First African winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace and president of the ANC until his death (under mysterious circumstances) in 1967.
Albert John Mvumbi Luthuli was born sometime around 1898 near Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia, the son of a Seventh Day Adventist missionary. In 1908 he was sent to his ancestral home at Groutville, Natal where he went to school. Having first trained as a teacher at Edendale, near Pietermaritzburg, Luthuli attended additional courses at Adam’s College (in 1920), and went on to become part of the college employees. He remained at the college until 1935.
Albert Luthuli was deeply religious, and during his time at Adam’s College he became a lay preacher. His Christian beliefs acted as a foundation for his approach to political life in South Africa at a time when many of his contemporaries were calling for a more militant response to Apartheid.
In 1935 Luthuli accepted the chieftaincy of the Groutville reserve (this was not an hereditary position, but awarded as the result of an election) and was suddenly immersed in the realities of South Africa’s racial politics. The following year JBM Hertzog’s United Party government introduced the ‘Representation of Natives Act’ (Act No 16 of 1936) which removed Black Africans from the common voter’s role in the Cape (the only part of the Union to allow Black people the franchise). That year also saw the introduction of the ‘Development Trust and Land Act’ (Act No 18 of 1936) which limited Black African land holding to an area of native reserves – increased under the act to 13.6%, although this percentage was not in fact achieved in practice.
Chief Albert Luthuli joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1945 and was elected Natal provincial president in 1951. In 1946 he joined the Natives Representative Council. (This had been set up in 1936 to act in an advisory basis to four white senators who provided parliamentary ‘representation’ for the entire Black African population.) However, as a result of a mine workers strike on the Witwatersrand gold field and the police response to protesters, relations between the Natives Representative Council and the government became ‘strained’. The Council met for the last time in 1946 and was later abolished by the government.
In 1952 Chief Luthuli was one of the leading lights behind the Defiance Campaign – a non-violent protest against the pass laws. The Apartheid government was, unsurprisingly, annoyed and he was summoned to Pretoria to answer for his actions. Luthuli was given the choice of renouncing his membership of the ANC or being removed from his position as tribal chief (the post was supported and paid for by the government). Albert Luthuli refused to resign from the ANC, issued a statement to the press (‘The Road to Freedom is via the Cross’) which reaffirmed his support for passive resistance to Apartheid, and was subsequently dismissed from his chieftaincy in November.
“I have joined my people in the new spirit that moves them today, the spirit that revolts openly and broadly against injustice.”
At the end of 1952 Albert Luthuli was elected president-general of the ANC. The previous president, Dr James Moroka, lost support when he pleaded not-guilty to criminal charges laid as a result of his involvement in the Defiance Campaign, rather than accepting the campaign’s aim of imprisonment and the tying up of government resources. (Nelson Mandela, provincial president for the ANC in Transvaal, automatically became deputy-president of the ANC.) The government responded by banning Luthuli, Mandela, and nearly 100 others.
Luthuli’s ban was renewed in 1954, and in 1956 he was arrested – one of 156 people accused of high treason. Luthuli was released shortly after for ‘lack of evidence’. Repeated banning caused difficulties for the leadership of the ANC, but Luthuli was re-elected as president-general in 1955 and again 1958. In 1960, following the Sharpeville Massacre, Luthuli led the call for protest. Once again summoned to a governmental hearing (this time in Johannesburg) Luthuli was horrified when a supporting demonstration turned violent and 72 Black Africans were shot (and another 200 injured). Luthuli responded by publicly burning his pass book. He was detained on 30 March under the ‘State of Emergency’ declared by the South African government – one of 18,000 arrested in a series of police raids. On release he was confined to his home in Stanger, Natal.
In 1961 Chief Albert Luthuli was awarded the 1960 Nobel Prize for Peace (it had been held over that year) for his part in the anti-Apartheid struggle. In 1962 he was elected Rector of Glasgow University (an honorary position), and the following year published his autobiography, ‘Let My People Go’. Although suffering from ill health and failing eyesight, and still restricted to his home in Stranger, Albert Luthuli remained president-general of the ANC. On 21 July 1967, whilst out walking near his home, Luthuli was hit by a train and died. He was supposedly crossing the line at the time – an explanation dismissed by many of his followers who believed more sinister forces were at work.