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Luthuli and MK

Raymond Suttner discusses Chief Albert Luthuli’s attitude to the formation of Mkhonto we Sizwe. Camera: Darlene Creamer & Shane Williams. Editing: Darlene Creamer.

13th December 2011

By: Raymond Suttner


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Much discussion around Chief Albert Luthuli’s life concerns his attitude to the formation of Mkhonto we Sizwe (MK). Only a few days after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1961, MK was launched. Nelson Mandela has acknowledged that the timing was embarrassing

For Luthuli non-violence was an unconditional good. It did not need special justification in that it was the basis for peaceful relations between people. But this principle had to be applied in a condition of war against the oppressed people of South Africa. Luthuli continually feared that the violence of apartheid might one day make it impossible to resolve conflicts through peaceful means


Luthuli recognised exceptional circumstances when violence would be necessary to defend the vulnerable. Like Gandhi, he was not a pacifist and understood that both violence and non-violence could sometimes be bravery or cowardly dereliction of moral duties.

Nowadays when violent rhetoric abounds, it should be recalled that resort to arms was decided on reluctantly by the ANC, not as the only form of struggle. It was seen as part of a range of strategies and tactics aimed at achieving a democratic state. It had spent decades trying to secure rights for African people by peaceful means. Luthuli himself recognised as early as 1952 that there were reasons to consider this fruitless. He asked, ‘who will deny that thirty years of my life have been spent knocking in vain, patiently, moderately and modestly at a closed and barred door? What have been the fruits of my many years of moderation? Has there been any reciprocal tolerance or moderation from the government…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.’


Luthuli like others in the leadership continued to pursue peaceful struggle until the banning of the ANC. This was seen in the Defiance Campaign, the Congress of the People campaign, which resulted in the Freedom Charter and a range of other rural and urban campaigns, over education, passes and other hardships. But the government sought to prevent further peaceful activity by banning the ANC. Ever-increasing violence, notably the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 drowned their legal protests in blood.

Some leaders like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu had long believed that violence had to be met with counter-violence. But they were constrained by the need to demonstrate to the people as a whole that everything had been tried through peaceful means. It was also necessary to show the world that the oppressed people and their organizations had exhausted all possibilities before embarking on armed struggle. At the time of formation of MK Mandela met resistance not only from Luthuli but also significantly from Communist General Secretary, Moses Kotane who like Luthuli also came to reluctantly accept the formation of MK.

According to his family, Luthuli was convinced of the need for armed struggle because of the intransigence of the apartheid regime, which made it impossible to continue with purely peaceful methods. He accepted the need to form MK, but only if properly trained. He did not want people to become cannon fodder. Luthuli donated his Nobel Peace prize money to buy farms in Swaziland, and this can be seen as a contribution towards providing logistics for rebuilding the ANC and MK.

Some people dispute Luthuli’s support for MK. While I believe they are wrong, we need to move beyond that question for to focus on his attitude to MK is to lose sight of the major legacy of Luthuli’s life. He regarded non-violence as an enduring principle, only to be departed from in limited situations. Luthuli feared that violence could have a range of long-term repercussions and accepted it only as self-defence.

The lesson for today is that while Luthuli defended the recourse to arms of the Rivonia trialists, it was a strictly conditional situation. That was also the thinking of the ANC. It was never intended to be a permanent endorsement of military action or militaristic rhetoric.

The way to honour Luthuli’s legacy today is to build the peace, inculcate in the youth and young men particularly that there is no virtue in fighting or evoking military symbolism outside of an exceptional context where it may be strictly necessary. We need to develop an appreciation of the importance of realizing the Freedom Charter clause 'There shall be peace and friendship!’ Without peace there can be no human rights. Achieving peace must be seen as the lasting legacy of Luthuli.

Raymond Suttner is a part-time Professor at Rhodes University and Emeritus Professor at UNISA. He is conducting research on the life of Chief Luthuli


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