Of the many significant events of the year 2017, there is one we should mark with special honour. This is the 50th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest political giants and statesmen South Africa has produced: Inkosi Albert Luthuli, a man of his time, whose death had greater pathos, especially when considering the inexplicable manner in which he died.
As a matter of fact, he had so much to do, so much to give to his family, his nation and his world. His life was of incalculable and unfulfilled possibility. He is with us once more, half of a century after his death.
Although not an Inkosi by heredity, Luthuli earned his chieftainship through his immense contributions to his community of Groutville and South Africa in general. He is the legendary liberation leader of the Struggle and the first African recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961 and the president general of the ANC from 1961 to 1967.
The leadership of Inkosi Luthuli was both great and powerful, attested to by the fact that the democratically elected South African government named an award after him called The Order of Luthuli, given to South Africans who have made a meaningful contribution to the Struggle for democracy, human rights, nation-building, justice, peace and conflict resolution.
Luthuli was a politician of genuine substance and experience, whose amiable character and serenity of judgement, on the one hand, and the spaciousness of mind and compactness of reasoning on the other, were ideals not always easy to fuse but were indelibly implanted in him.
Embracing the importance of trust and personal beliefs, he remained true to his principles even at difficult times, especially when the debate on whether to resort to the armed struggle or not raged on. Luthuli was a politician one could admire. This was probably true of many leaders who may have disagreed with his stance of not supporting the use of violent means to achieve liberation.
Paul Johnson, in his riveting piece, What Great Statesmen Have to Teach Us, posits that the ability to see the world clearly and to draw the right conclusions from what is seen is the foremost lesson that great men and women of state have to teach us. Johnson singles out the five most important lessons. The first is: ideas and beliefs. A democratic leader has just a few - perhaps three or four - central principles to which he or she is passionately attached and will not sacrifice under any circumstances. With regard to Albert Luthuli, this lesson is best exemplified by his steadfast conviction regarding the use of non-violent means to achieve liberation against a very strong view advocating the need to resort to the armed struggle.
Johnson asserts that such an individual is not impressed by leaders who have definite views on everything because history teaches that it is a mistake to have too many convictions held with equal certitude and tenacity. Accordingly, Johnson is of the view that a great leader can distinguish between the essential and the peripheral - between what must be done and what is merely desirable.
The next lesson is willpower. The history of great men and women teaches that willpower is the most decisive of all qualities in public life. A politician can have immense intelligence and all of the other virtues but, if will is lacking, he or she is nothing. Flowing from what history tells us about Luthuli’s leadership, there is no doubt that he had willpower in abundance.
The third lesson is that virtue is pertinacity. The will must be organically linked to resolution, which entails a determination to see the cause through at all costs. There are dark days in every venture irrespective of how just the venture might be. One aspect of pertinacity is patience. It is with the patience of an angel’s approach that endeared Luthuli to many people.
It was certainly his patience that made him navigate the myriad issues brought to him by the pressures of the ANC as a party and those of his subjects as Inkosi. Indeed, as Johnson points out, as with will, resolution must be linked to sound aims. The fourth is the ability to communicate. There is strong evidence suggesting that Luthuli was a great communicator. He was followed because South Africans could see he was an honest, incorruptible and decent man.
The fifth and the last of the virtues of heroes is magnanimity, greatness of soul. Johnson posits that it is not easy to define this supreme quality that few, even among the greatest leaders, possess.
The various memories of Albert Luthuli and the consistencies evident among them have helped to establish a constant and lasting impression of a man with outstanding qualities and traits. Yet, posits Anza Mehmert in his Memory and Heritage: How Memory Functions and How It Can Be Used in Heritage: Chief Albert Luthuli As a Case Study, even Luthuli’s legacy has its contentious side - Luthuli’s involvement in the move towards an armed struggle in 1961 and the debate about whether he was pacifist or not. Indeed, the autobiographies and oral interviews of his contemporaries give different accounts of these events.
Most accounts written prior to Nelson Mandela’s 1995 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, indicate that Luthuli was ignorant of the establishment of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), whereas those written after it claim that he had been fully aware of the decision and supported it.
Yet the arguments that Luthuli either knew or did not know, and supported or did not support the armed struggle do not, and should not, take away from the fact that Albert Luthuli was a great man.
Despite all the ambiguities and contradictions on his stance towards the armed struggle, there is, however, at least one view where the divergent opinions converge, that is, Luthuli was a great leader. For me, this debate is neither here or there. It vitiates the accomplishments of Luthuli as a Struggle hero.
It is true that he was ostracised, from 1961 until his death in 1967, precisely for steadfastly sticking to his stance of non-violence.
The foregoing arguments notwithstanding, one would venture to defend Luthuli’s statesmanship by invoking the following proverbial words of wisdom: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers treated the false prophets in the same way” (Luke 6:26).
“The crucible is for silver and the furnace for gold. And each is tested by the praise accorded him” (Proverbs 27:21).
We have a lot to learn from Luthuli’s statesmanship qualities. As Jane Addams puts it in her piece, Tribute to George Washington: “Let us say again that the lessons of great men are lost unless they reinforce upon our minds the highest demands which we make upon ourselves; that they are lost unless they drive our sluggish wills forward in the direction of their highest ideals.”
Indeed, the best way to serve Luthuli’s memory is to redeem and vindicate the values of decency, of rationality, of civility, of honour - those values for which Luthuli stood through his life and to which in the end he gave his life. Luthuli’s accomplishments over an active career of 60 years were unequalled in volume, and unsurpassed in scope and influence.
I close by paraphrasing a line from William Butler Yeats’s poem, The Municipal Gallery Revisited: “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say our glory was we had such a friend.”
This was what Albert Luthuli was, to his family, comrades, congregants and the world at large: a dear friend. Luthuli left us his rich legacy for which South Africa is enduringly grateful.
* Shongwe works for the KZN Premier’s Office but writes in personal capacity.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
The Sunday Independent