South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Albert Lutuli

(1898 - July 21, 1967)

President-General of the African National Congress from December 1952 until his death in 1967, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960, Luthuli was the most widely known and respected African leader of his era. A latecomer to politics, he was nearly 50 when he first assumed national political office. Over the course of his political career his attitudes grew progressively more militant.

He was born about 1898 near Bulawayo in a Seventh Day Adventist mission. His father died when he was an infant, and in about 1908 his mother sent him back to the family's traditional home at Groutville mission station in Natal. Luthuli then lived for a period in the household of his uncle, Martin Luthuli, who was at that time the elected Chief of the Christian Zulus inhabiting Umvoti Mission Reserve around Groutville. On completing a teaching course at Edendale near Pietermaritzburg, Luthuli took up the running of a small primary school in the Natal uplands. Becoming seriously conscious of his religion for the first time, he was confirmed in the Methodist Church and became a lay preacher. The language of the Bible and Christian principles profoundly affected his political style and beliefs for the rest of his life.

In 1920 he received a government bursary to attend a higher teachers' training course at Adams College, and subsequently joined the training college staff, teaching alongside Z.K. Mathews, who was then the head of the Adams College High School. Succumbing to pressure from the elders of his tribe, Luthuli agreed in 1935 to accept the chieftaincy of Groutville reserve, and returned home to become an administrator of tribal affairs. For 17 years he immersed himself in the local problems of his people, adjudicating, mediating local quarrels, and organising African cane growers to guard their own interest. Through minor clashes with white authority he gained his first immediate experience with African political predicaments. Travel outside South Africa also widened his perspective during this period; in 1938 he was a delegate to an international missionary conference in India, and in 1948 he spent nine months on a church-sponsored tour of the United States.

The illness and the death of John L. Dube in 1946 awakened his active interest in strengthening the ANC, at that stage in Natal still a rather confused organisation centred around several rival personalities. Beginning his career in national politics, Luthuli defeated Selby Msimang in a by-election for a successor to Dube on the Natives' Representative Council. Luthuli was returned unopposed to the semi-defunct council in 1948. With the backing of the Natal ANC Youth League and Jordan Ngubane in Inkundla ya Bantu, he advanced another step onto the national stage in early 1951 by narrowly defeating A.W.G. Champion for Natal provincial president of the ANC. His public support for the 1952 Defiance Campaign brought him finally into direct conflict with the South African government, and on his refusal to resign from the ANC, he was dismissed from his post as chief in November 1952. In response, Luthuli issued "The Road to Freedom is via the Cross," perhaps the most famous statement of his principles a belief in non-violence, a conviction that apartheid degrades all who are party to it, and an optimism that whites would sooner or later be compelled to change heart and accept a shared society. The notoriety gained by his dismissal, his eloquence, his unimpeachable character, and his demonstrated loyalty to the ANC all made Luthuli a natural candidate to succeed ANC President James Moroka, who at his trial during the Defiance Campaign had tried to dissociate himself from the other defendants.

At the annual conference of December 1952, Luthuli was elected ANC president-general by a large majority. Bans imposed in early 1953 and renewed in the following year prevented him from giving direction to the day-to-day activities of Congress, but as a country-bred "man of the people," combining the most inspiring qualities of Christian and traditional leadership, he provided a powerful symbol for an organisation struggling to rally mass support. He was re-elected president-general in 1955 and in 1958. Although bans confined him to his rural home throughout his presidency, he nevertheless was able to write statements and speeches for presentation at ANC conferences and occasionally circumstances permitted him to attend conference personally.

In December 1956 he was included in the treason arrests, but was released with 60 others in late 1957 after the pre-trial examination. He was subsequently called as a witness for the defence and was testifying in Pretoria the day of the Sharpeville shooting in 1960. He enjoyed a period of relative freedom between his release at the end of 1957 and May 1959, when a new ban confined him to the Lower Tugela district for five years. During this lapse in restrictions, he made a number of highly publicized speeches to whites and mixed audiences, climaxed by a tour of the Western Cape. His polished speeches and balanced appeals for reason in race relations earned him the praise of many whites. Reactions were not all sympathetic, however, at one meeting in Pretoria he was assaulted and knocked down on the platform by a group of young Afrikaners.

Almost from the beginning of his presidency, Luthuli was confronted by critics warning that he was allowing himself to become a tool of the ANC's left wing. Due to the circumstances of restrictions, he was unable to supervise closely the activities and movements of other ANC leaders, but he was realistically aware of the problems and hardly the naïve figure that some critics have described. His reply was always to defend the right of people of all ideological persuasions to play their part in the struggle for African equality and to support the multiracial Congress Alliance as the foundation of a future integrated society. In ideological terms, he personally expressed a preference for socialism of the type espoused by the British Labour Party.

Six days after the Sharpeville emergency in 1960, Luthuli sought to rally Africans to resistance by publicly burning his pass in Pretoria, in accordance with an ANC decision, and calling for a national day of mourning. On March 30 he was detained and held until August, when he was tried and sentenced to a £100 fine and a six-month suspended sentence. He was allowed to travel to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1961, an award that Die Transvaler labelled "an inexplicable pathological phenomenon." It was ironic, in fact, that within days after presentation of the award, on a day selected because it was an historic Afrikaner holiday, the ANC embarked on its first campaign of sabotage. On July 21,1967, while taking a walk near his Natal home, Luthuli was killed, reportedly when he was struck by a train.

Note about names:

Luthuli's surname is very often spelled Luthuli, as it is in his autobiography, which was prepared for publication by non-vernacular-speaking friends. But Luthuli himself preferred another spelling and signed his name without an h. While noting this, in order to facilitate internet searches, where the more widespread spelling of ‘Luthuli’ is more likely to be used in a search, the spelling in the text above has not adhered to Luthuli’s preference. Mary Benson in her biography notes that Luthuli, although christened Albert John, preferred his Zulu name Mvumbi, which means continuous rain.


Carter, G. et al. (1977). From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1964, Vol. 4, Stanford: Hoover Institution Press.

Links: is a comprehensive Luthuli page on the ANC site compiled by their historian E.S. Reddy. It has selected speeches, statements and writings following a brief biography of Luthuli. takes you to the official site of the Gandhi/Luthuli documentation center at the University of Durban-Westville, Natal. provides the text of the Presidential address by Luthuli at the 42nd Annual Conference of the ANC in 1953. It begins with the evocative cry “Freedom in Our Lifetime!” links you to Luthuli’s Presidential address at the 45th Annual Conference of the ANC in 1957, titled ‘We have the key to freedom – not the oppressor’. accesses ‘An honour to Africa’, Luthuli's acceptance speech on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, 10 December 1961. has "Appeal for action against apartheid", a joint statement initiated in 1962 by Chief Luthuli and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, signed by many prominent Americans and promoted the public campaign for sanctions against South Africa. links to a 1964 Luthuli statement on the Rivonia Trial, issued when Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and six other leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment.

This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
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