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Let My People Go

Let My People Go

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Let My People Go

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May 6, 2018


Albert Luthuli's extraordinary story is also that of the African National Congress, which he led for fifteen years. Luthuli's lively first-hand account tells of the repression and resistance that were to shape the South African political landscape forever: the Defiance Campaign - the first mass challenge to apartheid, the drafting of the Freedom Charter, the Treason Trial and the tragedies of Sharpeville and Langa. Albert Luthuli was the first black African man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. This book bears witness to Luthuli's unfailing humility, perseverance, and passionate commitment to the values of non-racialism and non-sexism. His vision, crucial to the shaping of the South Africa we live in today, continues to move and inspire.
May 6, 2018

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Chief Albert John Mvumbi Luthuli, Africa's first Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 1960, was President-General of the African National Congress (ANC) from December 1952 until his death in 1967. Chief Luthuli was the most widely known and respected African leader of his era. A latecomer to politics, the Chief was 54 when he assumed the leadership of the ANC.

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Let My People Go - Albert Luthuli


Let My People Go

Kwela Books

To Mother Africa, so long in fetters;

To all who love her and strive to set her free;

And to two noble women of Africa:

Mtonya, my late mother, and Nokukhanya, my wife,

To whom, under God, I am most deeply indebted.

Address at the launch of the

Luthuli Legacy Project

by President Thabo Mbeki

IT IS WITH GREAT PRIDE and pleasure that I address you today in honour of our beloved and revered leader, Chief Albert John Mvumbi Luthuli.

The Luthuli Legacy Project fulfils the dreams and aspirations of the masses of our people that our great African heroes and heroines should be honoured and cherished for all time. This legacy project is part of our government’s programme to ensure that, as South Africans, we capture, remember and celebrate the totality of the South African history, particularly those aspects of our history that were deliberately neglected, falsified, denigrated, ridiculed and presented in a manner that sought to entrench the anti-human ideology of racial superiority and inferiority.

Accordingly, as part of the efforts to liberate ourselves from apartheid and colonialism, both physically and mentally, we have to engage in the process of telling the truth about the history of our country, so that all of our people, armed with this truth, can confidently face the challenges of this day and the next.

This labour of love, of telling the true story of South Africa and Africa, has to be intensified on all fronts, so that as Africans we are able to write, present and interpret our history, our conditions and life circumstances, according to our knowledge and experience.

It is a challenge that confronts all Africans everywhere – on our continent and in the Diaspora – to define ourselves, not in the image of others, or according to the dictates and fancies of people other than ourselves.

We are gathered here today to celebrate the life, the work, the struggle and philosophy of one of the greatest leaders of our country. As we know, Chief Albert Luthuli was an educator, a leader within his church, a traditional leader, a President of the African National Congress and also the first African to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his outstanding efforts for the cause of human freedom, human dignity, non-racialism, democracy and peace.

We would like to thank the Ministry and Department of Arts and Culture for ensuring that through the Luthuli Legacy Project, the ideas and philosophy of this great soldier of the African people are preserved so as to inspire all future generations to work for their full realisation.

Today, many people across the world appreciate the fact that the final stage of our liberation was marked by freedom fighters and oppressors sitting down at the same table to hammer out a settlement that buried the apartheid demon and established a society based on the ideals of equality, non-racialism, non-sexism and democracy. Chief Albert Luthuli had cherished this outcome throughout his lifetime. Undoubtedly it is therefore part of the legacy that he bequeathed to our country and people.

Chief Luthuli’s life was inextricably linked to the striving of our people for democracy. Indeed, the defining moments of Chief Luthuli’s leadership were during the 1950’s, a decade marked by militant mass struggles, including the Defiance Campaign, general strikes, bus boycotts, the potato boycott, mass campaigns against passes for women, the struggles against Bantu Education, workers’ struggles for better wages and better working conditions and many other mass struggles of our people.

The 1950’s also witnessed the historic process of the independence of Africans from colonialism and the rollback of the outcomes produced by the European Scramble for Africa, which resulted in our continent being shared by the imperial powers. The Suez crisis of 1956 was a clear indication that the gunboat diplomacy of a previous era was no longer an option for the Western powers. The independence of Africa gathered momentum, when first Ghana became free in 1957, then Guinea in 1958 and subsequently a number of African countries gained their independence.

It was during this time of mass struggles in our country and the collapse of the colonial system, that the rare gift of the leadership of Albert Luthuli came to the fore. Luthuli was a man of immense dignity and noble bearing. His love of humanity was matched by his intolerance of racial bigotry and oppression.

During an adult life taken up with political activism, and on the basis of his strong Christian convictions, he forged a democratic political outlook that embraced people of all colours, races and creeds as members of the human family.

The indestructible legacy that Chief Luthuli has left for all of us is the unwavering dedication to the total liberation of his people and the indomitable will to undertake seemingly impossible tasks to achieve this objective.

The legacy project we launched today is but perhaps an insufficient tribute to that indomitable spirit to serve the people of South Africa and Africa. All of us are proud and honoured to have participated in the restoration of the church in which he spread the true meaning of the gospel to the masses of our people; the consecration of the family burial plot where he is laid to rest; the opening of the Luthuli Museum in Groutville, and the unveiling of the statue of Chief AJ Luthuli at the KwaDukuza Cultural Precinct.

In a speech to the 22nd Biennial Conference of the South African Indian Congress in 1956, Chief Luthuli quoted one of his favourite poems, The Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It is perhaps fitting that, on this day, we should share Longfellow’s words with you, in memory of a great patriot and Nobel Peace Laureate. Longfellow wrote:

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

We can make our lives sublime,

And departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

After quoting Longfellow, Chief Luthuli issued this challenge to the delegates: The challenge to you and all of us who love and value liberty is to build a tradition that will be a statue of liberty in the Union of South Africa. We have to do this in the face of strong gales that make the task of building and maintaining this Statue of Freedom a most hazardous undertaking fraught with dangers that are capable of destroying us and the tradition of liberty we would be building. The cause is so worthwhile that any risks and dangers confronting its realization sink into insignificance.

Indeed, today, as we remember this great African leader, we dare say that the better life that we are building after attaining the freedom that Luthuli and many others fought so hard to achieve, must be real, as the poet said.

I am confident that through our combined efforts, together we can make the lives of our people sublime and magnificent, uplifting particularly those who occupy the lowest rung in our social order. In doing so, and as the poet said, we will emulate AJ Luthuli in leaving behind us the footprints on the sands of time.

We are blessed that we have the opportunity to follow on those footprints, because the wise words he uttered in 1956 are still very relevant today. We agree with his call that all of us who value liberty have to build a tradition that will be a statue of liberty in our country.

As we work for the total transformation of our country into a truly non-racial, non-sexist, and prosperous democracy, his prophetic words become more relevant because indeed we are engaged in the task of building a statue of liberty, in the face of strong gales that make the task of building and maintaining this Statue of Freedom a most hazardous undertaking fraught with dangers that are capable of destroying us and the tradition of liberty we would be building.

Clearly, Chief Luthuli knew that as he, during his time, confronted strong gales that made the task of achieving freedom difficult, these strong gales would still rage, even if in different forms, to confront those whose task would be to ensure that the freedom that we won after a long and bitter struggle, is entrenched and consolidated.

Accordingly, his words of 1956 were directed both to his audience and to all of us, that we cannot and must not hesitate and falter in the pursuit of the transformation path that will clearly consolidate our freedom because, the cause is so worthwhile that any risks and dangers confronting its realisation sink into insignificance.

In the same poem Chief Luthuli quoted, Longfellow says:

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than to-day.

Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labour and to wait.

We, who are gathered here today, should be able to say to Chief Albert Luthuli that we are working in such a manner that each tomorrow will undoubtedly find us farther than today; that as we celebrate our decade of freedom we are able to say, confidently and without any contradiction, that the lives of our people are better than they were ten years ago.

Thus we must accelerate the process of transformation such that when we report at the end of the second decade of our freedom, we should be able to say confidently and without any contradiction that the lives of our people are much better than they were in 2004.

In a message to Drum magazine while he was in Oslo, Norway, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Chief Luthuli said: My prayer is that the day will soon come when all my people will share in the freedom and the good things of life which are all around me as I write.

Chief Luthuli did not live to see that day, which came on the 27th April 1994. But those of us who had the privilege to experience that day have a duty not to betray the struggle that defined the life of Chief Luthuli.

As we do all the things that we must do and as we build and maintain the Statue of Freedom that Chief Albert Luthuli referred to, we will like Henry Longfellow say:

Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labour and to wait.

I thank you.

This Presidential Address was first delivered in KwaDukuza on 21 August 2004.


by Kader Asmal

THE LAST TIME I saw Chief Albert Luthuli was at Heathrow Airport in London on a dark December night in 1961, when he was on his way to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

A small group of South African exiles, students and anti-apartheid campaigners had assembled in the hope of greeting him and his wife, Nokukhanya, but we could only wave our placards and ANC flags from the other side of the wire fence. The South African regime had given him a passport on condition that he did not engage in any political activities. Accordingly, he was forced to pass on without speaking to us, only casting a wistful look in our direction, while we were left with an exultant feeling of elation that after so many years we had at least had a view of our Chief.

I had grown up in Stanger next to Chief Luthuli’s home village of Groutville. As a youngster and as a teacher, I was deeply influenced by him and by his views. He, too, had been a teacher. First encountering him when I was 14, I learned from Albert Luthuli that we could aspire to a better world. He gave me a vision of how we could be South African in a country beset by racial divisions, religious intolerance, and fear. He enabled me to see the possibilities that we could achieve in a South Africa freed from racism. It was electrifying.

I have always regarded Albert Luthuli as my mentor, a teacher by example rather than by prescription. I met him on a number of occasions in the late 1940s and early 1950s when he knocked on doors in my home town of Stanger looking for support. His non-racialism and his commitment to freedom and democracy made an indelible impression on me. Albert Luthuli was one of the most important influences leading me into the politics of liberation.

Although he resigned from the teaching profession when he was democratically elected as Chief of the Umvoti Mission Reserve in 1936, Luthuli continued to be a role model for many. Through his experience of the problems of his community, he became convinced of the need for militant action. In the 1940s he became actively involved in the African National Congress. He was an eloquent speaker, with a commanding presence and a formidable intellect. His qualities of leadership were recognised when he was elected in 1951 to the Presidency of the Natal ANC.

This new political role precipitated a crisis when the apartheid regime demanded that he choose between his chieftainship and his political activities. Refusing to resign from either, he was deposed as chief by the government, although throughout his life his friends and followers continued to address him by that traditional title, indicating that Albert Luthuli could not be defined by the apartheid regime. Luthuli’s statement in response to the government’s denial of his traditional authority was a resounding assertion of his moral authority:

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? …

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 to all sections of the South African community. I have embraced the non-violent passive resistance technique in fighting for freedom because I am convinced it is the only non-revolutionary, legitimate and humane way that could be used by people denied, as we are, effective constitutional means to further aspirations …

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.¹

Soon after this event, Albert Luthuli was elected President-General of the African National Congress, a post he held until his death in 1967.

During the 1950s, as dramatised in Alan Paton’s novel Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful, the apartheid government considered it a criminal act of subversion to address Albert Luthuli as Chief. In their interrogation of a leader of the National Union of South African Students, which had congratulated Chief Luthuli on his election to the presidency of the ANC, the police in Paton’s novel insist that it is subversive for a students’ organisation to continue to give a man a title which has been taken away from him by a Minister who ultimately derives his power from Parliament. It is in fact contempt of Parliament, which is a serious offence indeed. The penalties are heavy, and could be crippling for you and your organisation.²

Ironically, during the same era, the leader of a student organisation supporting the apartheid regime, FW de Klerk, caused trouble for his organisation, the Afrikaanse Studentebond, by inviting Albert Luthuli to speak at Potchefstroom University. Although he regarded the ANC as dangerous because of its cooperation with communists and its proposals for a universal franchise in South Africa, De Klerk was interested in Albert Luthuli because we respected his position as a Zulu chief. Seemingly unaware that the National Party government he supported had deposed Luthuli as chief, or that addressing him as Chief might be a criminal offence, De Klerk proceeded to invite Chief Luthuli, over the objections of his university, to address the Afrikaanse Studentebond at a meeting held off campus. It was a strange experience, De Klerk relates in his autobiography, for young Afrikaners at the time to converse with black South Africans on an equal basis. These students might have respected the Chief, but De Klerk reports that his message that all South Africans should have the right to one-man one-vote in an undivided South Africa was at the time utterly alien to us. Insisting that Afrikaners had the right to rule themselves, while Zulus and other Africans should be relegated to homelands, the students left Albert Luthuli, as De Klerk imagined, despondent about the possibility that Afrikaners would ever accept his message.³

Chief Luthuli, however, possessed a remarkable generosity of spirit, although he was never tolerant of injustice. He was a Christian, with very deeply held beliefs, but his Christianity was the kind that looked to the model of Jesus throwing the moneylenders out of the temple. Throughout his active political life, Chief Luthuli was a committed and disciplined member of the ANC. He articulated the movement’s non-racial policies with the same deep conviction he vested in his religion.

In a speech in Johannesburg in 1958, Albert Luthuli challenged any assumption that South Africa, with its diversity of race, colour, creed and culture, could not develop into a democracy. I personally believe, he declared, that here in South Africa, with all our diversities of colour and race, we will show the world a new pattern of democracy. I think there is a challenge to us in South Africa to set a new example for the world. We can build a homogeneous South Africa on the basis not of colour but of human values.

In that same speech in 1958, Albert Luthuli called for an international boycott of South African products. His call for international pressure on the apartheid regime was heard in London, where I was studying in 1959, and inspired the boycott movement that developed into the British Anti-Apartheid Movement. Despite the attempts by the apartheid regime to silence him, Albert Luthuli announced the ANC’s human and humanising values of non-racialism, freedom and democracy in such resonating tones that his words reached all over the world and all the way to the Nobel Committee.

Albert Luthuli was nominated in February 1961 by the Social Democrats of the Swedish Parliament for the delayed 1960 Nobel Peace Prize. At the time, he was still entangled in the five-year Treason Trial, which finally resulted in his acquittal on 29 March 1961. Under renewed banning orders that restricted his freedom of speech and movement, limiting him to the Lower Tugela magisterial area, Luthuli was confined to his home in Groutville when he learned on 12 October 1961 that he was being awarded the Peace Prize. In a public statement, he thanked the Nobel Committee, but suggested that the award was being given, not only to himself, but also to my country and its people – especially those who have fought and suffered in the struggle to achieve the emancipation of all South Africans from the bonds of fear and injustice.

The apartheid regime reacted with outrage at the prize. John Vorster, then Minister of Justice, grudgingly allowed him to travel to Norway, notwithstanding the fact that the government fully realises that the award was not made on merit. Die Burger, the media mouthpiece for the apartheid government, said the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Albert Luthuli was a remarkably immature, poorly considered and fundamentally un-Western decision.⁶ With characteristic humility and humour, Chief Luthuli observed that this was the first time he had ever agreed with the apartheid government, since he also thought that he was not worthy of such a great honour.

Although the government was prepared to let him go to Norway, it would not grant permission for him to attend the celebrations that were held in nearby Stanger. Buses were prevented from transporting people to the event. Nevertheless, a celebration was held. Fatima Meer spoke. Alan Paton read out his Praise Song for Luthuli:

You there, Luthuli, they thought your world was small

They thought you lived in Groutville

Now they discover

It is the world you live in.

You there, Luthuli, they thought your name was small

Luthuli of Groutville

Now they discover

Your name is everywhere.

You there, Luthuli, they thought that you were chained

Like a backyard dog Now they discover

They are in prison, but you are free.

You there, Luthuli, they took your name of Chief

You were not worthy

Now they discover You are more

Chief than ever.

Go well, Luthuli, may your days be long

Your country cannot spare you

Win for us also, Luthuli

The prize of Peace.

The praise singer, Percy Yengwa, received the biggest response from the gathering for his poetry celebrating the great bull that our enemies had tried to enclose in a kraal, the great bull who had broken the strong fence to wander far – as far as Oslo! Yengwa concluded by praising Albert Luthuli as Nkosi yase Groutville! Nkosi yase Afrika! Noksi yase world! (Chief of Groutville, Chief of Africa, Chief of the world!).

Albert and Nokukhanya Luthuli flew to Oslo, via London, where I caught such a brief glimpse of them. Albert Luthuli had been outside the country before, visiting India in 1938 and the United States in 1948, on both trips feeling what he called a reprieve from the tense complexity of my homeland. Chief Luthuli received the Nobel Peace Prize on 10 December 1961, a significant day declared by the United Nations as International Human Rights Day. He made a brief acceptance speech. The next day he delivered his lecture, Africa and Freedom. Wearing his traditional Zulu headdress, he was very much the Chief. But he surprised the Nobel audience by singing the national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, demonstrating that he was also the political leader and president of the ANC.

Albert Luthuli made a tremendous impression by bringing Africa to Europe. As a Norwegian newspaper reported on Luthuli’s Nobel lecture, We have suddenly begun to feel Africa’s nearness and greatness. In the millions of huts of corrugated iron, mud and straw lives a force which can make the world richer … Luthuli, the Zulu chieftain and schoolteacher, is an exceptional man. But in his words, his voice, his smile, his strength, his spontaneity a whole continent speaks. Although his words and voice could be heard in Norway, they still could not legally be heard in South Africa. Albert Luthuli must now return to his people in chains, to his guards in exile, this Norwegian report concluded. We have never seen a freer man!

Returning home, Albert Luthuli was again confined to Groutville. With the Nobel Prize money, Chief Luthuli bought farms in Swaziland. He hoped that these farms would provide a safe haven for ANC refugees from the increasingly violent repression of the movement in South Africa. Any profits from the farms, he hoped, would go towards supporting the ANC in exile. Since Albert Luthuli was restricted to Groutville, the responsibility for overseeing the farms fell upon his wife. Arranging the purchase of two farms in Swaziland, Nokukhanya travelled every spring to spend six months sowing and reaping in the fields. Enduring tremendous hardship, Nokukhanya Luthuli demonstrated why she was held in such high regard as a force in her own right, affectionately known as the Mother of Light.

In 1963 the American journalist, interviewer and oral historian, Studs Terkel, was visiting South Africa. In Johannesburg he met the author Nadine Gordimer, who would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991. She told Terkel that he had to meet her friend, the Chief. In his interview with Albert Luthuli, Studs Terkel was impressed with the Chief’s extraordinary generosity of spirit. Although blacks had suffered greatly under apartheid, Luthuli said, The white is hit harder by apartheid than we are. It narrows his life. In not regarding us as humans he becomes less than human. I do pity him.¹⁰ Luthuli’s vision for the future, a non-racial democracy, was the only hope for an expansion of the human spirit, for all South Africans, black and white.

Apartheid, as Albert Luthuli saw so clearly, was a tragic failure of imagination. As he observed in his autobiography, Let My People Go, We Africans are depersonalised by the whites, our humanity and dignity reduced in their imagination to a minimum.¹¹ Such a reduction of human dignity, beginning in the imagination, had produced tragic consequences for everyone in South Africa.

Recovering human dignity required imagination and courage uniting all resisters to white supremacy, regardless of race. Non-violent resistance, as Luthuli often observed, was his preferred strategy. He came from a neighbourhood in KwaZulu-Natal in which there was remarkable interchange among innovators in non-violence. The Indian activist Mohandas Gandhi was developing his principles of satyagraha, the truth force of non-violent resistance to oppression. Gandhi’s followers met with the Christian visionary Isaiah Shembe, who was establishing his Nazarite community.¹² Shembe’s biography was written by the ANC leader John Dube, the close friend of Albert Luthuli, who brought him into the movement in 1945. Luthuli advanced this non-racial, multi-religious tradition of non-violent resistance in the Defiance Campaign of 1952 and subsequent political work.

Like Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders, Albert Luthuli called for negotiations. In his testimony during the Treason Trial, he invited negotiations, observing that one really can’t anticipate and say what will happen at negotiation, but proposing that the ANC would be very, very happy if the government would take up the attitude of saying, come let us discuss. When the court insisted that there was very little hope of negotiation, Luthuli responded, There were no signs, my lords, in that direction … [but] hope is always there.¹³ Even under the most hopeless conditions, therefore, Albert Luthuli held out hope for a peaceful resolution through negotiations.

Clearly, Albert Luthuli favoured non-violent means of struggle against apartheid. For example, he advocated economic sanctions against the apartheid regime as a way to advance a relatively peaceful transition. Yet he was not a pacifist. He once observed that anyone who thought he was a pacifist should try to steal his chickens. I believe that he came to appreciate – under the pressure of events – that some measure of force was inevitable, but he felt that any use of force should be done through a military formation that was separate from the political movement of the ANC. I know that the plans for an armed struggle, under the auspices of a new military formation, were submitted to Chief Luthuli for his approval. Just days after Albert Luthuli received the Nobel Peace Prize, on 16 December 1961, the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto weSizwe, engaged in its first use of force to sabotage a government installation. In the hope of peace, the armed struggle had begun.

A few months before his death in 1967, Albert Luthuli welcomed to his home the Africanist researcher and bookseller Donal Brody, who reported that the Chief was still actively engaged in imagining a political future for South Africa. As Brody recalls, Luthuli said, I will not live to see everything that I and my friends have fought so hard for, but I think you will. In prophetic terms, according to Brody, Albert Luthuli

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