Africa. A tireless activist, Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for combatting white minority rule in his country. Famously outspoken, even after the fall of the racist apartheid regime, Tutu never shied away from confronting South Africa's shortcomings or injustices. It was Tutu who coined and popularised the term "Rainbow Nation" to describe South Africa when Nelson Mandela became the country's first black president.

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However, in recent years, Tutu slammed even the ruling African National Congress (ANC) -- the vanguard of the fight against white-minority rule -- for cronyism and nepotism after apartheid ended in 1994. In the past, he has confronted homophobia in the Anglican Church, challenged Mandela over-generous salaries for cabinet ministers and stridently criticised the corruption that mushroomed under ex-president Jacob Zuma.

Ordained at the age of 30 and appointed archbishop in 1986, he used his position to advocate for international sanctions against apartheid, and later to lobby for rights globally. Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and underwent repeated treatment. His public appearances become increasingly scarce, and in one of his last this year, he emerged from hospital in a wheelchair to get a Covid vaccine, waving but not offering comment. He retired in 1996 to lead a harrowing journey into South Africa's brutal past, as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

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For 30 months, the commission lifted the lid on the horrors of apartheid. - 'Larger than life' - Tutu, with his instinctive humanity, broke down and sobbed at one of its first hearings. "He articulated the universal outrage at the ravages of apartheid and touchingly and profoundly demonstrated the depth of meaning of ubuntu, reconciliation and forgiveness," Ramaphosa said. The Nelson Mandela Foundation on Sunday called Tutu "an extraordinary human being. A thinker. A leader. A shepherd." "He was larger than life, and for so many in South Africa and around the world his life has been a blessing," the organisation said in a statement.

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Tutu was born in the small town of Klerksdorp, west of Johannesburg, on October 7, 1931, to a domestic worker and a school teacher. He trained as a teacher before anger at the inferior education system set up for black children prompted him to become a priest. He lived for a while in Britain, where, he recalled, he would needlessly ask for directions just to be called "Sir" by a white policeman. Tutu relentlessly challenged the status quo on issues like race, homosexuality and religious doctrine and gave his pioneering support for the assisted dying movement.

And he didn't shy away from his own end. "I have prepared for my death and have made it clear that I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs," he said in an opinion piece in The Washington Post in 2016. "I hope I am treated with compassion and allowed to pass on to the next phase of life's journey in the manner of my choice." Thabo Makgoba, the Archbishop of Cape Town, said after his passing that "we must also celebrate the life of a deeply spiritual person whose... starting point and his ending point was his relationship with our Creator. "He feared no one. He named wrong wherever he saw it and by whomever, it was committed.

He challenged the systems that demeaned humanity."

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu built a lifelong reputation for championing underdogs and challenging the status quo on issues like race and religious doctrine.

Towards the end of his life, he began a new campaign in support of the assisted dying movement -- a hugely sensitive subject in his Anglican Church. "I have prepared for my death and have made it clear that I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs," he said in an opinion piece in The Washington Post in 2016. At the time, he was in and out of hospital for a recurring infection linked to prostate cancer, an illness he was diagnosed with in 1997. "Dying people should have the right to choose how and when they leave Mother Earth," he wrote. - 'I wouldn't mind' -

The Nobel laureate's outspoken editorial propelled the issue to the forefront of public debate and challenged the Anglican Communion's position on the emotionally charged subject. Only a handful of countries allow some form of voluntary euthanasia, where a doctor helps the patient to die, or assisted dying, where a terminally ill individual ends their own lives. In South Africa, euthanasia is a crime punishable by 14 years in jail, though no such sentence has ever been handed down. South Africa's Supreme Court of Appeal last year blocked a bid by a man with prostate cancer to secure the right to a medically assisted death, which could have opened the way to legalise voluntary euthanasia. The Church of England still opposes assisted dying, stating in 2015 that if it was legalised in the UK it "would allow individuals to participate actively in ending others' lives, in effect agreeing that their lives are of no further value". "This is not the way forward for a compassionate and caring society," the Church said.

The Anglican Church in South Africa refused to comment on the issue when contacted by AFP. Before his landmark intervention, Tutu had previously on the issue of assisted dying: "I would say I wouldn't mind." In a 2014 article for Britain's Guardian newspaper, he chided those around former president Nelson Mandela who had sought to keep him alive. Mandela died aged 95. "What was done to Madiba was disgraceful," Tutu wrote, using Mandela's honorific name. "There was that occasion when Madiba was televised with political leaders... You could see Madiba was not fully there... It was an affront to Madiba's dignity." Right-to-die activists heralded Tutu's 2016 article as a game-changer in their fight for assisted suicide to be legalised and ultimately de-stigmatised. - 'A courageous effort' - Sean Davison, the director of assisted dying campaign group Dignity South Africa, told AFP: "When Tutu speaks, the world listens... Maybe this is something we should be talking about rather than closing the discussion completely."

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Even some senior religious figures praised him for stoking debate on an issue that has sharply divided the clerical establishment. "The archbishop has done a wonderful service to us," said Father Anthony Egan, a Jesuit priest and lecturer at South Africa's Wits University. "It is a courageous effort to try to provoke theologians and Church leaders to think about it."

But Tutu's controversial stand on the issue did not receive universal support. "It is not an enormous surprise that he would come out in favour of euthanasia if he is contradictory about other issues," said Philip Rosenthal of Euthanasia Exposed, which campaigns against the decriminalisation of assisted dying. "He has views that are very different to the teaching of the Bible and to the majority of South Africans." Liz Gwyther of the Hospice Palliative Care Association of South Africa said that even the sickest patients could still be made comfortable at the end of their lives. "We know that with palliative care, it is possible to have a good quality of life with physical comfort and dignity until the end of a natural life," she said. "Many people... change their minds (about assisted dying) when receiving palliative care." The debate around assisted dying will continue to rage after Tutu's death, but his intervention helped to lift the taboo that had long surrounded the divisive, emotive subject.

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