Fifty years ago, our country lost one of its most illustrious sons and Africa’s first Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Chief Albert Luthuli, under mysterious circumstances. The official report, which remains unconvincing to this day, was that he was run over by a train. Given the brutality of the racist apartheid regime and its attitude to the leadership of the mass democratic movement, Chief Albert Luthuli’s death continues to be shrouded in suspicion, but he left behind a legacy of peace, non-racialism, freedom, justice and a better life for all.
A man of the people, he played various roles in the community, a traditional leader, preacher, Christian, teacher, college choirmaster, sports, particularly soccer and cultural activist and a sugar cane farmer. He knew many people across these fields, which lent a unique understanding in running the ANC. Luthuli was able to reconcile Communists and Nationalists in the organisation and trusted them alike, and made everybody in his National Executive Committee (NEC) comfortable. He was forthright about the trustworthiness and candour of the Communists when asked in the treason trial.
Chief Luthuli was a unifier in the organisation, advising people across racial lines including those progressive white people of the time when they wanted to form the Progressive Party. The apartheid government sought to silence him through all means possible, including stripping him of the chieftaincy and imposing banning orders, but these attempts only hardened his resolve to end apartheid.
His commitment to Africa and African unity was borne out in his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize from the Norwegian Nobel Committee in 1960, which he accepted in 1961.
He stated with humility:
“This Award could not be for me alone, nor for just South Africa, but for Africa as a whole”.
He outlined the ANC’s belief in non-racialism, including how it was guiding the country towards this goal in spite of the difficulties. He stated that the racism problem in the country was acute compared to other parts of Africa, “asserted with greater vigour and determination and a sense of righteousness”’.
Such racism against black people, he added, would justify feelings of hatred and a desire for revenge against whites, but that the ANC had chosen the path of non-racialism for the country. He declared:
“Our vision has always been that of a non-racial 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”.
As our country’s experiment with constitutional democracy continues, this is the one key lesson that we must take to heart from Chief Luthuli even during difficult moments when we feel the non-racial project is faltering. We all have a responsibility to build a non-racial society and to unite all our people, black and white. Chief Luthuli is a symbol of peace and unity and in his memory, we must recommit to the South Africa he envisaged.
He outlined this vision as follows in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture;
“In government we will not be satisfied with anything less than direct individual adult suffrage and the right to stand for and be elected to all organs of government.
“In economic matters we will be satisfied with nothing less than equality of opportunity in every sphere, and the enjoyment by all of those heritages which form the resources of the country which up to now have been appropriated on a racial ‘whites only’ basis. In culture we will be satisfied with nothing less than the opening of all doors of learning to non-segregatory institutions on the sole criterion of ability.
“In the social sphere we will be satisfied with nothing less than the abolition of all racial bars”.
Luthuli evinced an internationalist outlook of our struggle, and acknowledged the international contribution while also affirming the responsibility of South Africans to be their own liberators. He emphasised: “Whatever may be the future of our freedom efforts, our cause is the cause of the liberation of people who are denied freedom. Only on this basis can the peace of Africa and the world be firmly founded. Our cause is the cause of equality between nations and people”.
Most importantly, he uttered the profound words of the need for courage that rises with danger. I have no doubt that despite the challenges of persisting poverty; he would equally be encouraged by the level of progress made since the dawn of democracy in 1994, that we have almost reached the universal primary education threshold, ahead of many other developing nations. He would also be happy that we have managed to expand our social safety net in terms of housing, grants, and provision of basic services to indigent families for free and that we have provided financial assistance to over 12 million students through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.
Chief Luthuli would without doubt appreciate our comprehensive HIV and AIDS antiretroviral national programme, without which millions would have died. The rate of HIV infection remains unacceptably high with an estimated over 2 000 new infections a week. Young people aged 15 to 25 are the most vulnerable. In his memory we urge especially our young people to practice safe sex and to refrain from it where possible, until they are ready to settle and build strong families.
In Chief Luthuli we celebrate a contribution in the struggle against patriarchy. As Inkosi of the AmaKholwa people, he invited women in the village to participate in civil affairs and in the actual conflict resolution deliberations at the time when this was unusual. By that time, women had just gained the right to become members of the ANC NEC. Lillian Ngoyi had been elected as the first woman to join the ANC NEC in 1956. His courageous views inspired his successor, Comrade Oliver Tambo to agitate without fail for women’s rights. It is thus fitting that we remember Luthuli, just like OR Tambo, as a staunch champion of gender equality. While we have made considerable progress on the gender equality front, Luthuli would have been deeply pained by the high levels of violent crime against women and children in our society today. We will continue to take positive measures and work closely with the communities to root out this scourge.
We commemorated the International Nelson Mandela Day this month. In this regard, and as Chief Luthuli would have implored us, the values of our Constitution that so many sacrificed for, should provide us with the moral and ethical foundation from which we can draw sustenance and a sense of purpose. These values have a universal appeal as they are premised on Ubuntu – the sense that our survival and wellbeing is interdependent – that I am, because we are. Chief Luthuli was a practical exponent of these values as exemplified in his quest for equality, especially gender equality, non-racialism, openness, respect and his fervent fight against all manifestation of tribalism. The values of respect, selflessness, openness and accountability all epitomise who Chief Luthuli was.
We are therefore duty-bound to learn from him and find ways in which his ideals and values can find a practical expression in our day to day lives. Through the efforts of the Luthuli family and the Luthuli Museum management, future generations will be able to find out more about this gentle giant of our struggle and icon of the African continent. Although we lost him under suspicious circumstances, his legacy lives for future generations to learn and build on: to make ours a united, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous society.
Comrade Jacob Zuma is the President of the African National Congress and the President of the Republic of South Africa