/ 16 December 2010

Luthuli’s arms twisted

A new biography of Albert Luthuli surprisingly shows that he considered himself a Christian first and a politician last.

by Scott Couper (University of
KwaZulu-Natal Press)

In his provocative biography of Albert Luthuli, Scott Couper contrasts two tributes to the former ANC president in the early 2000s: a typically abstract and ostentatiously learned speech by Thabo Mbeki that barely ­mentioned Luthuli’s Christian beliefs and a more ’embodied” offering by Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda that emphasised the religious foundations of the chief’s life and political career.

Couper’s central purpose is to rescue Luthuli from what political scientist Tom Lodge calls ‘the homo-
genised nationalist pantheon”, where all past leaders (at least since James Moroka) are eight foot tall, immune to fear, doubt and inner conflict and have no other god than the ANC.

Mbeki’s speech, which underscored the political motives for the ANC’s transition to armed struggle, is seen as typifying conventional nationalist iconography.

It has led, in Couper’s view, to the fundamental distortion of Luthuli as a man who was ‘political before he was spiritual”, when he himself declared: ‘I am in Congress precisely because I am a Christian.”

‘Luthuli represented the quintessential kholwa (convert): born, raised and educated in the bosom of American Congregationalism transplanted to Natal by the American Board [Mission],” Couper writes.

The ANC, he argues, has fostered a further misconception — that Luthuli’s nonviolence was a contingent stance that he jettisoned when Sharpeville and the banning of the liberation movements rendered it obsolete.

‘There is a wrong and unfortunate impression that Chief Luthuli was a pacifist, or some kind of apostle of nonviolence,” wrote the ANC’s Sechaba in 1967, along these lines. ‘(He) defended the policy entrusted to him by his organisation — When that policy was officially and constitutionally changed, he did not falter.”

Bound by Faith builds an impressive case that Luthuli remained ­committed to the principle of non-violence during and beyond the launch of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) — and perhaps even until his tragic death five years later.

His autobiography, Let My People Go — published in January 1962, a month after MK’s first bomb attacks — caused firebrand Nelson Mandela much embarrassment during a trip to marshal support for MK in Africa by insisting: ‘We do not struggle with guns and violence, and the supremacist’s array of weapons is powerless against the spirit.”

Couper argues persuasively that Mandela, perhaps wilfully, misread Luthuli’s apparent acceptance of the shift to arms at a key July 1961 meeting of the ANC’s national working committee (NWC) and that the chief hoped to resume the debate in a more representative forum.

This is certainly suggested by a passage in Mandela’s biography that describes a ‘disconcerting” secret meeting with Luthuli at his Groutville farm in early 1962, where the latter ‘chastised” his younger lieutenant for creating MK without consulting him.

Mandela later reported to the NWC that some assertions in Luthuli’s autobiography ‘have been extremely unfortunate and have created the impression of a man who is a stooge of the whites”.

Indeed, Couper’s account sometimes leaves the impression that the chief was more closely attuned to liberal whites, such as the lapsed communist Rowley Arenstein, than the radical nationalists among his ANC colleagues.

Couper argues that Luthuli’s pacifism was ‘strategic” rather than ‘ideological” — he believed violence risked sparking a racial Armageddon and alienating the world opinion he considered critical to defeating apartheid.

Kader Asmal is quoted as saying that the chief once remarked to him ‘that anyone who thought he was a pacifist should try to steal his ­chickens”.

But Luthuli’s many pronouncements on the subject also make it clear that he considered boycotts, stay-at-home strikes and the like ethically the highest form of ­resistance. ‘To refrain from violence is the sign of a civilised man,” he wrote in Golden City Post in May 1961. ‘Nonviolence gives us a moral ­superiority.”

In this respect, Couper argues, his spiritual kinsman was American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, who famously declared that violence is immoral because it seeks to annihilate rather than convert.

Whether nonviolence was the right strategic option, and just how convinced Luthuli remained that it could topple white rule, are different questions.

His 1964 Rivonia Trial statement, which asserted that ‘no one can blame brave, just men for seeking justice by the use of violent methods”, may well have been an expression of solidarity rather than an endorsement of violence, as Couper contends. Luthuli could hardly have denounced the tactics of ANC comrades facing life behind bars.

But the extremes to which he goes in the statement — he also said the triallists ‘represent the highest in morality and ethics in the South African political struggle” — hint at deep, accumulated reserves of righteous fury and even despair.

Most sensible people would now agree that the ANC’s recourse to arms was inevitable, defensible and, by the late 1980s, a key component of the ‘total onslaught” that ultimately drove the apartheid state to the ­negotiating table.

But the rights and wrongs of political violence, and Luthuli’s precise attitude to it, are less important than the picture Couper paints of a great South African, endowed with the same extraordinary breadth of spirit that marks such leaders as Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

The Nobel committee’s chairperson, Gunnar Jahn, described him as ‘fearless and incorruptible”, while his amanuensis, Charles Hooper, offered this memorable tribute: ‘Only as his (qualities) unfold does one begin to grasp the striking wholeness of the man, his coherence and his integrity. A mind is at work, but never academically, never without imagination. Imagination is at work, but never without restraint and discipline, never engaged in fantasy and never at the expense of the truth.”

It is for his outstanding human qualities, and as a model of inclusive nonracial leadership, that Luthuli should be honoured — not as a cardboard nationalist icon.