Desmond Tutu, a South African icon who helped abolish apartheid, has died at the age of 90.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, a towering figure who helped bring South Africa’s apartheid to an end, has died in Cape Town. He was 90 years old.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed Tutu’s death, calling him “an unrivaled patriot; a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical understanding that faith without actions is dead.” Tutu had been in and out of hospitals in recent years.

In the 1990s, the committed freedom fighter led the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a laborious investigation into atrocities committed during the apartheid era. During South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy, it was largely seen as a critical healing phase. The TRC served as a template for similar committees across the continent.

Tutu expressed the unfettered excitement of a country rising from a turbulent history when he voted for the first time in 1994 in South Africa’s first democratic elections.

“I want to sing, I want to cry, I want to laugh. Everything together. And jump and dance,” he gleefully told reporters. “The day has arrive — yippee!”

Watch the moment here:

It had been a lengthy trek to get to the polling station. The church was not Desmond Mpilo Tutu’s first calling as the son of a high school headmaster. He began his career as a teacher after abandoning his intentions to go medical school. However, the champion of justice considered the substandard education imposed on Black South Africans by white-minority authorities to be an insult.

Tutu then decided to pursue a career as a priest and was ordained in the Anglican church in 1961. He became the first Black dean of Johannesburg fifteen years later and actively dedicated to the battle against apartheid.

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The campaigning priest was detained several times, but he claimed he found strength in his convictions and fellow South Africans. He denounced all sorts of violence and stood up to both apartheid police and furious Black mobs who were “necklacing” supposed spies by tossing tires around them and lighting them on fire. Tutu, who was now firmly on the world radar, told apartheid officials that racism violated God’s purpose and that apartheid would fail.

“The system of this country, apartheid, is immoral. The system of this country is evil,” Tutu said during that period. “What must we say, which we have not yet said? What must we do, which we have not yet done? To tell the world that all we want is a new South Africa, where all, Black and white, will be able to live as equals.”

In 1984, Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which recognized his work in the anti-apartheid struggle. “Let us work to be peacemakers,” he said during his Nobel lecture. “If we want peace, so we have been told, let us work for justice. Let us beat our swords into ploughshares.”

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With his trademark good humor, the archbishop subsequently said that one day no one was listening and then, after the award, whatever he said — “the oracle has spoken!”

After Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president, he invited Tutu to lead the country’s historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would investigate apartheid’s atrocities. The heartbreaking story was devastating for the Archbishop, who broke down and grieved alongside the survivors.

With his trademark good humor, the archbishop subsequently said that one day no one was listening and then, after the award, whatever he said — “the oracle has spoken!”

After Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president, he invited Tutu to lead the country’s historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would investigate apartheid’s atrocities. The heartbreaking story was devastating for the Archbishop, who broke down and grieved alongside the survivors.

He told Morning Edition in 2010 that the incident had no effect on his faith in God. “Perhaps if one simply heard to the horrors and accounts of the atrocities that people did,” he added, “but we were always blown away by the amount to which people were willing and able to forgive.”

Tutu has experienced health issues in the past. In 1997, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and successfully treated it halfway through the Truth and Reconciliation process. His tenacity and sense of humour came in handy. In 2005, he revealed a return of prostate cancer, although it had little impact on his demanding schedule until he resigned. Tutu was in and out of the hospital in 2015 and 2016, undergoing minor surgery to address recurring concerns with a chronic infection connected to his disease.

Following his retirement, the archbishop emeritus chastised South Africa’s new leaders for what he saw as their failings, particularly their failure to relieve poverty. He also joined The Elders, a seasoned group of international leaders that includes Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, and Kofi Annan, in his pursuit for global peace and social justice.

The archbishop was praised by Nelson Mandela as a blessing and an inspiration.

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The Elders are “devastated” by the passing of the man known to many friends as “Arch,” according to Mary Robinson, the former Irish president who presently leads the organisation.

“He inspired me to be a ‘prisoner of hope’, in his inimitable phrase,” Robinson said. “Arch was respected around the world for his dedication to justice, equality and freedom. Today we mourn his death but affirm our determination to keep his beliefs alive.”

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