South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: Remembering Luthuli on the 50th anniversary of his death

Op-Ed: Remembering Luthuli on the 50th anniversary of his death

There is a remarkable silence on the part of the ANC in this week, which marks the 50th anniversary of Chief Albert Luthuli’s death. Luthuli died as ANC president in 1967 and was the first South African to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The ANC has made no statement on the matter or announced no commemoratory events. Luthuli, is an uncomfortable memory, for he represented ethical and leadership qualities that are in stark contrast to the squalor that marks the ANC of 2017. By RAYMOND SUTTNER.

First published by

We remember leading individuals of the past in order to grapple with the meanings of their lives and to see what bearing their legacies have on the present. The history of the ANC and its leaders is not only of concern to the ANC but also an important part of the history of the country as a whole. We remember people and what their lives signify partly with a view to measuring what we have achieved or failed to do.

Why is it that the ANC is ambivalent about and has repressed memories of Chief Albert Luthuli? We are a few days before 21 July, the 50th anniversary of his death and the organisation has issued no statement. There is no announcement of any scheduled event(s) to honour his memory, no mention on the ANC website, (though as part of a different story, there is to be a small event in his home village of Groutville, organised by the local authorities).

Despite this being a milestone, as with the 50th anniversary of his receiving the Nobel Prize, the ANC has made little effort to mark this date. In 2011, also, the anniversary of the founding of MK completely overshadowed Luthuli’s award, which received little if any mention on the part of the organisation.

Is it a conscious suppression of memory or just that leaders are now so involved in succession battles or dubious deals that there is no time for Luthuli? It may also be that, in these times, many people have been able to be members and advance to positions in the organisation without being very conversant with ANC history.

The ANC’s memory does stretch back to the time of Oliver Reginald Tambo, whose birth is celebrated this year, and rightly so, but organisational memory does not appear to go back to 1967 and certainly does not include honouring what Luthuli (and in fact Tambo also) stood for. I believe it is correct to mark the remarkable life of Tambo, but Luthuli also deserves attention, not only by the ANC but all of us.

Luthuli died after allegedly being struck by a train when making a crossing that he negotiated carefully almost every day of his life. The inquest cleared anyone of wrongdoing, though the family believe that it was no accident. (But not Scott Couper, Bound by Faith, 2010, whose book is at pains to contest any attempt to suggest malfeasance).

Uncomfortable legacies

There are good reasons why the present-day ANC leadership may be uncomfortable with celebrating Luthuli’s legacies, if these are presented in an unsanitised form. His life represents qualities that are not found among current leaders, qualities that were manifested purely through his desire to live his life with integrity. The way Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Chief Luthuli, Walter and Albertina Sisulu and others are celebrated too often denudes them of their most essential qualities. This is because what they embodied is in a sense subversive in the present context.

Liberal use of words like “icon” and similar notions that tell us nothing, prevent us from uncovering what it is that these leaders and Luthuli represented that are both a rebuke of the current leadership and represent an alternative model of leadership that can be advanced for emulation.

Leadership as service

Why must we remember Luthuli and re-inject his model of leadership into politics today? One of the reasons why we need to recall Luthuli’s life in this time of shameful and shameless greed is that he consciously emphasised what he called the “gospel of service”. Luthuli lamented that people were too concerned with reward and slow in adopting the notion of leadership and political involvement more generally as service. In a speech at the 44th Congress of the ANC in Natal in 1955, he exhorts the members to be willing to serve and sacrifice:

But for all this we cannot claim to have prosecuted our campaigns with any semblance of military efficiency and technique (an unusual use of military imagery for Luthuli). We cannot say that the Africans are accepting fast enough the gospel of service and sacrifice for the general and larger good without expecting personal and at that immediate reward. They have not accepted fully the basic truth enshrined in the saying no cross, no crown.”

Like Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, Luthuli recognised the importance of sacrifice and building an organisation that was prepared to give everything in order to achieve and safeguard freedom, even if he, Luthuli, were to be among those who would die in order to achieve this goal. He knew, also, that people who were to make sacrifices needed to prepare themselves for this. That is why, at the time of the ANC’s Defiance Campaign of 1952, he called a special meeting of the Natal Executive to ensure that all were ready to lead in civil disobedience. They were asked about their level of preparedness and all performed the vow, required of defiers and said a prayer before dispersing to carry out their undertakings.

When faced with the demand of the government to choose between the ANC and his chieftainship, in 1952, Luthuli refused to choose. He knew that his decision would bring down the wrath of the government and others who wished him ill. He was deposed as a chief. But he looked into the future and decided that he had to ready himself for whatever else could befall him, memorably declaring:

What the future has in store for me I do not know. It might be ridicule, imprisonment, concentration camp, flogging, banishment and even death. I only pray to the Almighty to strengthen my resolve so that none of these grim possibilities may deter me from striving for the sake of the good name of our beloved country, the Union of South Africa, to make it a true democracy and a true union in form and spirit of all the communities in the land. …

It is inevitable that in working for Freedom some individuals and some families must take the lead and suffer: The Road to Freedom is via the Cross.”

Luthuli and identities

In a time when our country battles with racism, ethnic chauvinism and xenophobia it is worth recalling how Luthuli straddled various identities. He was a Christian and an elected chief, who played his role according to the customs of the Abase Makolweni people of the Mvoti Mission Reserve. Unlike many chiefs today Luthuli did not operate with the notion of custom as practices operating unchanged from time immemorial and from early in his chieftaincy introduced changes, including the right of women to participate in gatherings of the chieftaincy and its councils. (This was part of a broader non-patriarchal approach to women, in his family and beyond, which is not possible to examine within the present space constraints. But see Raymond Suttner, The Road to Freedom is via the Cross, Just Means in Chief Albert Luthuli’s Life, (2010) South African Historical Journal, 62: 4, 693-715, at 712-713).

Luthuli’s Christianity co-existed very comfortably with his being a chief. In the chapter of his autobiography referring to his agreement to stand for election he speaks of the “call” of his village to make himself available for election for some years before he accepted. (Let My People Go, 1962, chapter 5). He had not agreed at first because he was worried about the financial implications. He was a teacher at Adams College and could earn more to meet the financial commitments to his family. His decision to respond to the “call” a phrase associated with prophetic qualities was driven by his own introspection about the meaning of his Christianity, a notion of religion that was essentially humanistic and not centred only on personal salvation but liberation of all.

Luthuli was a Christian chief and the majority of the inhabitants of the area and of his council were non-Christians. Yet Luthuli had no contempt for the ambaBheshu (or amaBhinca) and taught his children to respect and learn from their insights.

This was part of a wider openness found in his public and political life where his closest confidante was Moses Kotane, the Communist leader. At the same time he formed close relationships with Alan Paton, leader of the Liberal Party and other Liberals.

Possibility of enrichment was there, but resisted

Conditions were harder then than now but even then there were opportunities for individuals to enrich themselves. Luthuli was a chief who had been allowed to try criminal cases and was entitled to impose fines. Through such fines chiefs were able to enrich themselves. But he managed his chieftainship in a manner that was incompatible with enrichment. According to his wife, Nokukhanya, MaBhengu:

He always tried to stop conflicts before they got too big, and he always tried to stop a case from turning into a trial. He used to say, ‘It’s true that the authorities say a wrongdoer must be fined. That is what the chief is expected to do to sort out the problem. But if I fine people where are they going to find the means to pay? How will they be able to send their children to school?’”

Luthuli never imposed them because he was conscious of the impact fines would have on an impoverished people.

There were also attempts to bribe him over land disputes, but he always refused. (Nokukhanya MaBhengu and Albertinah Luthuli in Peter Rule et al, Nokukhanya. Mother of Light, 1993 at 90).

Luthuli was the first non-racial leader in South Africa, the first African to have a following among whites

Luthuli became ANC Natal president only two years after the African-Indian conflicts of 1949. His presidency of the Natal ANC and later the national ANC was characterised by close relationships with the Indian Congresses especially in Natal and this went some way to re-establish amicable relationships between the communities.

Illustrating the fruits of this work, the late Ben Magubane told me how after an ANC rally in Durban people left the stadium to see police harassing Indian vendors. The ANC members then formed a cordon around the vendors in order to protect them. Luthuli met frequently with the Indian community and is often shown in photographs eating at Indian gatherings or homes.

Luthuli made considerable efforts to reach out to whites and for his pains he was assaulted on one such occasion in Pretoria. During a brief interlude between restriction orders, in 1959, Luthuli addressed large audiences including whites in Cape Town.

Mary Benson remarks that his lucid and uncompromising approach inspired enthusiasm. “After one meeting a crocodile of men and women of all races followed him down the street, singing Somlandela Luthuli… – We will follow Luthuli. Swinging and swaying in the traditional steps-one, two, three, kick- ‘we will follow, we will follow Luthuli…’” His visit to the Cape was described as a “triumphal tour” by the Johannesburg Star…. (Benson, Struggle for a Birthright, 1985, 208-209).

It may not be possible to prove conclusively that Luthuli was killed by the apartheid police or others in the “system”, but certainly a man who commanded support amongst all sections of the population constituted a threat that the apartheid regime had never previously encountered and this would not be seen again until Mandela’s presidency.

Even if the ANC chooses to neglect the memory and legacies of Luthuli we, the citizens of South Africa need to draw on these. Interestingly, Luthuli was born in then Rhodesia and in a week when a deputy minister uses xenophobic language we need to recall not only that Luthuli was not of South African birth, but that he advanced a universal notion of rights, that freedom belonged to all of us, no matter what our origins. He also advanced and lived ethical leadership, instead of merely voicing the words. Anyone who is serious about that notion ought to look at Luthuli’s practices in order to derive insights that can benefit our society, when we eventually emerge from the abuses and crimes that characterise government today. DM

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison has recently been reissued with a new introduction covering his more recent life outside the ANC by Jacana Media. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.8% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.2% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.2% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.2%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options