Ten World Figures Who Died in 2021
from The Water's Edge

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2021

Ten people who passed away this year who shaped world affairs for better or worse.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu waves after receiving the Templeton Prize in London on May 21, 2013.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu waves after receiving the Templeton Prize in London on May 21, 2013. Paul Hackett/Reuters.

I wrote yesterday about ten Americans who died in 2021 who shaped U.S. foreign policy during their lifetimes. But Americans are not the only ones who influence world affairs. Below are ten world figures who died this year. Each made a mark on history. Some were heroes; some were villains. And for some, which they were is your call to make.

F.W. de Klerk (b. 1936) was the last president of South Africa’s white-minority government and helped end the inhuman system of apartheid. He was born in Johannesburg to a prominent and politically-connected Afrikaner family. Trained as a lawyer, he became an active member of the National Party, which had governed South Africa since World War II and imposed the apartheid system. He supported segregationist policies through much of his political career. But by the time he became president in 1989, South Africa faced damaging international sanctions and rising domestic unrest. De Klerk decided to negotiate with formerly banned opposition parties to find a peaceful end to apartheid. As part of that effort, he ordered the release of political prisoners, most notably Nelson Mandela. In 1993, de Klerk won a joint Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, and after elections the next year, he became Mandela’s deputy president. Their relationship was strained, in part because Mandela and many Black South Africans saw de Klerk’s turn toward equality as motivated by self-preservation rather than a conviction that apartheid was immoral. De Klerk, in turn, was frustrated with his and the National Party’s diminished power. He pulled the party out of the government and then retired from politics in 1997. Though he left a complicated legacy among South Africans, de Klerk insisted he had “prevented a catastrophe in South Africa.”

More on:

2021 in Review

Diplomacy and International Institutions


Heads of State and Government


Abebech Gobena (b. 1935) dedicated much of her life to helping children in Ethiopia, earning the nickname “the Mother Teresa of Africa.” She was born in a village north of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. At age ten, she was forced into an arranged marriage with a much older man. She escaped from her husband’s home and made her way to Addis Ababa, where a family took her in. She attended school and eventually found a good-paying job, married, and enjoyed middle-class comforts. A pilgrimage in 1980 to northeastern Ethiopia changed her life. She saw people dead and dying on the side of the road, victims of a famine gripping the area. She rescued a baby whose mother had died. She kept returning to the area, and by the end of the year, she and her husband had twenty-one children living with them. He soon tired of his new life and demanded she choose either him or the children. She chose the children. She sold most of her possessions and lived initially with the children in the woods. She continued to take in more children, eventually founding the nonprofit Abebech Gobena Children’s Care and Development Association. Known today as Agohelma, it is one of Ethiopia’s largest nonprofit organizations and has saved the lives of thousands of children while also providing free schooling, maternal care, and HIV/AIDs prevention. “I have no children of my own,” she once told a reporter, “but I have a family of hundreds of thousands, and I have absolutely no regrets.”

Abimael Guzmán (b. 1934) founded Peru’s ultra-radical Shining Path guerilla movement, which led an insurgency that killed tens of thousands of Peruvians between 1980 and 1993. Guzmán was born in Mollendo, a town on Peru’s southern coast. He excelled in school and eventually became a philosophy professor. A longtime communist, Guzmán’s extremism led both of Peru’s two main communist parties to expel him. He was profoundly influenced by the radicalism of Mao Zedong and the Khmer Rouge. He used his university post to build a cohort of followers and then abandoned teaching in 1974 to found the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path. Guzmán envisioned a violent overthrow of society in Peru that would create “rivers of blood.” He called himself President Gonzalo and declared that he was the “Fourth Sword of Communism,” with the three other swords being Marx, Lenin, and Mao. Shining Path launched its first attack in 1980, and for the next dozen years it kidnapped and assassinated opponents, disrupted supplies of food, water, and electricity, and sought to provoke the Peruvian military into responding with excessive force, which it often did. At its height, Shining Path forces controlled significant portions of Peru. A police unit dedicated to tracking down Shining Path leaders found Guzmán in September 1992 living in an affluent Lima neighborhood. He was sentenced to life in prison. An estimated 70,000 Peruvians died as a result of the Shining Path insurgency.

Abdul Qadeer Khan (b. 1935 or 1936) was known as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program and aided several other countries in their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Khan was born in Bhopal, India. In 1952, he moved with his parents to Pakistan. Khan studied metallurgy at the University of Karachi. In 1972, he earned his PhD in metallurgy at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium after studies in West Germany and the Netherlands. He then joined the staff of a Dutch company that built high-speed centrifuges used to enrich uranium. After India tested its first nuclear bomb in 1974, Khan stole the blueprints for two centrifuges and returned to Pakistan. His theft enabled Pakistan to overcome the main obstacle it faced in building a nuclear weapon—getting the fissile material needed for a bomb. Khan continued to use subterfuge and theft to obtain other materials to move the Pakistani nuclear program forward. In 1998, Pakistan tested its first nuclear weapon, and Khan was celebrated as a national hero. In 2003, U.S. and UK intelligence officials uncovered evidence that Khan had built an illicit network, likely with the knowledge of at least parts of the Pakistani government, to sell nuclear and other advanced technology to Iran, Libya, North Korea, and South Africa. Under pressure from the George W. Bush administration, Khan was dismissed from his government post, and he publicly confessed to being a rogue scientist. He was subsequently pardoned and denied having promoted nuclear proliferation.

John Magufuli (b. 1959) was the president of Tanzania who downplayed COVID-19 and possibly died of it. Magufuli was born in what was then British-ruled Tanganyika and what is today northwest Tanzania. He graduated from the University of Dar es Salaam in 1988 with a degree in chemistry and taught secondary school for several years. He was elected to Tanzania’s parliament in 1995 and later headed the country’s public works department for a decade, earning a reputation for being incorruptible and getting the nickname “the bulldozer.” In 2015, Magufuli was elected president after running a populist campaign that focused on fighting corruption. His initial popularity faded as he began curbing political freedoms and quashing dissent. He won reelection in 2020 in a vote that was likely rigged. Tundu Lissu, Magufuli’s main opponent in the election, fled to Belgium to avoid trumped up charges that he was trying to overthrow the government. Magufuli dismissed the significance of the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming that vaccines “don’t work” and saying that three days of prayer had rid Tanzania of the virus. Magufuli’s government refused to share data about COVID-19 in Tanzania even as the country was likely experiencing a spike in cases. Official reports attributed Magufuli’s death to a heart ailment; he suffered from chronic atrial fibrillation. Many Tanzanians believe that the real cause of death was COVID-19.

Jovenel Moïse (b. 1968) was the president of Haiti whose four-year rule ended when he was assassinated in his home. Moïse was born in Trou-du-Nord and attended school in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. A successful, self-made businessman, he was picked by Haiti’s then president in 2015 as his successor, though election irregularities and Hurricane Matthew delayed the election for more than a year, leaving Haiti with an interim president. Moïse was finally elected president in November 2016 in a contest that drew just 18 percent of Haiti’s voters to the polls. Once in office, he pursued corruption cases, agricultural development, and a constitutional referendum that would have centralized power in the presidency. His administration came under scrutiny for embezzlement and for using gangs to suppress political opposition. Moïse began ruling by decree when Haitian legislators’ terms lapsed in January 2020 without new elections. Conflict grew when the opposition argued that Moïse’s five-year term ended in February 2021; he countered that because the election had been delayed by a year his term actually ended in February 2022. The failure to call new elections and rising poverty and violence led to massive street protests against Moïse early in 2021. At 1:00 a.m. on July 7, gunmen broke into his home, fatally shooting him and critically wounding his wife. The circumstances of his assassination remain unclear. Haitian police said the assassins were foreign mercenaries but didn’t explain their motives or identify their funders. One possibility is that they were hired by drug traffickers who Moïse planned to call out by name.

More on:

2021 in Review

Diplomacy and International Institutions


Heads of State and Government


Jehan Sadat (b. 1933) was the widow of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and an advocate for women’s rights. Sadat was born in Cairo to an Egyptian father and a British mother. She married her husband in 1948, three years before he participated in the coup that overthrew the Egyptian monarchy and pushed Britain out of the country. She became first lady of Egypt in 1970, when Anwar Sadat became president upon Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death. As first lady, Sadat supported her husband’s war against Israel in 1973 and then his pursuit of a peace treaty with Israel that left Egypt ostracized in the Arab world. An early advocate of women’s rights, she pushed her husband to pass a decree—which became known as “Jehan’s laws”—that expanded civil, financial, and political rights for Egyptian women. After President Sadat was assassinated by Islamist extremists in 1981, Mrs. Sadat briefly retreated from public life. She eventually returned to activism, speaking about President Sadat’s legacy and campaigning for women’s rights in Egypt and internationally. She taught at Cairo University and was an associate resident scholar at the University of Maryland. She wrote two books, her autobiography, which was titled A Woman of Egypt and published in 1987, and My Hope for Peace, which was published in 2009.

Faye Schulman (b. 1919) was a Jewish photographer and resistance fighter in what was then Nazi-occupied Poland. Schulman was born Faigel Lazebnik, the fifth of seven children in the small village of Lenin, which today is part of Belarus. She began apprenticing as a photographer to an older brother at the age of ten. On August 14, 1942, German troops massacred 1,850 Jews in Lenin, including Schulman’s parents, sisters, and younger brother. She was among the twenty-seven villagers spared for their skills, in her case, to take and develop photographs. Schulman secretly kept copies of the photos to document Nazi atrocities. After a month, fearful that she would soon be killed, she escaped to the forests around Lenin. There she joined the Molotava Brigade, a group of mostly Soviet partisan fighters. For two years she acted as the brigade’s nurse—her sole medical qualification being that her brother-in-law had been a doctor. She hid her Jewish identity from her fellow partisans because of the Soviets’ anti-Semitism. After she recovered her photographic equipment during a raid on Lenin, she captured the brigade’s joy, grief, and daily life in nearly one hundred photos. Her work remains one of the most detailed collections depicting partisan resistance in the war. Schulman explained she took and later shared the photos because "I want people to know that there was resistance. Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. I was a photographer. I have pictures. I have proof." After the war, Schulman married a fellow partisan, and the couple eventually settled in Toronto.

Desmond M. Tutu (b. 1931) was an Anglican archbishop who played a pivotal role in ushering in the end of apartheid in South Africa. Born in Klerskdorp, South Africa, he survived tuberculosis as a boy. He wanted to become a medical doctor, but his family couldn’t afford the tuition. He became a teacher instead. He resigned after three years to protest segregation in South African schools and entered the ministry. He was ordained in 1961 in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. He spent a decade studying theology in London, before returning to South Africa and taking a succession of more senior positions in the Anglican Church. He used his clerical positions to criticize apartheid, urge nonviolent protest, and call for international sanctions on South Africa. In 1984 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-apartheid efforts. Five years later he was elected the first Black archbishop of Cape Town, the head of the Anglican Church in South Africa. After apartheid ended, President Nelson Mandela appointed Tutu chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which compiled evidence of the cruelty of apartheid. He advocated for restorative justice, reconciling Black and white South Africans to create what he called a “rainbow nation.” Known for his humor and affable personality, Tutu continued to campaign for social and political causes, including gay rights and climate justice. He also criticized the African National Congress, which dominates South Africa’s government, for failing to act to end corruption and persistent economic inequality.

Brian E. Urquhart (b. 1919) was the second official hired by the United Nations after its founding in 1945 and helped shape the institution in his tenure as a principal advisor to five UN secretaries general. Urquhart was born in Bridport, England, and initially attended the all-girls school where his mother worked after his father abandoned the family. He won a scholarship to the elite Westminster School in London before enrolling at the University of Oxford. He dropped out of Oxford at the start of World War II to join the British army. As an intelligence officer, he warned British commanders in September 1944 against launching an assault behind German lines in the Netherlands. His superiors ignored his warnings; Operation Market Garden turned into a disaster. After the war, Urquhart joined the commission designing the United Nations. He played a pivotal role in the creation of UN peacekeeping and directed thirteen peacekeeping operations around the world. He also mediated several clashes between Israel and its Arab neighbors in the 1970s and 1980s and earned respect for his practicality and integrity. Urquhart’s decades at the UN left him with a realistic understanding of the institution: “Three-fourths of the time, you achieve nothing, but every once in a while, it works just enough to make it worthwhile going on with it.” Queen Elizabeth II knighted Urquhart upon his retirement from the UN in 1986. He wrote a memoir of his life as well as biographies of UN luminaries Dag Hammarskjöld and Ralph Bunche.

Other significant world figures who died in 2021 included: Josep Almudéver Mateu was the last-known survivor of the International Brigades that fought the Nationalist forces led by Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Benigno Aquino III was a former president of the Philippines. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was the first president of Iran after the Islamic Revolution. Abdelaziz Bouteflika was Algeria’s longest-serving president. Idriss Déby seized power in Chad in 1990 and ruled the country for three decades through a mix of repression and corruption. David Dushman was the last known surviving liberator of Auschwitz who as a Soviet Olympic fencing coach witnessed the deadly terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Hissène Habré preceded Déby as president of Chad and was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity. Lucía Hiriart wielded immense power in Chile during the seventeen years that her husband, Augusto Pinochet, ruled the country. Kenneth Kaunda led Zambia to independence and served as its first president.

Carlos Saúl Menem was the former president of Argentina. Tom Moore was a former British army officer who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II after raising more than 32 million pounds at the age of ninety-nine to support NHS staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ida Nudel fought for the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel. Erneido Oliva was a brigade leader in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was the husband of Queen Elizabeth II. Nawal el Saadawi advocated for women's rights in the Arab world. Saadi Yacef was an Algerian guerrilla leader of the National Liberation Front who helped win Algeria’s independence from France.

Margaret Gach, Charlotte Peterson, and Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.

Other posts in this series:

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2023

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2022

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2020

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2019

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2018

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2017

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2016

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2015

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2014

Ten World Figures Who Died in 2013

Remembering Ten World Figures Who Died in 2012

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