Leadership in Question Part Seven: Chief Albert Luthuli’s leadership comprised multiple, mutually respectful identities

18th January 2021

Leadership in Question Part Seven: Chief Albert Luthuli’s leadership comprised multiple, mutually respectful identities

Professor Raymond Suttner

Chief Albert Luthuli inhabited multiple worlds, as a Christian, an elected chief whose chiefdom comprised mainly people who did not accept the Christian message, and he led the ANC, an organisation comprising Africans. But Luthuli reached out to all communities and his following included many whites. That even whites admired him could well have been a motive for foul play leading to his ‘mysterious’ death.

Previous articles in this series are to be found here.

The Road to Freedom is via the Cross

After being elected Natal ANC President, Luthuli moved further along the road, inviting the possibility of personal setbacks, sacrifice and even death. Early in 1952 he readied himself to be deposed as a chief, despite being elected (following the tradition of his community that had long elected their chiefs). The engagement and process by which he was deposed by the Department of Native Affairs is discussed in the next part.

He considered the consequences and possibilities over the long term. His Christian notion of service had driven his decision to become a chief. The same Christian beliefs guided him in refusing to choose between being a chief and his activity in the ANC-led Defiance Campaign, a few months before his election as national president. At the same time, Luthuli was aware that the choice he made was filled with danger. In choosing to remain in the liberation struggle even if deposed as a chief, he stared directly into the potentially grave future that lay before him and gave a sense of his thinking, in a memorable statement:

“As for myself, with a full sense of responsibility and a clear conviction, I decided to remain in the struggle for extending democratic rights and responsibilities of all sections of the South African community…

“The wisdom or foolishness of this decision I place in the hands of the Almighty.

“What the future has in store for me I do not know. It might be ridicule, imprisonment, a 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… 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 have to take the lead and suffer: The road to freedom is via the cross.” (The statement is printed as an appendix to Let My People Go (henceforth LMG, 232-5).

The reference to “our beloved country”, literary scholar Professor David Attwell suggested to me in 2012, may be an attempt to advance a new notion of patriotism, done through a possible allusion to Alan Paton’s book, “Cry The Beloved Country”. Although disagreeing with the Liberal Party, led by Paton, Luthuli was close to him. Luthuli also advanced this new patriotism in the concept of a “common society”, also then propagated by the late Communist scholar Professor Jack Simons.

The reference to God is not in seeking guidance in making his decision. He has assumed that responsibility in accordance with his understanding of his Christian duty. He only prays that the Almighty will strengthen his resolve. The decision to sacrifice is made by him with full understanding.

Luthuli’s Christianity and openness to other belief systems

South Africa is inhabited by people with a range of origins and identities, political and other belief systems. How these different people coexist with one another is important in building a democracy that is sustainable.

Luthuli said “I am in Congress because I am a Christian”. His understanding of his Christianity did not set him in inevitable opposition to others, who were not religious, in the Congress movement or beyond.

The evidence of his practice does not contradict his own statement:

“I am not aware that I have ever been dominated by a stereotyped set of ideas – it could probably be said that I have spent a lifetime modifying my views in the attempt to fit them to the realities as I have been able to understand them. My ambitions are, I think, modest - they scarcely go beyond the desire to serve God and my neighbour, both at full stretch. But contact with people is the very breath of life to me.” (LMG p 24,).

He read Gandhi and formed a close, albeit long-distance bond, with Martin Luther King Jr, he interacted with South African liberals and Communists. Although he was not a Communist he said he would work with all who struggled for freedom. (Robert Vinson, Albert Luthuli, 2018, p 65). As indicated, he had a close relationship with Alan Paton, famous author and leader of the Liberal Party. One of his key logistical supports, insofar as Luthuli had to evade banning orders through clandestine meetings, was EV Mahomed, a member of the Liberal Party (along with Goolam Suleman, a member of the Natal Indian Congress). His trust of Mahomed went so far as Luthuli writing a special request to OR Tambo to allow Mahomed to attend the Congress of the People, where the Freedom Charter was adopted, so that he, Luthuli, could receive what he considered a reliable report on deliberations (letter from Luthuli to Oliver Tambo, Wits Historical Papers, provided to me initially by Gail Gerhart.)

He became close to Communist leader Moses Kotane during the Treason Trial and before accepting some decisions made by the national leadership based in Johannesburg, would insist that he hear what “Moses” had to say or that Kotane should come down to Groutville to discuss. His trust for Kotane was so great that he is quoted as saying that “if ‘Moses’ asked me to become a Communist I do not know what I would say”. Billy Nair, a leading Communist, claimed that in this same period the Chief became interested in reading Marxism not because he was becoming a Communist but because of his openness. (Billy Nair, interview, 2009. See Vinson, Albert Luthuli, p 76). Nair said that the underground structures used to take the African Communist, illegal journal of the South African Communist Party, to the Chief in Groutville. This tendency to read banned literature may be corroborated by Goolam Suleiman being asked by security police to explain why illegal literature was arriving in his post box. (In the shadow of Chief Luthuli).

Luthuli and respecting diverse identities

Luthuli’s sense of concern and respect for other people is also manifested in openness to the contributions of other belief systems and identities and Luthuli himself lived out a range of identities. Luthuli was a Christian, part of the amaKholwa (Christian converts) and elected chief of the Umvoti mission reserve in Groutville, established by early Christians. In his understanding, his Christian identity did not stand in a hierarchical relationship to the other identities nor was there any opposition in their connection with each other. He lived them as an integrated and harmonious whole.

In recollecting his decision to agree to the request to make himself available for election as Chief, Luthuli titles the chapter “The call of my village”. The connotations evoked by the word “call” need to be noted, both a summons to salvation or a vocation, to do particular work of service. This is found in Moses being called by God (Exodus 3:4), and Jesus calling apostles (Matthews 4: 21;Romans 1:1. For advice on this, I am indebted to former colleague Professor Greg Cuthbertson in 2010).  

Luthuli relates how he had been reluctant to make himself available for election as chief because he regarded teaching as his calling. Economically, as the breadwinner at the time, he refers to his income as a teacher at Adams as being “relatively high”, “just sufficient to make it possible for me to support my wife and the family which was beginning to appear… I knew full well that if I became chief the struggle to subsist would become harder, though not desperate.”

His wife, Nokukhanya MaBhengu refers to the Adams salary as “meagre” (Rule, P., with Aitken, M. and van Dyk, J., Nokukhanya: Mother of Light, Johannesburg: The Grail Press, 1993.). Vinson says the chief’s salary amounted to 20% of what he received at Adams.(p.24). He and Nokukhanya, who was to become breadwinner, discussed this during Luthuli’s holidays and each time decided it was best to continue as a teacher, in the interests of the children.


“I changed my mind quite suddenly. I think that perhaps all the emphasis which  Adams had placed on service to the community bore fruit. I recognised now that the call of my people was insistent, and the reasons I gave for declining the request of the tribal elders seemed to me to be excuses for not going to their aid. I was at Adams when I decided to accept, and I wrote to my wife about this decision. I cannot account for the fact that, quite independently, she too had changed her mind about where our duty lay.” (LMG p.43).

The imagery evoked by Luthuli reinforces the notion of a man who was comfortable in a number of worlds which were distinct but integrated parts of his life.  

Photographs show Luthuli wearing ANC Defiance Campaign uniform, the attire of a Zulu chief in 1960, again at the wedding of his first daughter Albertinah (Ntombazana) and on receiving the Nobel Prize in 1961. He can be seen with the Cross of Jesus in the background or praying or in Congress volunteer’s uniform or reading Gandhi. The Congress volunteer’s uniform carries ambiguity - at once bearing militaristic connotations and also that of peace in the cap derived from Gandhi. Equally, his Nobel dress carries a range of meanings, some of which are conducive to taking up war. (See Raymond Suttner, ‘“The road to freedom is via the Cross’’: Chief Albert Luthuli and ‘“just means”’, South African Historical Journal, 2010 (December), 693-715, available on request, and “Dress, gestures and other cultural representations and manifestations and Indian influence on the formation of ANC masculinities” Historia, May 2009 41-81, available at http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_abstract&pid=S0018-229X2009000100005.)

Respect for those who did not accept the Christian message

At one point he refers to non-Christians as heathens (LMG p. 4) which may be interpreted as a derogatory term, but his interactions with the amaBheshu (or amaBhinca), non-Christians, were amicable and respectful. His children were advised to listen carefully to the amaBheshu elders and to learn from their wisdom. Indeed, when he was a chief, amaBheshu were the majority of his council. (Rule et al p56. Interviews, Thandeka Luthuli-Gcabashe and Albertinah Luthuli, 2009).  The amaBheshu themselves had great respect for Luthuli and used to sing his praises when they arrived at his gate:

Chief Luthuli came from

Mzilikazi’s Rhodesia and had

an impact on the history of

the southern part of the

African continent

“He grew up very fast”; that

is, he rose very quickly in the

political world, first as

elected chief in Groutville and

then in the ANC.

He was still very young when

these successive achievements


He turned his back on

Botha, Malan, Jansen

and Swart [NP cabinet ministers of the time] sitting at

Their table in

Pretoria. He left them

there at their wits’

end and returned to

MaBhengu and his home

In Groutville (Rule et al at p. 94).

Note the emphasis on Luthuli’s power in relation to the apartheid rulers – turning his back on them and leaving them sitting at their table in Pretoria.

For Luthuli, being a chief was not a different world into which he entered periodically and then departed into another. It was an office through which he grew in understanding of the hardships of rural people and also one where he faced tests to his integrity. (See the next part of this series, which deals with his deposition and later, on the opportunities for corruption).

Luthuli as leader of all people in South Africa

Luthuli was the first leader in South Africa with a following among all population groups. He was in close relationship with the Indian communities and congresses and the first African to have a following among whites. Robert Trent Vinson, in his fine short biography, speaks of him as “Mandela before Mandela”. (Robert Trent Vinson, Albert Luthuli. Athens: Ohio University Press, at p. 12). Or rather, it could be that Mandela should be described as Luthuli after Luthuli?

Luthuli became Natal ANC president only two years after the African-Indian conflicts of 1949. His presidency of the Natal and national ANC was characterised by close relationships with the Indian Congresses, especially in Natal. Many important speeches were delivered to these bodies and he is often pictured eating with Indians. His daughter Albertinah describes how she used to “hang around” after his meetings because she knew that there would be well-catered Indian food afterwards. (Interview, 2009).

The rapprochement at leadership level was one of the factors that led to fairly good relationships between Africans and Indians on the ground. But such close relationships already existed in Luthuli’s home environment, in Groutville. (Rule et al).

Dorothy Nyembe, an ANC leader who served 18 years in prison and was initially sceptical of Indians, told Julie Frederikse: “Chief Luthuli taught us that every person born in this country had a right to stay and be free, whether he is Indian, African or white. We fought side by side.” (Julie Frederikse, The unbreakable thread. Non-racialism in South Africa. Ravan Press 1990 p. 54.)

In an interview conducted in 2010, the late Ben Magubane, who was an ANC member at the time of Luthuli’s presidency, describes emerging from an ANC rally in Durban to see police harassing Indian traders. ANC members then formed a cordon around the traders, shielding them from the police, thus giving material substance to the alliance between the Congresses of the two communities.

Luthuli made considerable efforts to reach out to whites and for his pains he was assaulted on one such occasion in Pretoria. During a brief interlude between banning orders Luthuli addressed large audiences including whites in Cape Town.  Mary Benson describes meetings in 1959:

“His theme was ‘European fears and non-white aspirations:

‘We are not callous to the situation of the white man in this country, who entertains certain fears - fears that he may be swamped and may lose his racial identity because of our numerical superiority. But must the white man, because of those fears, be excused for refusing his fellow man rights?... the question is not the preservation of one group or another, but to preserve values which have been developed over generations and to pass those values on to generations to come.’”

Benson remarks that his lucid and uncompromising approach inspired enthusiasm. “After one meeting a crocodile of men and women of all races followed him down the street, singing ‘Somlandela Luthuli…’ - ‘We will follow Luthuli’.  Swinging and swaying in the traditional steps - one, two, three, kick - ‘we will follow, we will follow Luthuli…’ His visit to the Cape was described as a ‘triumphal tour’ by the Johannesburg Star…” (Benson 208-9. See also Vinson pp 79-83).

Luthuli’s following and his death

That Luthuli enjoyed a following among all sections of the population punctured any validity that may have been accorded to apartheid theories to the effect that the different peoples of South Africa were separated by nature and that nothing could change this. That Luthuli won such support, especially among sections of the white population, could well have been seen as sufficient danger to provide a motive for his killing. To this day his family do not believe that his death on being struck by a train was an accident.

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 raymondsuttner.com 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.