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Leadership in Question part 8: Luthuli, a Christian Chief with integrity, is deposed by the apartheid regime


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Leadership in Question part 8: Luthuli, a Christian Chief with integrity, is deposed by the apartheid regime

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje/New Frame
Raymond Suttner

19th January 2021

By: Raymond Suttner


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Chief Albert Luthuli took being a chief seriously and acted with sensitivity to the needs of his community, refusing to impose fines against an impoverished people nor to succumb to any temptations that smacked of corruption. He refused to do the bidding of the apartheid regime and would not choose between being an ANC leader and a chief. The Native Affairs Department deposed him.

Previous articles in this series are to be found here.


Possibilities for enrichment not taken

We live in a time when personal enrichment via corruption is par for the course. We know that procurement of PPE and other earlier responses to the Covid-19 pandemic entailed extensive corruption. Government itself acknowledges the likelihood of corruption in obtaining and distributing the potentially life- saving vaccines. Its approach, to centralise these processes, may not inspire confidence because it is precisely at the centre that many of the irregularities originate.


Acting corruptly was possible in Luthuli’s time and environment. Conditions were hard but there were openings for chiefs to augment their income through fines, where they were among the few who had criminal jurisdiction, as was the case with Luthuli. But he carried out his tasks 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.’” (See Rule, P., with Aitken, M. and van Dyk, J., Nokukhanya: Mother of Light, Johannesburg: The Grail Press, 1993, p 90 and see also Raymond Suttner, ‘“The road to freedom is via the Cross’’: Chief Albert Luthuli and ‘“just means”’, South African Historical Journal, 2010 (December), 693-715, at pp 702-3 on the children wanting a better house and similar improvements in their life).

Luthuli’s eldest daughter, Albertinah recalls:

“My father… was offered bribes to resolve a dispute over boundaries. The Groutville properties were usually marked off by stones. People would sometimes move these stones so that their neighbour’s property would become smaller and smaller. 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.” (Quoted by Rule et al p 90)..

The apartheid regime deposes Luthuli as chief

How Luthuli describes the process of deposition, illustrates the way in which he related to being a chief and the community he served.

When Luthuli was summoned to Pretoria prior to his being deposed (a deposition that was widely disregarded in public discourse in that most of his friends and comrades still referred to him as “Chief”) Dr W Eiselen, Secretary of Native Affairs, referred to Luthuli as “one of our best chiefs” (Let My People Go, henceforth LMG p 113). Phrased as a compliment, the use of the word “our” clarified how the government understood Luthuli’s line of accountability. He was questioned about his opposing cattle culling and influx control (at pp.113-115). Then:

“Dr Eiselen apparently thought it was time to get down to business.

“‘You are a chief,’ he said, ‘you ask people to break the laws of the land. You are an officer whose work is to keep law and order, yet you encourage people to defy the law. What do you say about that?’

“I remember that I paused to arrange my thoughts. ‘I do admit without hesitation, sir, that I’m engaged in furthering the policy of the ANC…’”

Luthuli’s subsequent response illustrates his non-sectarian way of pursuing public matters:

“‘And how do you reconcile the encouragement you give to people to break the law,’ somebody asked, either the Secretary or the Deputy Secretary, 'with your duties as a chief?’

 “‘My policy has been to keep my commitments distinct. I have never discussed Congress matters in tribal councils - in fact, I have excluded such discussion when others have begun it. But my duties as a chief do not conflict in me with Congress activities. Congress has not yet been declared subversive.’

“‘We have not called you here,’ said Dr Eiselen, ‘to talk you out of belonging to the ANC, but because you are asking people to break the law of the land. You can’t be a Jekyll and Hyde.’

“I thought this remark revealing. It seems to imply that chiefs, who are indeed concerned with maintaining and dispensing law, must have split personalities before they can possibly object to the immoral laws, whose main purpose is to uphold white supremacy, a repugnant creed. In point of fact, I was in Congress not in spite of being a chief but partly, anyway, because of the things to which chieftainship had opened my eyes. (LMG p 116, Luthuli’s italics).

“Dr Eiselen drew the interview to its close: ‘I must make it clear to you that this Department cannot have you acting this way. Go away now and think it over, and let us have your reply in a week.’

“‘I think that a matter of this kind needs a little time, ‘I said. ‘There is the possibility of my ceasing to be chief. It is a matter which needs talking over with the tribe.’

“‘With the tribe?’ said Dr Eiselen. ‘Must you?’

“‘Well, sir, I ought to discuss it with my headmen at least.’

“‘Sir isn’t a week rather short?’ asked the Natal Chief Native Commissioner.

‘I leave that with you’, said Eiselen.

“The interview ended there. I had already made up my mind about what course to follow, but I said nothing of that for the moment. I was, however, distressed at the suggestion that I should act without consulting my people, possibly relinquishing office unknown to them. It might be the way of the Native Affairs Department, but it is not the way of the Zulus and nor is it mine.

“I felt inhibited, all the time, by Dr Eiselen’s ‘Must you?’ and for that reason I did not convene a tribal gathering.  Seeing nothing further to add to what I had said in Pretoria, I refrained from writing to Dr Eiselen. I still saw no conflict between the Defiance Campaign and my place as chief, but that is perhaps because I failed to see my position in Groutville as a favour bestowed by the Native Affairs Department. I discussed the situation with my church ministers and awaited developments.

“After a couple of weeks a letter came requiring my reply to the question posed in Pretoria.”

Luthuli says he replied “neutrally”, though it seems hardly neutral in “stating that I had no intention of resigning either from the ANC leadership nor from the chieftainship, since the two did not contradict one another. At this stage I forewarned my headmen of what was about to happen.” (The exchanges are in LMG pp 116-117).

Clearly Luthuli was very clear that he had no reason to account to the Department of Native Affairs, but that his accountability was to the people of Groutville and that he also sought counsel from the church. This again illustrates the integrated nature of his various identities, that all his worlds were part of what contributed to what type of leader and person he was.

What is important is that Luthuli was elected, and some scholars are mistaken in describing him as a patriarchal “traditional chief”. The elected chiefs were by definition potentially different from those who claimed their position by virtue of hereditary rights, real or contrived. But also, Luthuli’s ways of relating to the community were distinct and possibly exceptional in that period when the apartheid regime had taken steps to ensure that the loyalties of chiefs was primarily to them and not the communities which they supposedly represented.

That is also not so suggest that all chiefs were cut from the same cloth, because there were many hereditary chiefs who had been deposed for opposing the Bantu Authorities system and some were notable in the resistance, for example, Chief Abram Moilwa of Dinokana, near Zeerust, many of whose youth joined uMkhonto we Sizwe as young initiates.

Moilwa’s personal sense of dignity is exemplified in the famous response he is reputed to have given when instructed to tell his wife to take out a pass. “Who the hell is Verwoerd? He is just a minister and there will be other ministers after him. I am not afraid of him, and Dinokana will stand here forever.” (See Raymond Suttner, The ANC Underground, Jacana Media, 2008, pp. 72-3).

Luthuli was exceptional, among chiefs of the time, but not the only one prepared to stand up for his people and their rights. Like today, the 1950s and 1960s were both a time of cowardice and bravery.

Professor Raymond Suttner is completing work as a visiting professor at the Centre for the advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) at Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth. Suttner served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the political character of the periods through which he has lived.



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