Final farewell for South Africa’s Desmond Tutu as state funeral goes underway

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The requiem mass for the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu began on Saturday morning in Cape Town’s Anglican cathedral, a ceremony he had arranged himself and which he wanted to be sober and simple.

The ceremony is going ahead after more than 2,000 people on Thursday and Friday visited the cathedral, where Tutu’s body was lying in state.

Tutu was a tireless opponent of the racist apartheid regime in South Africa and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. He coined the phrase “rainbow country” after its fall and chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he hoped would turn the page on racial hatred by bringing together perpetrators and victims.

Grey skies and a light drizzle welcomed Tutu’s family and friends to St George’s Cathedral, but also the widow of the country’s last white president FW de Klerk and many priests arrived at the church in dribs and drabs.

President Cyril Ramaphosa was to deliver the eulogy after communion. He was to present Tutu’s widow, “Mama Leah” as she is fondly called by South Africans, with a national flag, the only military tribute allowed here.

Tutu’s coffin is made of clear pine following his request that it be “the least expensive possible” despite South African funerals often serving as an opportunity to show that one has spent lavishly on the deceased.

There are no gold handles, just simple pieces of rope to carry it, reminiscent of the sober belt of the Franciscan friars. On top, a bouquet of white carnations. Archbishop Tutu did not want any other flowers in the church.

A close and long-time friend of Archbishop Tutu, former Bishop Michael Nuttall, was chosen by the deceased to deliver the sermon. When Tutu was Archbishop, Nuttall was his “number two”.

Their bond, in the final years of apartheid, “a dynamic black leader and his white deputy” was particularly striking. Like “a foretaste of what our divided country could be”, he said then.

‘Love one another as I have loved you’

Former Irish president Mary Robinson was to take part in the reading of the universal prayer, in the presence of Letsie III, the king of neighbouring Lesotho, and a representative of the Dalai Lama, with whom Tutu exchanged memorable laughs.

“Their friendship was singular,” Ngodup Dorjee told AFP. “Whenever they met, they laughed. The only explanation for this is a karmic connection in the past,” he added seriously.

The week was marked by tributes to Archbishop Tutu throughout the country and beyond. South Africans remembered his tenacity and grace in the face of the oppressive regime in Pretoria.

In Soweto, where he preached for many years, he denounced the violence against high school students during the riots of June 1976, which were put down in blood. Little by little, he became the voice of Nelson Mandela, locked up on Robben Island. The police and the army threatened him but his dress saved him from prison.

“We used to get up in the morning and if we saw the military trucks, then we knew he would celebrate mass,” Mathabo Dlwathi, 47, told AFP. “They wanted him dead, but for some reason we can’t explain, it never happened. He would go into the church, say mass and leave.”

During demonstrations, “he was a shield for us,” recalled Panyaza Lesufi, now a senior member of the ANC, the historic party still in power.

Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel, spoke of the “indescribable courage” it took to stand up to the regime. “He stood resolute and fearless at the front of the demonstrations, his clerical robe fluttering in the wind, his cross a shield,” she described.

For his funeral, Shepherd Tutu chose, in his last message to men, the passage from the Gospel according to St John where Jesus addresses his disciples after their last meal. A message of love. “My commandment is this: Love one another as I have loved you.

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