The Defenders

Bishop Desmond Tutu

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Bishop Desmond Tutu was born in 1931 in Transvaal, South Africa. Though he wanted to pursue a career in medicine, he couldn’t afford the training and instead became a school teacher. As a teacher, Tutu found himself at odds with the government’s restrictions in the field of education, which he felt condemned non-whites to a second-class education.

After 3 years, he resigned his position to attend St. Peter’s Theological College in Johannesburg. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1961. He moved to London in 1962 to pursue a Master of Theology degree from King’s College London. From 1972 to 1975, he served as an associate director for the World Council of Churches. He was appointed dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg in 1975, the first black South African to hold that position. From 1976 to 1978 Tutu served as bishop of Lesotho.

In 1978, Tutu was appointed as the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, which gave him a prominent national platform from which to criticize the apartheid system and call for equal rights and a common education system. During the 1980s, he played a vital role in drawing national and international attention to the injustices of apartheid, a policy of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race. He advocated for nonviolent direct action and encouraged countries dealing with South Africa to impose economic sanctions. In 1984, Tutu was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his role in the opposition to apartheid in South Africa.

In 1985, at the height of violent protests in South Africa, Tutu became Johannesburg’s first black Anglican bishop, and in 1986 he was elected the first black archbishop of Cape Town, becoming the leader of South Africa’s 1.6 million-member Anglican church. During South Africa’s moves toward democracy in the early 1990s, Tutu advocated for the idea of South Africa as “the Rainbow Nation,” rather than a racially divided one. In 1995, President Nelson Mandela appointed Tutu head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated allegations of human rights abuses during the apartheid era.

Tutu retired in 1996 and became archbishop emeritus. In 2010, he announced his intention to effectively withdraw from public life but said he would continue his work with the Elders, a group of international leaders he cofounded in 2007 for the promotion of conflict resolution and problem-solving throughout the world.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Tutu received numerous honors, including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom (2009), an award from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation that recognized his lifelong commitment to “speaking truth to power” (2012), and the Templeton Prize (2013).


Apartheid is an Afrikaans term meaning “apartness.” Apartheid was the law of the land in South Africa from 1948-1994. Under this system, whites and nonwhites were segregated, and nonwhites experienced political and economic discrimination. More than 80% of South Africa’s land was set aside for the white minority. To help enforce the segregation of the races and prevent blacks from encroaching on white areas, the government strengthened existing “pass” laws, which required nonwhites to carry documents authorizing their presence in restricted areas. Other laws prohibited most social contacts between the races, authorized segregated public facilities, established separate educational standards, restricted each race to certain types of jobs and denied nonwhite participation in the national government.

Although the government had the power to suppress resistance to apartheid, Black African groups, with the support of some whites, held demonstrations and strikes. There were many instances of violent protest and of sabotage, including the student-led Soweto riots of 1976. Yet, these actions alone weren’t sufficient to end apartheid. The “pass” laws were finally abolished in 1986 after both the U.K. and the U.S. imposed economic sanctions on South Africa, though blacks were still restricted from living in some areas.

In 1990-91, the government of South African president F.W. de Klerk repealed most of the social legislation that provided the legal basis for apartheid. However, systematic racial segregation remained deeply entrenched in South African society. A new constitution that gave blacks and other racial groups the right to vote was adopted in 1993 and took effect in 1994. All-race national elections in 1994 produced a coalition government with a black majority led by anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, the country’s first black president. These developments marked the end of legislated apartheid, though not of its entrenched social and economic effects.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a court-like body assembled in South Africa after the end of apartheid. Anybody who felt they had been a victim of violence could come forward and be heard at the TRC proceedings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from prosecution. The TRC was a crucial component of the transition to full and free democracy in South Africa.


  • Read about how South Africa is doing more than 20 years after the end of apartheid here.
  • Learn more about the history and end of apartheid in South Africa here.
  • Learn about the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation and how to get involved here.


Discovery Education has teamed up with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Humanity United and Fund II Foundation to bring Speak Truth to Power to the classroom. Speak Truth to Power, a global initiative dedicated to sharing the stories of human rights defenders around the world, provides compelling content for a set of flexible, standards-aligned digital resources, designed to educate, engage and inspire the next generation of human rights defenders.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Mission Statement

Led by human rights activist and lawyer Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has advocated for a more just and peaceful world since 1968. We work alongside local activists to ensure lasting positive change in governments and corporations. Whether in the United States or abroad, our programs have pursued justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educated millions of children in human rights advocacy and fostered a social good approach to business and investment.