1961 was a year of highs and lows for the South African government: In March of that year, the growing wave of African resistance had escalated out of control. Non-violent protests throughout the country on the 21st of that month went horribly wrong at Sharpeville, in what would become known throughout the world as the Sharpeville Massacre. The United Nations' response was a call upon the South African government to move towards racial integration. The regime stood firm, and was expelled from the Commonwealth for its pains. In my early years at school we would celebrate May 31st with pride (supposedly), for it was the day we "won" our independence and became a republic.

Chief Albert John Mvumbi1 Lutuli2 was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1961, and if you said he "won" it, then at least he won his Prize with honour. If you asked him, however, he'd have been sure to say something along the lines of it being a small consolation, that was far from the prize he wanted, that his victory was not even in sight.

Lutuli calculates his year of birth to be 1898, but such was rural African life in those days that he could not be certain. He was the third son of John Bunyan Lutuli and Mtonya Gumede. John (Sr) was the younger son of the chief, who was succeeded by John's elder brother. Gumede had spent part of her childhood in the extended household of King Cetswayo, in Groutville in present-day KwaZulu-Natal. John chose the life of a Christian missionary, moving his young family up to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) where he worked with the Matebele3. Albert John was born in Rhodesia.

The Lutuli family stayed in Rhodesia until John's death, and were back in Gumede's home town by 1906. Gumede was determined that her children would be educated, so young Albert John attended the local Congregationalist mission school, before being sent to the Ohlange Institute boarding school for two terms. He completed his education at Edendale's Methodist institution where he also undertook a teachers' course in around 1917.

For two years he was the head master, teacher, janitor, caretaker -- only member of staff -- of an intermediate school. He then attended Adams College on a scholarship, completing a Higher Teachers' Training Course. He was awarded a further scholarship to the Eastern Cape's Fort Hare University College, but declined to support his mother by taking a post at Adams College, one of two Africans on the payroll.

In 1927, Lutuli married fellow teacher Nokukhanya Bhengu and they established their permanent home in Groutville. They had seven children, the first born in 1929. Like his father, Lutuli was an active Christian and a lay preacher. He was an adviser to the organised church and held the offices of chairman on the South African Board of the Congregationalist Church of America; president of the Natal Mission Conference and executive member of the Christian Council of South Africa. He was a delegate to the International Missionary Conference in Madras in 1938 and undertook a 9 month lecture tour of the United States in 1948, under sponsorship of two missionary organisations.

A life of Politics

After nearly two decades as a professional educator, Lutuli came to the conclusion that education should be available to all Africans, and that it should be liberal, not narrowly vocational, and of the same standard as that given to white people. (Education of Africans was designed to make them an efficient work force with no capacity for reaching the enlightened conclusion that they are capable of far more.) In 1928 Lutuli became secretary of the African Teacher's Association, taking over the presidency in 1933.

In 1936, the Cape fell into line with the rest of the Union and stripped the Africans of their right to vote. In 1933 Lutuli had first been asked by his tribe to take up the position of Chief, but he resisted, not wanting to give up his financial security. However later in 1936 he relented and held the office of Chief until it was taken from him by the government in 1952. As Chief, he was leader and curator of 5,000 people. His roles were more magisterial and mediating, rather than dictatorial4 acting as go-between the government and his people and presiding over traditional ceremonies. The way he carried out his Chiefly duties directly influenced the well-being of his tribe.

In his role as Chief, Lutuli became increasingly aware of politics and the shackles of apartheid being placed upon his people and the people of South Africa as a whole. In 1944, he joined the African National Congress (ANC), quickly rising through its ranks. In 1945 he was elected onto the Committee of the Natal Provincial Division, becoming President of the Division in 1951. In 1952 he joined the national leadership in planning non-violent campaigns to defy many of the newly enacted laws of the recently elected government. The government told Lutuli that his role in the ANC posed a conflict of interests with his tribal role, and forced him to choose. He refused, and the government stripped him of his chieftainship. A month later Lutuli was elected the national leader of the ANC.

Immediately that Lutuli was elected to the national office, the government issued a ban upon his movements. The Pass Laws decreed where and when an African could be within the borders of South Africa. His first ban prevented him from entering the large urban centres and from attending all large meetings, for a period of two years. When the ban expired, Lutuli travelled to Johannesburg to address a meeting, but the police intercepted him at the airport and issued him with a new ban confining him to a 20 mile radius of his home, for another two years. When this latter ban expired, Lutuli travelled to the ANC conference of 1956, at which he and 156 others (including Nelson Mandela) were arrested and charged with treason. In a bizarre twist, the government detained all the accused together and facilitated their meeting on a daily basis. The men were able to lay detailed plans for the future of the struggle.

Lutuli was one of the lucky 64 on trial who were released after a year, in December 1957, with the charges dropped. He returned immediately to active leadership of the ANC, receiving his third ban in 1958. He was confined to a 15 mile radius of his home town for a period of 5 years. The ban was temporarily lifted to allow him to testify at the Treason Trial (which finally ended in 1961 with a surprising not-guilty verdict).

I am not a Communist. Communism seems to me to be a mixture of false theory of society linked to a false religion. In religion, I am a Christian, in politics I tend toward the outlook of British labour... The Congress stand is this: our primary concern is liberation.

In March 1960, the world view of South African was torn apart by the events at Sharpeville. Lutuli publicly burnt his pass in solidarity with the victims, and the ban was lifted a second time to facilitate his arrest and incarceration. In the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre, the ANC and PAC were banned and their leadership was arrested and detained. Lutuli was found guilty and given a fine and a prison sentence, but it was suspended on the grounds of his ill health. Lutuli struggled with high blood pressure for the last 15 years of his life, and suffered a mild stroke.

Lutuli was returned to his home town and lived under constant ban with the brief exception of the ten days he travelled to Oslo in December 1961, to receive his Nobel Peace Prize. His final ban, issued in may 1964 confined him to the immediate vicinity of his home. He did not live to see its lapsing, for he died in July 1967, having been struck by a freight train while crossing a trestle bridge over the Umvoti River. He was approximately 69 years old.


  1. I have chosen to italicise the African name, which is the name the individual would have preferred. It was custom for Africans to be assigned an English name by their missionary school teachers who made no attempt to learn their African name. I imagine it was part of the Anglicism process that was supposed to "liberate" the African people from their tribal ways.
  2. Lutuli preferred this spelling, though Luthuli is more common.
  3. The Matebele spoke Ndabele, which is a member of the Nguni family of languages. Lutuli spoke Zulu, another Nguni language, and the transition would have been easy as African languages have a very limited number of words and use idiomatic speech. Xhosa, another Nguni language very close to Zulu, has only 10,000 pure Xhosa words. Anglicisms such as isitututu (motorbike -- isi defining the noun and tututu being phonetically derived) have obviously extended the word base. Xhosa and Zulu are so close that it is possible to hold a conversation without difficulty where one speaks pure Zulu and another speaks pure Xhosa.
    Nelson Mandela notes in his autobiography that upon returning to his home, Qunu, after a spell in Johannesburg (when he fled home to avoid an arranged marriage =), he was told by his family that his Xhosa had been "tainted" by Zulu. He hadn't noticed. His family were hardly paying him a compliment: the Xhosa and Zulu are old foes, and the rivalry endures to today: the ANC is seen as a "Xhosa" party as Mandela and his successor Thabo Mbeki are both Xhosa, while the Inkata Freedom Party is headed by Zulu chief Mangosutu Buthelezi. The two parties have been blamed for an interminable amount of post-1994 violence in KwaZulu-Natal, the worst of which was a period in 2000 when assassinations were taking place near nightly in the small town of Richmond. This is why it is interesting to me that Lutuli was a Zulu.
  4. The spirit of ubuntu embraces the democratic way in which African tribal life is carried out. The men of the tribe hold an indaba (meeting) in the kraal and discuss matters equitably. The latter-day African political spirit of dictatorship is totally contrary to African way of life. Yet another of Africa's tragedies.


  1. http://www.nobel.se/peace/laureates/1960/lutuli-bio.html
  2. http://www.greatepicbooks.com/epics/september99.html

For Apatrix as part of his Nobel Prize laureates mission.

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