(CNN) — Family, friends and dignitaries gathered for Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s official state funeral on New Year’s Day in Cape Town, capping a week of events honoring a man long regarded as South Africa’s moral compass.
Tutu died last Sunday at the age of 90, sparking a worldwide outpouring of tributes to the anti-apartheid hero. He had been in poor health for several years.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who delivered the main eulogy during the service at St. George’s Cathedral on Saturday, hailed Tutu as “our national conscience.” Tutu’s widow, Nomalizo Leah, known as “Mama Leah,” sat in a wheelchair in the front row of the congregation, wrapped in a purple scarf, the color of her husband’s clerical robes.
For decades, Tutu was one of the leading voices pushing the South African government to end apartheid, the country’s official policy of racial segregation and white minority rule. He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, before apartheid ended in the early 1990s and Nelson Mandela, long imprisoned, became the nation’s first black president.
The revered fighter against apartheid will be remembered as one of the most important voices of the 20th century. However, his funeral was moderate: Before he died, Tutu asked for a simple service and the cheapest coffin available, according to two of his foundations. Tutu’s funeral was limited to just 100 people, in accordance with current covid-19 regulations.
In his speech at St. George’s Cathedral, a church famous for its role in the resistance against apartheid, Ramaphosa described Tutu as “a man of faith as deep as it is enduring” and “a crusader in the fight for freedom, for justice, equality and peace, not only in South Africa, the country of his birth, but also throughout the world”.
“Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been our moral compass and our national conscience,” Ramaphosa said. “He saw our country as a ‘rainbow nation,’ emerging from the shadow of apartheid, united in its diversity, with freedom and equal rights for all.”
“He embraced everyone who had ever felt the cold wind of exclusion and they in turn embraced him,” Ramaphosa added, praising Tutu’s advocacy for LGBTQ rights, campaigning against child marriage and supporting the Palestinian cause.
“His was a life lived honestly and fully. He has left the world a better place. We remember him with a smile,” Ramaphosa said.
Tutu’s daughter, Naomi, also paid tribute to her father and thanked the public for their prayers. “Thank you, Dad, for the many ways you showed us love, for the many times you challenged us, for the many times you comforted us,” she said.
The Rev. Michael Nuttall, the retired bishop of Natal who was once Tutu’s aide, delivered the main sermon, calling Tutu a “giant among us morally and spiritually.”
His voice breaking at times, Nuttal said being Tutu’s aide from 1989 to 1996 “struck a chord perhaps in the hearts and minds of many people: a dynamic black leader and his white deputy in the last years of apartheid. We were a foretaste, so to speak, of what could be in our wayward and divided nation.”
In a video message played at the ceremony, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said an Archbishop of Canterbury paying tribute to Archbishop Tutu was “like a mouse paying tribute to an elephant”.
Tutu’s body will be cremated in a private ceremony after Saturday’s requiem mass and then buried behind the cathedral’s pulpit.
Events were planned across the country to give South Africans the opportunity to collectively mourn “the Arch,” as it was known, while still practicing social distancing.
A week-long memory began Monday with the pealing of the bells at St. George’s Cathedral, which held a special place in the late archbishop’s heart, so much so that he asked that his ashes be interred there in a special repository.
On Wednesday, religious leaders gathered outside Tutu’s former home on Vilakazi Street, where his friend and ally Nelson Mandela also grew up, in Soweto, a Johannesburg township, for a series of events. Another memorial service was held in Cape Town on Wednesday, and Tutu’s wife, Nomalizo Leah Tutu, joined friends of the late archbishop on Thursday for an “intimate” meeting.
South Africans also paid their respects to Tutu’s plain pine coffin on Thursday and Friday as he lay in the cathedral.
Tutu was born on October 7, 1931 in Klerksdorp, a city in the South African province of Transvaal, the son of a teacher and a domestic worker. Tutu had plans to become a doctor, thanks in part to a bout of tuberculosis in childhood, which landed him in the hospital for more than a year, and even qualified for medical school, he said.
But his parents could not pay the fees, so he devoted himself to teaching.
“The government was giving out scholarships for people who wanted to become teachers,” he told the Academy of Achievement. “I became a teacher and I haven’t regretted it.”
However, he was appalled at the state of black South African schools, and even more appalled when the Bantu Education Act was passed in 1953 racially segregating the nation’s education system. He resigned in protest. Soon after, the Bishop of Johannesburg agreed to accept him to the priesthood (Tutu believed it was because he was a college-educated black man, a rarity in the 1950s) and he took on his new vocation.
He was ordained a priest in 1960 and spent the 1960s and early 1970s alternating between London and South Africa. He definitely returned to his home country in 1975, when he was appointed Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg. As the government became more and more oppressive, rounding up blacks, putting onerous laws in place, Tutu became more and more outspoken.
CNN’s Larry Madowo, Chandler Thornton, Allegra Goodwin and Niamh Kennedy contributed to this report.