The legacy of Albert Luthuli

ANC president from 1952 to 1967, and winner of the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize, Chief Albert Luthuli was the most respected African leader of his era. The Albert Luthuli Legacy Project keeps the story of Luthuli – and the millions of people he represented – alive for a generation of South Africans born into freedom.

Albert Luthuli
‘No true peace and progress can be secured in any country as long as there are others in that country denied full democratic rights and duties’ – Chief Albert John Luthuli (Photo: Wikipedia)

Brand South Africa reporter

President-General of the African National Congress from December 1952 until his death in 1967, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960, Chief Albert John Luthuli was the most widely known and respected African leader of his era.

Luthuli’s home in Stanger, KwaZulu-Natal, a meeting place for people linked to South Africa’s freedom struggle during the years of Luthuli’s banishment, was proclaimed a museum in August 2004.

The opening marked the completion of the government-driven Albert Luthuli Legacy Project, which included the launch of an annual memorial lecture, and the unveiling of a bronze statue of Luthuli at the KwaDukuza Municipal Chambers, and of a memorial at the Groutville Congregational Church where Luthuli’s grave is located.

The house that is now the Chief Albert Luthuli Museum was under constant police surveillance when Luthuli lived there.

Although Luthuli had been banished to his home by the apartheid government, many people travelled there to seek his counsel – among them United States attorney-general Senator Robert Kennedy, who arrived by helicopter for an unofficial visit in 1966.

The Order of Luthuli is South Africa’s highest award for contributions to democracy, human rights, justice and peace. See: South Africa’s national orders.

Luthuli and his guest held a private discussion on a wooden bench that is still positioned under a tree outside the museum. The two men discussed the ANC’s vision of a united South Africa, and before leaving Kennedy gave the ANC leader a portable record player and recordings of speeches made by his brother, former US president JF Kennedy.

The ventilation shafts running beneath the floorboards were once used to conceal documents. According to the Arts and Culture Department, during restoration work on the building, workers uncovered a number of papers dating from that historic era.

A latecomer to politics

According to SA History Online, Luthuli – who preferred his Zulu name Mvumbi (“Continuous Rain”) to his Christian names Albert John – was a latecomer to politics, nearly 50 when he first assumed national political office.

Born near Bulawayo in what was then Rhodesia (and is now Zimbabwe) in 1898, Luthuli was sent back to his family’s home at Groutville mission station in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa in 1908.

After completing a teaching course at Edendale near Pietermaritzburg, Luthuli took up the running of a small primary school in the Natal uplands. At around the same time, he was confirmed in the Methodist Church and became a lay preacher.

The language of the Bible and Christian principles “profoundly affected his political style and beliefs for the rest of his life”, SA History Online states in its biography.

In 1920 Luthuli studied further, then took up a teaching post, at Adams College. In 1935 he agreed to accept the chieftaincy of Groutville reserve, and returned home to become an administrator of local tribal affairs for the next 17 years.

Luthuli’s public support for the 1952 Defiance Campaign finally brought him into direct conflict with the South African government, who demanded he resign from the ANC and dismissed him from his post as chief when he refused to do so.

In response, Luthuli issued “The Road to Freedom is via the Cross”, in which he condemned apartheid as degrading to all who are party to it and expressed both his belief in non-violence and an optimism that whites would sooner or later accept a shared society.

“The notoriety gained by his dismissal, his eloquence, his unimpeachable character, and his demonstrated loyalty to the ANC all made Luthuli a natural candidate to succeed ANC President James Moroka”, SA History Online states in its biography.

Luthuli was elected ANC president-general by a large majority in December 1952, winning re-election in 1955 and 1958.

“Bans imposed in early 1953 and renewed in the following year prevented him from giving direction to the day-to-day activities of Congress”, SA History Online states, “but as a country-bred ‘man of the people’, combining the most inspiring qualities of Christian and traditional leadership, he provided a powerful symbol for an organisation struggling to rally mass support.”

Between the end of 1957 and May 1959, during a lapse in restrictions on his movements, Luthuli made a number of highly publicised addresses to whites and mixed audiences, his polished speeches and balanced appeals for reason in race relations earning him the praise of many white South Africans.

Six days after the Sharpeville emergency in 1960, Luthuli sought to rally Africans to resistance by publicly burning his pass in Pretoria and calling for a national day of mourning. On 30 March he was detained and held until August, when he was tried and given a six-month suspended sentence.

‘How easy it would have been to hate’

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960, Luthuli was allowed to travel to Oslo to receive the award the following year.

In his acceptance speech on 10 December 1961, Luthuli said: “It can only be on behalf of the people of South Africa, all the people of South Africa, especially the freedom-loving people, that I accept this award, that I acknowledge this honour. I accept it also as an honour not only to South Africa, but for the whole continent of Africa …

“Quite long ago my forefathers extended a hand of friendship to people of Europe when they came to that continent. What has happened to the extension of that hand only history can say, and it is not time to speak about that here, but I would like to say, as I receive this prize of peace, that the hand of Africa was extended. It was a hand of friendship, if you read history.”

In his Nobel lecture, delivered at the University of Oslo on the following day, Luthuli said: “How easy it would have been in South Africa for the natural feelings of resentment at white domination to have been turned into feelings of hatred and a desire for revenge against the white community.

“Here, where every day, in every aspect of life every nonwhite comes up against the ubiquitous sign ‘Europeans Only’ and the equally ubiquitous policeman to enforce it – here it could well be expected that a racialism equal to that of their oppressors would flourish to counter the white arrogance toward blacks.

“That it has not done so is no accident. It is because, deliberately and advisedly, African leadership for the past fifty years, with the inspiration of the African National Congress, which I had the honour to lead for the last decade or so until it was banned, had set itself steadfastly against racial vaingloriousness.

“We know that in so doing we passed up opportunities for an easy demagogic appeal to the natural passions of a people denied freedom and liberty; we discarded the chance of an easy and expedient emotional appeal.

“Our vision has always been that of a nonracial, democratic South Africa which upholds the rights of all who live in our country to remain there as full citizens, with equal rights and responsibilities with all others. For the consummation of this ideal we have laboured unflinchingly. We shall continue to labour unflinchingly.”

At the end of his lecture, after much applause, Luthuli sang the African anthem, Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika.

On 21 July 1967, while taking a walk near his Natal home, Luthuli was killed, reportedly when he was struck by a train.

Source: SA History Online

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