With Human Rights Day being commemorated last Saturday it seemed the right time to talk about Chief Albert Luthuli, one of the key actors in the anti-pass campaign that led to the March 1960 Sharpeville protest. While he wasn’t actually present on the day of the Sharpeville shootings (he was testifying in Pretoria), as President General of the ANC it was Luthuli who introduced the idea of the ‘Year of the Pass’ – a nationwide campaign aimed at abolishing the discriminatory pass laws. But despite his role as the ANC president from 1952 until his death in 1967, Luthuli (who preferred the spelling Lutuli and chose to use his Zulu name, Mvumbi) was a late-comer to politics, only really getting involved in the political arena in his late forties.
In his early years Albert Luthuli worked as a teacher at Adams College, where he had attended a higher teachers’ training course paid for by a government bursary. In 1935 Luthuli succumbed to pressure from the elders of his tribe, and returned home to Groutville in KwaZulu-Natal, to accept the role of Chief. For 17 years he immersed himself in the local problems of his people, and it was while working with the sugarcane growers that Luthuli became aware of the marginalisation of the African and Indian workers. Luthuli gradually became more and more involved with the ANC, and his public support for their 1952 Defiance Campaign finally bought him into direct conflict with the South African government. After refusing to resign from the ANC, he was dismissed from his post as Chief of Groutville in November 1952. The notoriety gained by his dismissal and his demonstrated loyalty to the ANC made Luthuli a natural candidate to succeed then president James Moroka. At the annual ANC conference of December 1952, Luthuli was elected President General.
Despite spending the majority of his presidency under government bans which restricted his movements, Luthuli was nevertheless able to write speeches for presentation at ANC conferences, and occasionally when circumstances permitted, attend conferences personally. He made a number of highly publicised speeches to mixed audiences. His polished speeches and balanced appeals for reason in race relations earned him international praise, and in 1960 Luthuli became the first African (and the first person from outside Europe and America) to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the non-violent struggle against apartheid.
In July 1967, at the age of 69, Chief Albert Luthuli was fatally injured in an accident near his home in Stanger.
Albert Luthuli Road can be found in the KwaDukuza Municipality (previously Stanger), where a statue has been mounted to commemorate the Chief. You will also find a statue of Chief Albert Luthuli at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, and a little closer to home, the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital in Mayville was the first large-scale new hospital to be built in South Africa post 1994.
Visit SA History Online to read more about the great Chief Albert Luthuli.