Albert John Luthuli: Tribal Chief and ANC Leader

Albert John Luthuli, the president of the African National Congress, was an African politician and teacher. A noble man and an adamant leader, Luthuli fought for African's rights to equality and justice following a non-violent resistance. Before elected to the presidency of the ANC, he was the president of his tribe and the leader of around 10 million black Africans in their non-violent struggle for civil rights in South Africa. An anti-apartheid leader and president of ANC, Luthuli actively participated in the movement against the White minority Government in South Africa and the 'pass law' introduced by the government to circumscribe the freedom of movement of Africans. Throughout his struggle, he was banned, arrested and poisoned several times by the government, which only reinforced his determination and commitment to the cause; he succeeded in establishing peace and equality for his country people despite theses roadblocks. In 1960, Luthuli was honored with Nobel Peace Prize for his role in African Civil Rights movement.

Childhood & Early Life Luthuli was born in 1898 near Bulawayo in Rhodesia as the third son of Seventh-day Adventist missionary John Bunyan Luthuli and Mtonya Gumede. After his father’s death around 1906, Albert Jon Luthuli moved to Grout Ville in South Africa, where his mother had spent her childhood. With his mother's support, Luthuli went to a local Congregationalist Institute for his primary education before he took admission in a boarding school called Ohlange Institute.  On completing a teacher’s course from a Methodist Institution at Eden dale around 1917, Luthuli took up a job as principal in an intermediate school in Natal. In 1920, he attended a higher teacher’s training course at Adams College with a scholarship provided by the government and joined the training college staff afterward. Albert Luthuli was elected as the secretary of the African Teacher’s Association in 1928 and subsequently its president in 1933.  

Initial Career and Personal Life Luthuli was an active member and an adviser to the organized church. During his early life, he served as the Chairman of the South African Board of the Congregationalist Church of America, the President of the Natal Mission Conference, and an executive member of the Christian Council of South Africa. He married his colleague Nokukhanya Bhengu in 1927 and the couple settled in Grout Ville, where their first child was born in 1929. Later the couple had six more children. Albert Luthuli was heir to a small tribe of around 5,000 people in Gout Ville which was led by his grandfather. Though Luthuli hesitated to take the responsibility, as it demanded the sacrifice of his job and financial security; he finally became the chief of his tribe in 1936. He remained on the position until 1952, when he was removed from his office by the government. While on position, he took major responsibilities acting as the representative of the central government and his people.  

Anti- Apartheid Activist In 1936, the government imposed total restriction on non-white community, circumscribing every aspect of their life. Luthuli’s concern for all black people made him join ANC (American National Congress) in 1944. The Africans were denied the right to vote, and in 1948 the government adopted the policy of racial segregation, known as ‘Apartheid’; the Pass Laws were tightened in the 1950's. The objective of ANC was to secure human rights for the black community, bringing them the rights to justice and equality.   He was elected to the committee of the Natal Provincial Division in 1945 and soon after, he became the president of the division in 1951. The following year, he came in contact with other ANC leaders and decided to join them in a struggle for justice and equality for all South African people. He organized non-violent campaigns to raise voice against discriminatory laws and racial segregation. He was charged with treason and was asked to pull out with the ANC or leave his office as tribal chief. Luthuli refused to do either and subsequently, he was fired from his chieftainship. In the same year, he was elected president-general of ANC.  

Bans Soon after his selection as President to ANC, the government imposed a ban on him that restricted his movement and prevented him to hold public meetings in South Africa. The ban expired after two years, upon which he went to Johannesburg to attend a meeting and before he could reach home, another banned was imposed on him, confining him to a very short radius of his home. The ban remained for two years. These bans came as an attempt to affect his popularity among the people, weakening the civil rights movement.   After the second ban expired, Luthuli went to attend an ANC conference in 1956, and was arrested again and charged with treason. He was released in December, 1957, when charges against him were dropped after initial hearings. Luthuli faced his third ban in 1958, when government imposed a five-year ban, prohibiting him from publishing anything and confining him to a radius of 15 mile of his house. The ban was temporarily lifted in 1960 and he was arrested and set as an exemplar for demonstrators against the pass law. One final time the ban was lifted in December 1961, when Luthuli was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  

Umkhonto we Sizwe Luthuli as an active leader of the civil rights movement, worked with Nelson Mandela. Though Luthuli played a key role in the planning and conduct of the civil rights, in December 1961 Umkhonto we Sizwe was launched without his sanction, making him feel dejected and isolated. In 1962, he became Rector of the University of Glasgow and served till 1965. The forth ban followed again in 1964, confining him to a very short vicinity of his home. In 1966, Luthuli met Robert F. Kennedy United States Senator, in South Africa and the meeting successfully drew attention from across the world towards the hardship and injustice South Africans were exposed to. In 2004, he was elected 41st in the SABC3’s Great South Africans.


The Chief Speaks

It was the discrimination between white and nonwhite that prompted nonwhite Africans in 1912 to establish the African National Congress. Its founders were nonwhite Africans who had obtained a higher education, either abroad or at home, in the days when they still had the opportunity to do so. At first the African National Congress tried to influence political development by means of petitions and deputations to the authorities, but when the attempt proved fruitless and new laws restricting the rights of nonwhites were passed, the African National Congress adopted a more active line, especially after 1949. It was in the mid-1940s that Lutuli began to participate in this work of the African National Congress, of which he became a member in 1944. He was elected to the Committee of the Natal Section in 1945 and in 1951 became president of the Natal Section. In December, 1952, he was elected president of the entire African National Congress, a position he retained until the organization was banned by the government in 1960.

It was during these transitional years of adopting stronger action, based on boycotts, defiance campaigns, and strikes, that Lutuli came to influence so profoundly the African National Congress. He says himself that the Congress never passed any specific resolution to the effect that its struggle was to be pursued by nonviolent means. Actually, however, it has been waged with peaceful means, a policy at all times supported by the Congress administration. Lutuli himself has always been categorically opposed to the use of violence. Within the organization he has had to overcome opposition from two different quarters: from the older members, who supported the more passive approach, and from those members - mainly the younger ones - who wanted to make South Africa an entirely nonwhite state.

As a result of Lutuli's participation in the more active struggle of the African National Congress, the government presented him with an ultimatum: he must either renounce his position as a chief or give up his seat in the Congress. He refused to comply with either of these alternatives and was immediately deposed as chief, whereupon he issued his significant declaration entitled "The Chief Speaks", which concludes with the words: "The Road to Freedom is via the Cross." In his declaration, he says:

"What have been the fruits of my many years of moderation? Has there been any reciprocal tolerance or moderation from the Government, be it Nationalist or United Party? No! On the contrary, the past thirty years have seen the greatest number of Laws restricting our rights and progress until today we have reached a stage where we have almost no rights at all: no adequate land for our occupation, our only asset, cattle, dwindling, no security of homes, no decent and remunerative employment, more restrictions to freedom of movement through passes, curfew regulations, influx control measures; in short, we have witnessed in these years an intensification of our subjection to ensure and protect white supremacy.

It is with this background and with a full sense of responsibility that, under the auspices of the African National Congress (Natal), I have joined my people in the new spirit that moves them today, the spirit that revolts openly and boldly against injustice and expresses itself in a determined and nonviolent manner...

The African National Congress, its nonviolent Passive Resistance Campaign, may be of nuisance value to the Government, but it is not subversive since it does not seek to overthrow the form and machinery of the State but only urges for the inclusion of all sections of the community in a partnership in the Government of the country on the basis of equality.

Laws and conditions that tend to debase human personality - a God-given force - be they brought about by the State or other individuals, must be relentlessly opposed in the spirit of defiance shown by St. Peter when he said to the rulers of his day: Shall we obey God or man? No one can deny that insofar as nonwhites are concerned in the Union of South Africa, laws and conditions that debase human personality abound. Any chief worthy of his position must fight fearlessly against such debasing conditions and laws...

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."


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