Luthuli: the past speaks to the future

2011-12-13 00:00

GREAT nations overcome challenges of their day by drawing inspiration from their past heroes and heroines. Last Saturday was the 50th anniversary of the first Nobel Peace Prize for an African and South African, Inkosi Albert Luthuli, before it would be shared by Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk over 30 years later.

The president-general of the African National Congress had spent years confined to his Groutville home when he was not attending court trials for leading the fight for freedom, justice and democracy.

This commemoration is to dream again of a future that Luthuli and his co-workers were willing to die for and to reject all that undermines it today, be it structural racism, corruption, crass materialism, poverty, dictatorship and the growing recolonisation of Africa.

What attracted the attention of the Nobel Committee to Luthuli was his steadfast belief in a peaceful and principled fight for justice, democracy, non-racism and freedom in Africa. In his acceptance speech, Luthuli expressed surprise at the selection of a rural black man when there were many more celebrated men in the world.

Luthuli put forward three reasons why the award was deserved. The first was that it was a tribute to democrats who refused to sit on the sidelines as the apartheid regime incarcerated, banned and killed people for demanding freedom. He indicated that he joined a struggle that started long before he joined. Although he was involved with teacher unions as early as the twenties, it was when he joined the ANC in 1944 that he entered the political struggle in earnest.

Secondly, he considered the award a form of world solidarity with the South African struggle. To him, this was a testament to the universal hunger for examples in the struggle for true liberty, justice and democracy. It also meant that there was recognition of the connections bet­ween the SA struggle and similar ones elsewhere. Of course, he had been part of the decision of the ANC to internationalise the struggle, starting with its active participation in the Bandung Conference in Asia, which affirmed the commitment of developing countries to the creation of a fairer, just and democratic world order, while rejecting colonialism and imperialism. It would be in the same year that his organisation would send Mandela on a tour of Africa to mobilise support before Oliver Tambo and others launched the international branch of the struggle.

Lastly, Luthuli saw the award as an affirmation of the commitment of his generation of struggle activists to a regeneration of Africa, what Pixley ka Seme had called the African reawakening way back in 1909 and Thabo Mbeki later called the African Renaissance. After noting the ravages of colonialism, he said: “Our people everywhere, from north to south of the continent are reclaiming their land, their right to participate in government, their dignity as men, their nationhood. Thus, in the turmoil of revolution, the basis for peace and brotherhood in Africa is being restored by the resurrection of national sovereignty and independence, of equality and the dignity of man.” Of course, the African unity, decolonisation and democracy that he foresaw continue to elude Africa today. We have much to do to help Africa achieve this. But we must first believe that we not just in Africa, we are Africans too.

Luthuli’s award and messages, too many to recount in this column, put us on the map at the darkest hour in our country. It sent a positive signal to the world about those yearning for freedom. This inspired others elsewhere to soldier on.

But we have not done much to sell this dream to all South Africans and to pursue a new Africa in which we will prosper.

The leaders of the murderous apartheid system and, strangely, their ideology continue to inspire some and frustrate transformation. We are doing much to give naysayers and anarchists a reason to trash our country.

We are pushing the poor on to the verge of a revolution. We are using our privileges to block the way for the disadvantaged. There are also many who are stealing from the poor. They use their public office arrogantly.

We need Luthuli’s example to inspire us to be responsible citizens and exemplary leaders. We cannot stop the change to a new South Africa. We have to dream on.

Whatever we decide to do must also affirm that our destiny is inextricably tied to that of Africa, for we cannot succeed without the regeneration of Africa.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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