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Peace icon Desmond Tutu on Thursday called on South Africa, tarnished by violence and inequality, to recover the "spirit that made it great" at the fall of apartheid.
"The world really thought that we were the cat's whiskers," Tutu, who is seen as South Africa's moral compass, said referring to the period after the advent of democracy in 1994.
"We can't pretend that we have remained at the same height," he added with "a plea that we for goodness sake recover the spirit that made us great".
The former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town was speaking at an event to mark his reception of the $1.7 million (1.3 million euro) Templeton Prize award.
The 81-year-old steered clear of directly commenting on current politics amid a series of controversies facing President Jacob Zuma's government.
The Nobel peace laureate said South Africa, once "the flavour of the month" when democracy arrived 19 years ago, was now one of the world's most violent and unequal societies.
"The world was thrilled when freedom came to our land and we pray that South Africa will recover its own sense of worth, we will recover the sense of worth of every single human being," he said.
He called on the nation to become "a generous, a gentle, a caring, a compassionate society."
Tutu was awarded the Templeton Prize, one of the world's largest annual awards, last week for his lifelong work to promote "love and forgiveness".
The prize pays tribute to "a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension"
The former vocal opponent of South Africa's white-minority apartheid regime will be formally presented with the award at a ceremony in London on May 21.
"Like so many of us, I owe a great deal to our former president Nelson Mandela," said Tutu, citing the 94-year-old in his tributes.
Tutu did not say what he will do with the money, after previous recipient the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, gave the money to charity.
"I'm certainly not going to want to hog it to myself," he said.