Archbishop Desmond Tutu's life serves as an example to us all - leader comment

Tributes to Archbishop Desmond Tutu's extraordinary life came from every corner of the planet yesterday, from the Dalai Lama – who hailed a man "entirely dedicated to serving his brothers and sisters for the greater common good" – to Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who wrote of a "life that made the world a better place".

Tutu was a singular figure because of what lay at his core. He commanded a moral authority derived from deeply-held and closely-argued principles, not all of which sat neatly within the day's prevailing political ideologies.

Moreover, he then argued powerfully from those principles, especially in campaigning against South Africa' s apartheid regime, deploying vivid rhetoric to set out the evils of the apartheid system at a time when none of his black peers – imprisoned in their struggle for human rights – were able to do so.

His speech on collecting the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize stands as permanent witness both to his skills, and the evils of that era.

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Tutu contrasted his "beautiful land, richly endowed by God with wonderful natural resources, wide expanses, rolling mountains, singing birds, bright shining stars out of blue skies, with radiant sunshine, golden sunshine" with the brutal murder by police of a six-year-old boy, in front of his grandmother, and the "callous demolitions" in squatter camps that left black women and their families "sitting on soaking mattresses, with their household effects strewn round their feet, and whimpering babies on their laps, in the cold Cape winter rain".

Through his life, Tutu's reward for his morality was fierce criticism from across the political spectrum, not only from the white conservatives most threatened by the fall of apartheid, but radicals who thought him too liberal, and liberals who thought him too radical.

Yet he was respected enough to lead, post apartheid, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the country's ground-breaking attempt to come to terms with – and move beyond – its grim past.

His life set an inspirational example. Too often we are appalled by the shallowness of those in public life, dismayed by the chicanery and opportunism of those we elect to lead us.

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Tutu's life should serve as a reminder. Some public figures can transcend the squalor of the political world they inhabit, and lead true change for the better.

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