The state funeral for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a hero of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, began on Saturday in St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, where for years he preached against racial injustice.
President Cyril Ramaphosa was expected to deliver the main eulogy for Tutu, who was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1984 for his non-violent opposition to white minority rule. His death on Sunday aged 90 triggered an outpouring of tributes from around the world.
Tutu’s widow Nomalizo Leah, known as “Mama Leah”, sat in a wheelchair in the front row of the church, draped in a purple scarf. Ramaphosa sat alongside her, with a matching necktie.
The cathedral and the Table Mountain that rises above the city have been illuminated every night this week in purple, the colour of Tutu’s clerical robes.
Life-size posters of Tutu, with his hands clasped, were placed outside the cathedral, where the number of congregants was restricted in line with COVID-19 measures.
Hundreds of well-wishers had queued on Thursday and Friday to pay their last respects to Tutu as he lay in state at the cathedral. On Saturday, his simple coffin was once again wheeled into the church as the requiem Mass got underway.
The choir then gave a resounding rendition of “Great is Thy Faithfulness”.
Tutu was widely revered across South Africa’s racial and cultural divides for his moral integrity. He never stopped fighting for his vision of a “Rainbow Nation” in which all races in post-apartheid South Africa could live in harmony.
Cape Town, the city where Tutu lived for most of his later life, was unseasonably rainy on Saturday as mourners gathered to bid farewell to the man fondly known as “The Arch” and often described as South Africa’s “moral compass”.
As Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Tutu turned St George’s into what is known as a “People’s Cathedral” a refuge for anti-apartheid activists during the turbulent 1980s and 1990s when security forces brutally repressed the mass democratic movement.
His body will be cremated in a private ceremony after the requiem Mass and will then be interred behind the pulpit from where he once denounced bigotry and racial tyranny.
A small crowd of around 100 people followed the funeral proceedings on a big screen at the Grand Parade, opposite City Hall where Tutu joined Nelson Mandela when he gave his first speech after being freed from prison.
Mandela, who became the country’s first post-apartheid president and who died in December 2013, once said of his friend:
“Sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless.”