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Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped end South Africa's apartheid, dies at 90

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A week of memorial events in South Africa are paying tribute to the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Nobel Peace Prize winner died this weekend at the age of 90. He helped bring an end to apartheid in South Africa. And when he had the opportunity to vote in the country's first democratic elections in 1994, this is how he described that feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DESMOND TUTU: I want to sing. I want to cry. I want to laugh - everything together - and jump and dance. And we just want to say to our friends out there, you've been fantastic in supporting us, and the day has arrived. Yippee (laughter).

MARTINEZ: The Anglican archbishop of Cape Town would go on to head the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and he also became a powerful force for nonviolence beyond South Africa's borders. Reverend Michael Battle knew him well. He's the director of the Desmond Tutu Center at General Theological Seminary in New York. Reverend Battle, welcome to the show.

MICHAEL BATTLE: Thank you, A, for having me.

MARTINEZ: Tell us about your relationship with him.

BATTLE: Well, when I was writing my Ph.D. dissertation, I had the epiphany to write it on his theology. And I went down and met him with my hat in my hand. The first thing he said was, let us pray. And when he did that, he made me realize this wasn't just academic work. This is a vocation that I'd have for the rest of my life.

MARTINEZ: And it sounds like that put you at ease.

BATTLE: Oh, yeah. Just - as you just heard, he's this charismatic, inviting person. He makes you - he disarms the negative around you and makes you open to what's good.

MARTINEZ: You know, I think when someone passes away, you spend that first few moments or that first day thinking about the one thing that reminds you the most about them. So I'm wondering, for you, what's the one thing you're remembering right now the most about Desmond Tutu?

BATTLE: I just think, you know, as a clergyperson myself, the church hasn't had very many positive examples of those who represent the church that are part of the solution. And as you just heard, you know, he is - he was a part of so many different issues that are affecting the world negatively, and he's shown how a church leader can be somebody so profound that things change around him.

MARTINEZ: What's the best way to tell us the ways his spirituality influenced that activism, what he was doing?

BATTLE: Well, I think one of the key things for him was that you have to understand what it means to be human. And he's famous for this concept called ubuntu, which means I am because you are, and because you are, I am. And he understood that just - not just for those that - people that he loved, but he understood that about his enemies, that his enemies are also a part of his identity. And I think Tutu is going to be well-known for that concept of ubuntu and his spirituality. He's going to be well-known for chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, giving the distinction between retributive justice and restorative justice. He's going to be well-known for ecumenism, or inter-religious dialogue, as one of his best friends was His Holiness the Dalai Lama. There's just so many things, I think, that are so profound about the arch.

MARTINEZ: And I want to touch on what you just said in terms of how he treated his enemies because it - I think that's a really interesting way to gauge the worth and the measure of a person. How do they treat the people that maybe don't love them back?

BATTLE: Yeah. Well, you know, apartheid really is a religious worldview. It was a worldview that those who were from the Afrikaner ethnicity understood God was on their side. And so Tutu's brilliance and his genius was to tap into the core of spirituality, that God is not against anyone. And he helped to argue against apartheid spirituality and to get them to see, especially through ubuntu, that they cannot be sufficient human beings without those who - that he - they consider their enemies, as well.

MARTINEZ: What does his passing mean to his church and to religion as a whole?

BATTLE: I think in our contemporary days in which religion is used as echo chambers, used in terms of beating people over the head, we're really going to miss those kinds of voices and the public that show religion as a balm in Gilead. That's a term in the Bible as this healing force. And so I just pray that people will step up in the legacy of Archbishop Tutu to show religion as a healing factor in the world.

MARTINEZ: That's Reverend Michael Battle. He's the author of the book "Desmond Tutu: A Spiritual Biography Of South Africa's Confessor." Reverend, thank you.

BATTLE: Thank you. It was an honor. Thank you being with - for let me being with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.