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South Africa’s Desmond Tutu Marks 80th Birthday

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu looks on during his autobiographical book launch in Cape Town, October 6, 2011.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu looks on during his autobiographical book launch in Cape Town, October 6, 2011.
Delia Robertson

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is celebrating his 80th birthday in Cape Town with a series of events that began Thursday.  Now included in the schedule is a conversation between the Dalai Lama and the archbishop via video link.

Birthday wishes are pouring in from across South Africa and the globe for Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu as he marks his 80th birthday Friday.  People called radio stations and flooded social media sites with messages of support and affection.

The milestone is being celebrated with events over three days, culminating Saturday with the inaugural address of the Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture.

The Tibetan spiritual leader had been slated to deliver the address but was forced to cancel his trip when the South African government did not respond to his visa application.  Many have described their silence as a constructive denial of the visa.  In a video message posted on his website and circulated by social networking sites, the Dalai Lama said the archbishop is a unique person.

“Unfortunately it is quite rare on this planet, such like you who really carry hope,“ he said.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe later said the government would grant the visa, but when pressed Thursday to do so immediately, his office said he does not make decisions about visas.

Earlier this week, Tutu singled out President Jacob Zuma in a passionate public condemnation of the government’s handling of the application, saying it was discourteous and disgraceful.

“Hey Mr Zuma, you and your government don’t represent me," he said.  "You represent your own interests.  And I am warning you, I really am warning you, out of love.  I am warning you like I warned the [National Party], one day we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC government.”

Mr Zuma has not attended any of Tutu’s birthday events, but did issue a congratulatory press statement saying, “we respect him, love him and always welcome his counsel on issues.”

Tutu started his professional life as a teacher and became a priest at 30.  He became an increasingly outspoken critic of the apartheid government following the Soweto student uprising of 1976, and was subjected to frequent harassment by the police and his passport was cancelled.  But this did not silence him and in 1984 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  But Tutu told guests in Cape Town this week he did not stand alone - he said he had the support of his fellow citizens and of the international community.

“If our people had repudiated me, if those of you in the outside world had not supported us, I would have been nil," Tutu said.  "And so you are as much a part of these celebrations in a very real organic way, and I wish I could open my heart and you had the medical skills, that would be able to say ahh, ja, there we see.  I just want to say, thank you.”

After the end of apartheid in 1994, then President Nelson Mandela asked the archbishop to head up the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established to deal with the gross human rights violations of the apartheid era.

But even after the advent of democracy the Arch, as he is fondly known by South Africans, continued to speak out against what he saw as the excesses or failures of the African National Congress led government. His outspoken honesty continues to irk those in power or who are privileged, but endears him to ordinary people.

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