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Chief Albert Luthuli as an ethical leader

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Chief Albert Luthuli as an ethical leader

Photo by Ivor Markman
Professor Raymond Suttner

14th October 2016

By: Raymond Suttner

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We live in a period where public leadership has been marked by acts of illegality, contempt for constitutional obligations, and personal enrichment that is often through patronage and corrupt relationships. It is timely and appropriate that we should be marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Chief Albert Luthuli in 2017, for his life needs to be remembered as embodying ethical leadership. But what is meant by that phrase “ethical leadership”, which is counselled as necessary for regeneration of South African public life? It is often assumed that “ethical leadership” has an obvious meaning when it is in fact open to multiple interpretations.

My belief is that ethical leadership refers to choices individuals make in relation to what may benefit some or may harm themselves or others. In the life of Chief Albert Luthuli, his ethics were represented in the first place through a concern for all fellow human beings, all God’s creatures. Luthuli had the opportunity to cushion himself and his family from some of the effects of apartheid oppression by virtue of being a teacher and then a chief. He chose instead to link his life to that of all other oppressed people and to act in order to remove the yoke of apartheid from their shoulders. He was also prepared to bear whatever suffering might result from the choices he made. 

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Acting ethically is not a question of intuition, somehow guessing what is the right thing to do. Nor is it innate to some just as evil deeds do not come naturally to others. If that were the case we would be helpless in the face of what lies ahead and simply follow what has happened before us. Acting ethically entails a choice and Luthuli was very conscious of the need to choose to do what he considered to be good rather than evil, that which would not harm others and preferably benefit all.

He drew constantly on how he understood Christianity for his own life. When he was a teacher at Adams College there were repeated requests from his village to make himself available for election as a chief. Significantly, the chapter of his autobiography which deals with this is entitled “The call of my village”, the notion of a call, referring theologically to prophetic calling. The people of the Mvoti Mission Reserve had a long tradition of electing their chiefs. Luthuli was not keen to take up the offer because he feared that, if elected, he would experience a substantial drop in income and that he would not be able to support his growing family. But he came to reconsider this and reflects on his reasons:

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It became clear to me that the Christian faith was not a private affair without relevance to society. It was, rather a belief, which equipped us in a unique way to meet the challenges of our society. It was a belief, which had to be applied to the conditions of our lives… I had to do something about being a Christian, and that this something must identify me with my neighbour, not dissociate me from him. Adams taught me more. It inculcated, by example rather than precept, a specifically Christian mode of going about work in society… (Emphasis in the original)

This passage evokes ethical notions of “care”, “connectivity”, empathy, compassion, solidarity and responsibility amongst other concepts that are found in humanist, socialist and feminist and liberation theology, trends in theology of which Luthuli was unaware or which would only emerged after his death.

Becoming a chief immediately raised ethical questions. There were opportunities for enrichment in the chieftainship in the 1950s and earlier, under colonial and apartheid rule. Luthuli was one of a limited number of chiefs who had been granted criminal jurisdiction and he was entitled to impose fines on wrongdoers and these fines could become his own income. Luthuli chose to never impose fines. 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?” He knew all the difficulties and problems of his people….He was expected to augment his salary with fines from the people; but because he didn’t impose fines he never had any money. This lack of money sometimes annoyed the children because their friends’ homes were better and they could afford things that our children would have liked to have had too. The children would say to him, “But the other chiefs are all right. Why are you not so well-off as they are?” To this he would simply reply, “You are provided for, there are other children whose parents have nothing at all.”

Possessing chiefly powers and presiding over disputes also raised opportunities for corruption, where contesting parties sometimes sought to bribe Luthuli in order to prevail on him to move the boundary between properties, again a temptation to which Luthuli refused to succumb. His eldest daughter, Albertinah Luthuli, recalls: “Land was always a very hot issue in Groutville. People would offer my father anything to have the issue resolved in their favour, but he always refused”.

Political leadership and preparing to act ethically

Acting ethically or courageously requires preparation. Nelson Mandela remarks that if one says one is prepared to die one must really understand what that means and be willing to make the necessary sacrifices. Mohandas (“Mahatma”) Gandhi was a very strong believer in vows, and ensuring that he was able to live up to what he called on others to do. This preparation and readiness for what one undertakes to do in accordance with how one understands what is right to do also imbued Luthuli’s life.

Preparedness is illustrated in Luthuli’s reaction to the ANC Defiance campaign of 1952. Luthuli was elected to the ANC Natal presidency just before the onset of the campaign in 1951, but the previous president, A.W.G. Champion, had not informed the province of this amongst other national decisions. Just before leaving Natal for the national conference in Bloemfontein, Luthuli received written material from ANC headquarters, including (“to my astonishment”) suggestions and resolutions about a campaign of civil disobedience.

At the conference he asked for the date of commencement of the campaign to be postponed because Natal was not ready. But this met with a hostile response, one woman calling Luthuli a “coward”.

Luthuli’s reflection on this incident is not only an ethical question but indicates his appreciation of the requirements of political organisation, which needed adequate preparation, and is an issue to which he continually returns. In reality, many provinces were not ready.

Luthuli exhorts ANC members to be imbued with the “gospel of service” (a phrase used before him by Gandhi in 1927). But to serve effectively meant that the ethic had to be implemented in a very practical manner in a range of campaigns and other activities. Acting with awareness that commitment to the Defiance Campaign, where people had to be ready to face imprisonment (or even death, for those who defied were known as “defiers of death”) needed proper understanding and preparation. A meeting was held to decide whether leaders in Natal were equipped to deal with the requirements of the campaign. They had to take the pledge that “Congress” required. Mary Benson describes the situation:

Among the gatherings about the country when Congress leaders and their followers took the pledge, was a small meeting in the bare rooms of the ANC offices in Durban in the busy Indian shopping centre. The new President of the Natal Congress, Chief Luthuli… said to his Executive, “Look, we will be calling upon people to make very important demonstrations and unless we are sure of the road and prepared to travel along it ourselves, we have no right to call other people along it.” M.B.Yengwa …described what happened after that: “We said we were prepared and he said he too was prepared, and he asked us to pray. We gave our pledge and we prayed.”

Luthuli, like Gandhi, Mandela and others, understood that willingness to sacrifice involved a sense of personal readiness, something more than rational understanding, and included a measure of introspection. One had to internalise what the sacrifice actually entailed and whether one was ready to undertake it.

Leadership in different worlds

Luthuli’s life straddled different worlds: a Christian chief amongst a primarily non-Christian community believing in local spiritual systems. He treated the non-Christian amaBheshu or (amaBhinca) with respect and they comprised the majority of the council advising Luthuli as chief. He instilled in his children a respect for the wisdom that the amaBheshu possessed, from which he advised them to learn.

Interestingly, in choosing to become available to be a chief and administer justice according to African custom, we have seen that he drew on his understanding of his Christianity. But in becoming a chief he learnt a great deal about the hardships of people on the land. That experience was one of the reasons that led to his involvement in the politics of the ANC.

In the ANC, Luthuli led an organisation and broader alliance of forces, embracing people with a range of ideologies, including Communists. Despite not being a Communist, his closest confidante was Communist leader Moses Kotane. He was also closely bound to Alan Paton and other members of the Liberal Party. When he was banned, E.V Mahomed, a member of the Liberal Party, was one of his aides who helped arrange secret meetings. His trust in Mahomed was such that he wrote to ask that he be allowed to attend the Congress of the People, which adopted the Freedom Charter in 1955, in order that he could get a reliable report on proceedings.  Luthuli was open and willing to grow from a range of influences.

His participation in the Defiance Campaign brought down the wrath of the apartheid regime. They told him to choose between being a chief and taking part in activities that involved breaking the law of the land. Luthuli would not choose and he was deposed. He famously expressed his response in defiant terms, but also with full awareness of the need to be ready to make whatever sacrifice might arise:   

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."


Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a former political prisoner for activities in the ANC-led liberation struggle. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. He has published extensively on Chief Luthuli in scholarly journals and essays in his recent book, Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2015). He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner

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