Desmond Tutu, The Forgiveness Project’s founding patron and one of the world’s most humane spiritual leaders, has died aged 90.

Social activist, Nobel Laureate, Chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TFC), he was a moral campaigner whose impeccable integrity, immense kindness and powerful laugh could win over even his enemies.

I am forever grateful that Desmond Tutu trusted in my work and gave his full backing to The Forgiveness Project even when it was just a kernel of an idea.

I first met him in 2003 as a journalist when I was working on a story in South Africa with the photographer Brian Moody. In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, I had also just started collecting stories from around the world that focused specifically on people’s experience of forgiveness. As the world’s most prominent advocate of forgiveness, I contacted Tutu’s personal secretary to ask if he would meet with us and was astonished when the answer came back that, yes, the Archbishop had a free hour the following day.

Dressed in his purple clerical robes we sat in his modest office in Cape Town’s seaside suburb of Milnerton, drinking tea and talking about his favourite topic – forgiveness. I asked him about his own personal experience during the apartheid times, but he was adamant that to share anything of his personal life would place the attention in the wrong place. In other words, it was the stories of those he had heard at TRC hearings that needed to be told. Then he proceeded to talk about the Craddock Four; how during the bitter apartheid years the police had ambushed their car, killed them in the most gruesome manner and then set their car alight. Later, at a TRC hearing, the teenage daughter of one of the victims was asked if she would be able to forgive the people who had done this to her family, and she answered, “We would like to forgive, but we would just like to know who to forgive.” Tutu was in awe of this answer. “How fantastic,” he said to me, “to see this young girl, still human despite all efforts to dehumanise her.”

Nine months after meeting Desmond Tutu in Cape Town, the stories I had collected in South Africa, including Tutu’s statement on forgiveness, became part of The F Word exhibition which opened in London in January 2004. I had heard that the Archbishop happened to be in London at exactly this time and sent a message inviting him to the launch where a number of the exhibition’s storytellers were due to gather. Even though I was told that he was unlikely to be free that evening, to our delight he turned up at the last minute and stayed the duration. He seemed thrilled to meet so many people whose pain had been transformed through their ability to forgive.

Desmond Tutu and Anita Roddick

Desmond Tutu and Anita Roddick at the F Word exhibition in 2004

Several years later Desmond Tutu delivered The Forgiveness Project’s inaugural annual lecture at St John Smith’s Square in London and a few years after that he agreed to write the preface to my first book on forgiveness.

Desmond Tutu was arguably the world’s greatest advocate for forgiveness. The fact that he was a global Church leader never seemed to exclude those who did not share his faith. Able to carry the paradox between the divine and the profane so skillfully, plenty of atheists and agnostics were his biggest fans. I think this is because rather than adopting a preachy tone he spoke from a place of humility and humanity, always injected with sound common sense and often a hefty dose of humour too.

I have always appreciated how in  a short video he made in 2014 to promote the online Tutu Global Forgiveness Challenge and The Book of Forgiving, he dispelled the commonly held misconception that forgiveness equals reconciliation: “If someone is constantly abusing you, being ready to forgive doesn’t mean you have to be a masochist. If you have had someone who repeatedly hurts you, it is far better to release the relationship than to renew it,” he insisted.

As a key figure in South Africa’s post-apartheid reconciliation movement and from his work as Chairman of the TRC, Tutu understood about the value of justice and accountability when it came to reconciling with harm, but he also knew from the many stories of atrocity he bore witness to that to choose to forgive flows from a softening and an opening of the heart. I’ve always thought he captures the essence of forgiveness in these words from No Future Without Forgiveness: “Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what has happened seriously and not minimising it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence.”

I didn’t know Desmond Tutu well, but I learnt a huge amount from him, and receiving an email from him once signed ‘the Arch’ was definitely a highlight! Often reduced to tears by the pain of others, this true radical was never afraid to say what he thought. He was as one fellow South African and friend of mine put it, “the ultimate example of ‘good’ in a desperate world”.

Marina Cantacuzino MBE, Founder
4 Jan 2022