JOHANNESBURG – One of South Africa's most beloved figures, Desmond Tutu, announced plans Thursday to retire from public life after his 79th birthday in October. The Nobel peace laureate honored for his efforts to fight apartheid said he wants to spend more time with his family.
South Africans lavished praise on Tutu and said his retirement was well-deserved, but many said they could not imagine the country without his moral leadership.
Opposition politician Patricia de Lille said Tutu's "special" voice would be missed and there were hopes he would still speak out on issues facing the nation.
Josephina Mahlaba, 60, an unemployed woman in Johannesburg, said Tutu deserved to step out of the spotlight after a lifetime of service to his countrymen.
"It's been a long road for him and he looked after us all in South Africa ... he prayed for us all," she said.
The South African Council of Churches, which Tutu led during the apartheid era, commended the archbishop for the "prophetic role he played national and internationally."
"He was truly a voice in the darkness for very many people who are dwelling in the darkness. He offered hope, he offered love and he offered life," the council's secretary general Eddie Makue said.
In the years since apartheid ended in 1994, Tutu has remained active on a wide array of social and political issues, calling for the ouster of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and also helping to welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors last month to the World Cup.
"He has become an international icon of fearless integrity, who has taken a stand against power abuse throughout his long public life," said Helen Zille, the leader of South Africa's main opposition political party, the Democratic Alliance. "He has paid a high price for it at times, but always triumphed through his blend of faith and self-deprecating humor."
She described him as the nation's "moral compass."
The former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town said after his birthday on Oct. 7 he will limit his time in the office to one day per week until February 2011.
"Instead of growing old gracefully, at home with my family reading and writing and praying and thinking too much of my time has been spent at airports and in hotels," Tutu said in a statement Thursday. "The time has now come to slow down, to sip Rooibos tea with my beloved wife in the afternoons, to watch cricket, to travel to visit my children and grandchildren, rather than to conferences and conventions and university campuses."
In recent weeks, a jovial Tutu appeared at several World Cup events. He gave a speech to thunderous applause at the tournament's opening concert and was also seen dancing in his seat at the VIP section at the opening ceremony.
It is Tutu who labeled South Africa the "rainbow nation of God" to celebrate its diverse cultures.
He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, then used his new international stature to step up the campaign against apartheid. Tutu led calls for punitive sanctions against South Africa, remaining one of the few strong voices inside the country while other activists were imprisoned or forced to operate abroad.
He was ever-present during the turbulent final years of apartheid and the ensuing transition to majority rule, praying and sermonizing after massacres and then heading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For more than two years the panel listened to people testifying about torture, killings and other atrocities during the apartheid era.
Former South African president Nelson Mandela made a similar decision to largely retire from public life back in 2004.
Tutu said once he steps down, he will no longer be available for media interviews and new appointments will not be added to his schedule.
"It's very sad that he's retiring. I used to see him around and he would greet me back," said Josephine Ngobeni, 38, a social worker who lives in the Orlando West section of Soweto where Tutu also has a home.
Sifiso Mahlaba, 30, described Tutu as South Africa's inspirational leader.
"By retiring, we are losing the most powerful leader in our country," Mahlaba said.
Tutu said, though, that he would stay involved with the Nobel Laureate Group and a group of international statesmen and women brought together by Mandela known as the Elders. Tutu also will remain involved in the Desmond Tutu Peace Center in Cape Town.
Tutu said Thursday he contributed "in a small way to the development of our new democratic, exhilarating, exasperating nation.
Thank you to my colleagues, past and present, for doing all the work and allowing me to take the credit," he said. "As Madiba said on his retirement: Don't call me; I'll call you."
Associated Press writers Eric Naki and Tshego Letshwiti in Johannesburg contributed to this report.