Just after noon, as the voices of the choir filled the cathedral, the mourners stood, bowed their heads in the direction of the plain wooden casket and then filed out on to Cape Town’s streets.
The requiem mass for Desmond Tutu, who died aged 90 six days ago, had lasted much of the morning, long enough for a celebration of a life that has inspired tens of millions around the world, a final farewell from his compatriots, and for the unexpected rainclouds that had shrouded his home city overnight to clear.
Now, sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows and the distinctive profile of Table Mountain was etched against a typically blue South African sky.
“He never stopped fighting, he never stopped speaking out, and never stopped caring. He was a crusader in the struggle for freedom, justice, equality and peace not only in [South Africa] but around the world as well,” said South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, in his eulogy to the charismatic, diminutive former English teacher whose non-violent struggle against the racist, repressive apartheid regime was recognised with a Nobel prize in 1984.
“A global icon [due to] exceptional moral stature and service to humanity …. We are diminished by his passing. His life straddled an epoch in our country’s history that has now come to an end,” Ramaphosa, a former labour activist who fought alongside Tutu, said.
The last surviving major leader of the anti-apartheid struggle, Tutu will be remembered for both his steely determination in the face of violent oppression as well as the impish humour, which he deployed to inspire supporters, win new allies and confound enemies.
The Rev Michael Weeder, the Dean of Cape Town, quoted the singer Billie Holiday, saying that Tutu’s trademark smile had moved people “like the wind that shakes the bough”.
“His smile calmed and focused those who saw it, whether in person or from afar,” Weeder told mourners.
With only a hundred people allowed into Saint George’s Cathedral in central Cape Town due to Covid restrictions, many had chosen to pay their respects earlier in the week. Hundreds had queued to stand before the closed casket for a few moments in contemplation or sign a book of condolences. Others had placed flowers beneath a portrait of “the Arch”, as diminutive, charismatic former English teacher was familiarly known locally.
Many remembered Tutu’s role during the long dark years of struggle, when, as a senior cleric, he turned Saint George’s into a hub of political organising as well as a sanctuary of faith.
When the apartheid regime banned political gatherings, Tutu held meetings in the cathedral where participants bowed their heads ostensibly in prayer and heard political speeches. Nelson Mandela, a close friend and collaborator of Tutu, called the Anglican church the “people’s cathedral”.
Brita Lomba, a 66-year-old photographer and former anti-apartheid activist, said Tutu had been “irrepressible” during the years of struggle.
“He stood for values that no one could disagree with … but the most powerful thing was simply how he was as a human being, the way he was,” said Lomba, who had joined a hundred or so others in the square in front of Cape Town’s city hall to watch a live broadcast of the mass on a big screen.
Beatrice Brenton, who had begged a lift into Cape Town to watch the funeral because she lacked money for the bus fare, said she remembered Tutu “dancing and laughing”.
“He was a very precious, special person all through my life,” the 83-year-old said.
Following the collapse of the apartheid regime collapsed and South Africa’s first free elections in 1994, Tutu took on the harrowing role of leading the country’s path-breaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated apartheid-era crimes to bring closure to victims and the nation.
This profound commitment to “healing South Africa”, as well as Tutu’s trademark impish grin and joyful laugh, inspired Lerato Jatto to bring her family to watch the funeral.
Jatto, who left South Africa for the UK in 1991 but was in Cape Town on holiday, said that Tutu’s work with the victims and perpetrators had shown other parts of the world how to “heal their own wounds … when something so tragic happens”.
Nearby, Zinthe Tsele, a 25-year-old worker in a Cape Town spice-packing factory, said she had come with her sister to be “part of the celebration of [Tutu’s] life”.
“We learned about him at school. I think people today should listen to Tutu’s message. He didn’t do anything for himself. He lived in a very small home. He was not like today’s politicians. For them it is about power not the people,” Tsele said.
Dubbed the “moral compass” or “conscience” of South Africa, Tutu did not flinch from trenchant criticism of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, embarrassing senior politicians whom he accused of riding a “gravy train”.
In his eulogy, Ramaphosa, who has struggled to reform the ANC since taking power almost four years ago, admitted that South Africa faced “problems and challenges everywhere” and that “poverty, inequality, racism, homophobia, gender-based violence, crime and corruption have left many people disenchanted”.
Though Tutu, who suffered from prostate cancer for more than 20 years, largely retreated from public life in recent years, he had continued his lifelong fight for causes he believed in, forcefully supporting LGBT rights, equal access to education and the assisted dying movement.
In a videoed message, the Rev Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, said that Tutu “lit up the world”.
“When we were in the dark, he brought light and that light has lit up countries [across the world] struggling with conflict or where the marginalised have suffered. He never failed to bring light, and his light did not fade but grew brighter. [He] is shedding light for this on the edge or who suffer to this day and in the future,” Welby said in a video message broadcast during the mass.
That Covid regulations prevented easy travel may have been a relief to some leaders on the African continent who might otherwise have been expected to attend the funeral.
Watching the final moments of the ceremony on the big screen, Francis Sithole, a child youth worker from neighbouring Zimbabwe, said leaders of his country should also heed Tutu’s message.
“He spoke the truth. They need to think about what he was preaching,” Sithole, 43, said.
In a sermon, Michael Nuttall, the former bishop of Natal who was a close friend and collaborator of Tutu, told mourners: “Desmond was not on some crusade of personal aggrandisement or egotism, though he often and disarmingly admitted that he loved to be loved.
“His was not a harsh, ideological quest for justice. Always it was grounded in mercy …. in an enduring loving-kindness: the gentle touch, the forgiving heart, the warm smile .”
Tutu, who specifically requested an environmentally friendly funeral without lavish expense or ostentation, will be cremated and his ashes interred beneath the floor of St George’s, “a place that he loved,” church officials said.
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