Albert John Luthuli was a South African teacher, tribal chief, and the most widely respected leader of his era. He served as the President-General of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1952 until his accidental death in 1967. Chris Bishop, Forbes Africa’s Managing Editor, correctly refers to him as “one of the great names of African politics.”
Although he is not as popular in present times as his protégé, Nelson Mandela, Luthuli played a significant role in South Africa’s campaign against the racially discriminative practices of the white colonialist forces of the apartheid regime. In 1961, he became the first black African Nobel Laureate and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his adherence to non-violent methods in leading the fight against apartheid.
Albert Luthuli was born in 1898 (circa) to John Bunyan and Mtonya Luthuli. Although both his parents grew up in Groutville, SA, he was born in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), where his father served as a Christian Missionary and lived the last few years of his life. After her husband passed, Mtonya moved back to Groutville and ensured her son got an education.
In 1917, Luthuli graduated from high school with a teaching degree and began building a professional teaching career that spanned about two decades. His first teaching role was as the principal and only staff of an intermediate school in the South African province of Natal, where he served for two years. His excellent performance earned him a scholarship to study for the Higher Teacher’s Diploma at Adams College, South Africa.
After completing his two-year degree at Adams College, Luthuli was offered another scholarship to study at the University of Fort Hare. He declined because he wanted to earn a salary and support his aging mother. So, he took up a teaching role at Adams College, where he met his future wife, Nokukhanya Bhengu, a fellow teacher and the granddaughter of a Zulu chief. They got married in 1927, settled in Groutville, and had seven children between 1929 and 1945.
His devotion to Christianity shaped his beliefs and defined his political convictions, and as a teacher, he strived to ensure that the education colored children received was of the same quality as that of white children. At the peak of his teaching career, he was made President of the African Teachers Association; but shortly after, tribal elders asked him to succeed his uncle as chief of the Umvoti River Reserve. This request put him in a difficult position.
First, his salary as a teacher was five times what he was projected to earn as a chief. Also, his teaching job offered him a path to prominence since it meant serving all South Africans. On the other hand, his job as a chief meant leading an obscure tribe of 5,000 people. Luthuli eventually concluded that money and fame were less important to him. He was elected chief in 1935 and served until the government deposed him in 1952.
While some chiefs used their office to enrich their purses, Luthuli gave himself wholly to the needs of his people. Prof. Tawana Kupe, Vice Chancellor of South Africa’s University Of Pretoria, described him as a man who embodied the true definition of leadership. He “governed with democracy, wisdom, integrity, empathy, and understanding that the position of a leader was to be responsive to the needs of the people, not to save yourself.” Luthuli’s selfless leadership of his chiefdom was a precursor to what would be his greatest legacy.
In the mid-1930s, the South African government imposed growing racial segregation policies that impacted the welfare of non-whites throughout South Africa. In 1948, these discriminatory practices evolved into apartheid, a system of institutionalized racial segregation. These events compelled Luthuli to become more active in politics beyond his chiefdom.
He joined the ANC in 1944 and was elected president of the Natal Division in 1951. In 1952, he led the Defiance Campaign, a massive act of civil disobedience that protested against apartheid. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s methods, Luthuli ensured that the campaign remained disciplined and non-violent. The crusade involved deliberately breaking the laws of apartheid by using public amenities—train seats, benches, conveniences, lands, etc.— reserved for Europeans.
Luthuli’s support for the campaign put him at loggerheads with the government. So they instructed him to resign from the ANC, or they would depose him as chief. He defied their ultimatum and lost his chieftaincy in 1952. About a month later, Luthuli became the ANC’s President-General, and Nelson Mandela was elected as his deputy.
The government, recognizing Luthuli was a threat, served him four banning orders that restricted his mobility, communication, and leadership. He and 156 other leaders were even tried for treason in 1957. However, the impression he made during his treason trials caused on-looking foreigners to suggest his name for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Luthuli was under his third banning order when he was informed that he had been awarded the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize for his dedication to the methods of non-violent resistance in spearheading the fight against apartheid. After intense pressure from the domestic and international community, Luthuli’s ban was lifted for ten days to permit him (and his wife) to receive the prestigious award.
Winning the Nobel Peace Prize enabled him to internationalize the ANC and the South African struggle. According to Mthunzi Luthuli, Luthuli’s grandson:
“He wasn’t just the first African person, but the first person outside of Europe and America to be awarded the Nobel Prize. So it was a significant, significant event. And for the first time in the history of his country, the world focused on what was happening in South Africa and lent its support to the struggles of the black people of this country.”
In July 1967, two years to the completion of his fourth ban, Luthuli was struck by a freight train as he walked on the trestle bridge near his home. He died from complications arising from the accident.
In 1959, Martin Luther King Jr. had written to Luthuli, after learning of the latter’s interest in obtaining copies of his book, Stride Toward Freedom. “I admire your great witness and your dedication to the cause of freedom and human dignity. You have stood amid persecution, abuse, and oppression with a dignity and calmness of spirit… One day all of Africa will be proud of your achievements.”
Indeed, all of Africa is proud of his achievements.
- Wikipedia: Albert Luthuli
- The Nobel Prize: Albert Lutuli Biographical
- Luthuli Musuem: Biography
- Stanford University|The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute: To Albert J. Lutuli
- YouTube, Forbes Africa: The story of how Albert Lutuli, a man of peace, went to war
- YouTube, University of Pretoria: The life of Chief Albert Luthuli through the arts
- YouTube, SABC News: Mthunzi Luthuli on his grandfather Chief Albert Luthuli