Desmond Tutu cancels travels plans to Nobel summit to battle prostate cancer

desmond tutuSouth African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has cancelled all travel plans for the rest of the year in order to battle cancer, his foundation said Tuesday.

The 83-year-old Nobel peace laureate will embark “on a new course of medication to manage the prostate cancer he’s been living with for the past 15 years”, a statement said.

Tutu had been scheduled to attend a Nobel Peace Laureates Summit in Rome this week.

It is the latest medical setback for the anti-apartheid icon, who survived an illness believed to be polio as a baby and battled tuberculosis as a teenager. In 2011 he was hospitalised for “minor” elective surgery.

He was hospitalised again last year for a persistent infection, but a battery of tests at that time showed no new malignancy.

Prostate cancer is common in men aged over 65 and can often be cured.

Serial aware recipient

Under apartheid, Tutu campaigned against white minority rule, and was awarded the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his work. Nelson Mandela, after being released from 27 years in racisit white-run jails, spent his first night of freedom at Tutu’s home.

A serial award recipient, his causes have ranged from child marriage to Tibet to calls for a Palestinian statehood and Western leaders to be tried over the Iraq war. He has also taken on his church over gay rights, and sworn he would never worship a homophobic God.

“I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place,” he said.

It was Tutu who first baptised South Africa the “Rainbow Nation” at the first all-race elections in 1994, when Nelson Mandela became president. At the time, Tutu was serving as the first black Anglican archbishop of Cape Town.

Ordained at the age of 30 and appointed archbishop in 1986, he has used his position to call for international sanctions against apartheid, and later to lobby for rights globally.

Harrowing journey

The married father of four was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and has undergone repeated treatments.

He retired the year before to lead a harrowing journey through South Africa’s brutal past as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For 30 months, “The Arch”, as he is known, headed the  Commission, whichs lifted the lid on the horrors of apartheid.  Tutu, known for his deep-rooted compassion, broke down and sobbed at one of its first hearings.

He remains outspoken on the world’s injustices, and is widely viewed as South Africa’s moral conscience – with a biting turn of phrase.

He has been fiercely critical of the ruling African National Congress, which he has said he can no longer vote for.

“I didn’t struggle in order to remove one set of those who thought they were tin gods and replace them with others who are tempted to think they are,” he once said of South Africa’s new leaders.

He has lambasted President Jacob Zuma’s government for “kowtowing” to China by barring the Dalai Lama from the Nobel Peace Laureates Summit, which was originally to be held in Cape Town.

Tutu said he was “ashamed to call this lickspittle bunch my government”. Last week he urged South Africans to emulate Mandela’s example.

Infectious cackle

“Our obligation to Madiba is to continue to build the society he envisaged, to follow his example,” Tutu said, using Mandela’s clan name.

Quick to crack jokes – often at his own expense –  he has always been ready to dance and laugh uproariously with an infectious cackle that has become his trademark.

Along the way, he has won admirers from world leaders to rock stars.

“I believe that God is waiting for the archbishop. He is waiting to welcome Desmond Tutu with open arms,” said Mandela, who stayed at Tutu’s home on his first night of freedom after 27 years in apartheid jail.

“If Desmond gets to heaven and is denied entry, then none of the rest of us will get in!”

Moral titan

Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has dubbed him a “sort of giggle-maker”, and the Dalai Lama “my spiritual older brother”.

Irish activist and pop star Bob Geldof has said he is “a complete pain in the arse” for those in power, and US President Barack Obama has hailed him as “a moral titan”.

Among his critics is Zimbabwe’s veteran President Robert Mugabe, who once described him as an “evil and embittered little bishop”.

Even with his global celebrity, his faith has remained an integral part of his life. Even his missives blasting the evils of apartheid have been signed off with “God bless you”.

“I developed tremendous respect for his fearlessness. It wasn’t fearlessness of a wild kind. It was fearlessness anchored in his deep faith in God,” said apartheid’s last leader, FW de Klerk.

He and his wife Leah, whom he married in 1955, have four children. – © 1994-2014 Agence France-Presse