We need to re-examine Albert Luthuli’s ethos and principles to truly realise freedom

In our contribution to peace we are resolved to end such evils as oppression, white supremacy and race discrimination, all of which are incompatible with world peace and security. There is indeed a threat to peace.” — excerpt from Inkosi Albert Luthuli’s Nobel peace prize acceptance speech in 1961

We start by echoing Luthuli’s assertion that “there is indeed a threat to peace” as the world continues to grapple with various forms of human rights violations. Luthuli was a man of universal wisdom and exceptional integrity, a man of deep compassion, motivated into political action by his Christian commitment. 

We take a moment’s pause and critically reflect on his varied legacies, his ethos and philosophy. We invoke his call to “Let my people go” — as many African people continue to suffer from among other things unemployment, poor quality education, unaffordable health care and gender-based violence. We recognise Luthuli’s sense of respect for other people which is established in the power of creative imagination to influence other identities and belief systems. 

His leadership ethos and principles were determined by his range of identities but mostly being a Christian. He believed that his identity of being a Christian did not contradict hierarchical relationships and connections to his other identities. Instead, he managed to live them harmoniously. 

Our reflection on his varied legacies includes determining the extent to which his leadership ethos and principles are performed in contemporary South Africa. Sixty years ago, on 10 December 1961, Luthuli was awarded the Nobel peace prize. As we remember this significant moment in history, we pause to commemorate and reflect on where we are in our attempts to realise some of Luthuli’s hopes and aspirations.

South Africa continues to witness a growing lack of harmony between what the Constitution promises and the realities of people’s lives. The glaring inequalities that confront us daily require the government to structurally address the socioeconomic and political injustices that were mostly inherited from the system of apartheid. 

It is against the ethos and principles of Luthuli that in contemporary South Africa, people who make their living in poor areas such as townships, urban slums and other overpopulated spaces do not enjoy their freedom and their rights while their dignity continues to be trampled upon. 

Many people continue to live in bondage even though struggle heroes such as Luthuli tirelessly fought for the liberation of all those who were oppressed. Sixty years later, we sit with many unfulfilled promises, emergent forms of oppression and enduring legacies of inequality through class, race, gender, religion and sexuality. Luthuli’s life and the realities of his people becomes pertinent as we work towards understanding and analysing the life of servitude and selflessness that he so effortlessly led. 

This draws attention to his ethos and principles which were prominent in all his political encounters. For some commentators, his religious faith was central to his reasons for liberation. The most central motivation for contemporary South Africa and its leaders to re-examine Luthuli’s life is the ability to merge ethics, religious obligations, values, and political beliefs and engagements. 

We are already familiar with Luthuli as a cultural activist. We know of his employment of cultural form to achieve social and political change with, among other gestures, his decision to present his Nobel speech in Norway in Zulu chieftaincy regalia. This bold act was not only to announce his cultural heritage or his nobility; it was not only to nurture political networks or to further cultural bonds; it was also not only to legitimise his right as a black man to access global political power structures; it was also not only to defy the dehumanisation of his race by the South African apartheid government. It was instead, all these together, and more.

It was also notable, for instance, that in going to Oslo as well as in the delivery of his speech, Luthuli inadvertently participated in a larger tradition of non-compliance to undue domination, a tradition that is commonplace in South Africa. A tradition that is documented widely in historical, political, and other disciplines through figures like uNongqawuse, uShaka, mama Miriam Makeba, Nadine Gordimer, Queen Modjadji, and others. A tradition that continues after democracy. This is a trait that by no means makes South Africa or South Africans exceptional but is valuable to acknowledge. South Africa has an infamous rebelliousness expressed on many occasions by its strong civil society, such as the bus boycotts of the 1980s and other such domestic pre-apartheid, anti-apartheid and post-apartheid defiance campaigns. 

We need to acknowledge that our quest for social justice cannot be confined within academic walls, but instead we need to create bridges and work collectively with people. Luthuli challenges us as scholars in his Nobel peace prize acceptance when he makes an assertion that: “Scientific inventions, at all conceivable levels should enrich human life, not threaten existence. Science should be the greatest ally, not the worst enemy of mankind. Only so can the world, not only respond to the worthy efforts of Nobel, but also ensure itself against self-destruction. Indeed, the challenge is for us to ensure the world from self-destruction.”Our scholarly pursuits and discoveries must benefit society and “enrich human life”. Inkosi Luthuli left us many legacies — it is our responsibility to create pathways, bridges and platforms that allow for engagement, and for working collectively while remembering our purpose and responsibility of contributing towards making the world a better place. We have heard calls for decolonisation and Africanisation. Heeding such calls means among other things, centring the stories of African heroes whose teachings, philosophies and legacies have been deliberately muted. Stories of struggle heroes such as Luthuli. May we excavate and make visible these silenced histories so that we may learn from the wisdoms of those who came before us.

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Puleng Segalo
Puleng Segalo is the Chief Albert Luthuli Research Chair at UNISA
Wiseman Mbatha
Wiseman Mbatha is a PhD candidate currently holding the position of researcher in the Chief Albert Luthuli Research Chair at the University of South Africa.

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