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Luthuli and the lessons of his leadership

Raymond Suttner speaks about Chief Albert Luthuli. Camera: Darlene Creamer & Shane Williams. Editing: Darlene Creamer

12th December 2011

By: Raymond Suttner


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December 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chief Albert Luthuli. This is important not only for ritualistic purposes and its significance is not limited to the African National Congress alone. The lessons of his life and quality of leadership is relevant for all South Africans, especially in these times when challenges of leadership are self evident.

His model and his approach to leadership and his role in the struggle is well captured in his autobiography, Let My People Go which evokes what many theologians see as a biblical rationale for a liberation struggle. The title refers to Exodus, which includes this passage: ‘And the Lord spake unto Moses, go unto Pharaoh and say unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me.’ By service Luthuli appears to have understood what he called the gospel of service, entailing efforts to remove the inequality between peoples, all made in God’s image.


Indeed when the apartheid government demanded that he choose between being a chief and the ANC, Luthuli refused to choose and was deposed. In reacting to dismissal Luthuli made a famous statement looking into the future where he envisaged possible banishment, flogging, ridicule or death. He did not shrink from this and prayed to the Almighty not to avert such hazards but to give him the resolve to deal with what lay ahead. He ended the statement by declaring that ‘the road to freedom is via the Cross!’ In this, Luthuli and Gandhi were similar, both believing they had to prepare to offer their lives for freedom.

Luthuli did not believe in idle rhetoric, nor undertake that for which he was not ready. That is why when the Natal region of the ANC embarked on the Defiance campaign of 1952, Luthuli feared that the leadership was insufficiently prepared to do what they advocated, that is, break the law and be imprisoned. He put it to the other leaders and each made a vow, then prayed and dispersed.


Part of Luthuli’s power as a leader lay in listening carefully before offering advice or deciding on a course of action. He was willing to learn and grew all the time. Luthuli was open to ideas of a range of people. He was non-sectarian and refused to be a prisoner of ‘isms’. While disagreeing on some key issues he nevertheless had close relationships with the Liberal Party of Alan Paton. His closest confidante was Communist leader, Moses Kotane.

Luthuli rejected African exclusivism or chauvinism and believed in a broad African nationalism that would grow ever –wider in its embrace. But he spent many hours trying to avert the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) breakaway, believing that South Africa ’belongs to all who live in it’ as the Freedom Charter says.

Luthuli may have been the first African leader to have a following amongst all sections of the population. Under his leadership a powerful bond developed between the Indian and African Congresses. This solidarity was at all levels, and was demonstrated after an ANC rally in Durban in 1951 when ANC people (then a purely African organization) emerged from a rally to find police harassing Indian hawkers. The ANC supporters spontaneously formed a cordon around the hawkers protecting them from police harassment.

In one of the limited periods when he was without government restrictions Luthuli addressed crowds from all population groups. In Cape Town white people were prominent amongst those dancing in the drill hall and singing ‘we will follow Luthuli wherever he goes.’

Because Luthuli was under repeated banning orders, aiming to render him politically irrelevant, he operated in an underground manner from the 1950s. Significantly Indian trader Goolam Suleiman and lawyer E V Mohamed organized the logistics for this. And yet ‘EV’, who was trusted with very important tasks, was a member of the Liberal Party.

Luthuli was a powerful leader, impatient with any suggestions of accepting a ‘half loaf’ and described himself as a militant. He was strong but also gentle and tender. This is important in our time when images of heroism depict men playing macho roles. Luthuli had a relationship of equality with his wife, Nokukhukanya (‘mother of light’) MaBhengu who became the main breadwinner. When he prepared speeches MaBhengu used to listen and make inputs. His daughter, Dr Albertinah Luthuli (Ntombazana), observes that after these inputs uBaba (father) had his confidence strengthened so that he could deliver the talk. What this shows is that Luthuli was like all of us, a person with both strengths and vulnerabilities and that his children could observe both of these qualities.

As we mark this anniversary we need to uncover his leadership qualities and try to understand Luthuli as a rounded person.

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


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