The real Luthuli

2011-03-24 00:00

I N the Shadow of Chief Albert Luthuli by Logan Naidoo features the reminiscences of the late Goolam Suleman regarding his friendship with Albert Luthuli, former president of the African National Congress and South Africa’s, indeed Africa’s, first Nobel laureate, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961 (see box).

Suleman’s reminiscences bring alive a period when apartheid infiltrated every aspect of South African life and they provide a glimpse not only of Luthuli but also “the young lion” Nelson Mandela. Indeed it was a remark made by Mandela that inspired Suleman to record his memories of Luthuli in the first place. Shortly after his release from prison in 1990, Mandela spent a night at the Suleman home in Stanger. According to Logan Naidoo, who co-authored the book with Suleman, “the two men reminisced late into the night, talking about the Chief and about the time Mandela had spent in Stanger just before his arrest. Mandela said then that a definitive biography of Africa’s first Nobel Peace Prize laureate should be written.”

A slim volume of fewer than 100 pages, Suleman’s book does not pretend to such status but “in some small way”, says Naidoo, it is intended to “assist those who eventually write a long-overdue biography of the Chief”.

Following Mandela’s visit, Suleman felt he owed it to the memory of his friend Luthuli “to write down his recollections of the Chief and the role played by so many now forgotten people in the Indian community of Stanger, like E.V. Mahomed, in the life of one of Africa’s greatest sons”.

Suleman approached his friend Naidoo for assistance and the project began with a series of interviews at Suleman’s shop, Liberty Stores in King Shaka Street, Stanger, with Naidoo taking notes which he later transcribed and integrated with additional historical background.

In a foreword to the book, Luthuli’s daughter, Thembekile Jane Ngobese, says the book provides the reader with “a glimpse of Luthuli, ‘the household man’”, as opposed to the better-known public figure and she recalls her father referring to Suleman and Mohamed as “abahlobo bami (my friends)”.

In an interview with The Witness in 2001, Suleman said: “Luthuli was a close member of our family and he often stayed in our home. It was just accepted that when I came home he would be sitting at the table.

“In the fifties and sixties things were very difficult. It was the most oppressive period in the struggle. We made his life a little easier. Sending messages to Durban, organising taxis. He managed to run the whole organisation [the ANC] from Stanger.”

Luthuli was unable to use his own home in Groutville, a few kilometres south of Stanger, for his ANC work as it lacked proper office facilities and was kept under constant surveillance by the security police.

“We met in 1948,” said Suleman. “At the time the ANC didn’t have any infrastructure here and they used to depend on myself and E.V. Mohamed — he would take him to meetings, do his books, his offices almost acted as ANC headquarters.”

Suleman was born in 1929 and grew up within a tolerant and non-racial atmosphere fostered by his father, Hajee Suleman Hoosen, whose shop was at the centre of community life and who passed on to his son a commitment to the poor and a horror of the migrant labour system. Suleman joined the Natal Indian Congress Youth League and his political activities saw him skipping classes at Durban’s Sastri College. Family pressure was brought to bear and he went back to Stanger to work in the family business, which he renamed Liberty Stores.

It was at this time that Suleman met Mohamed, and through him Luthuli, frequently accompanying both men to meetings in Durban and subsequently offering Luthuli use of his home and shop. Thus Liberty Stores, along with Mahomed’s offices, became “the Chief’s” base in Stanger.

It was a risky business and Suleman conjures up the spirit of a time when “one was never safe from informers at work, in schools, in places of worship, in sport and even in cultural organisations”.

There were several close encounters with the Special Branch where some quick thinking, and not a little luck, put them off the scent.

Luthuli was a committed Christian —“he felt that his life was ‘God-directed’”, says Suleman — and this commitment was emphasised in Scott Couper’s recent biography Albert Luthuli: Bound by Faith, which examined Luthuli’s stand on non-violence. Interestingly, Couper’s conclusion on the matter is echoed by Suleman: “While he opposed the armed struggle and violence as a strategy, he did not completely discount the possibility that this might be the course the people would eventually take.”

Speaking in 2001, Suleman said that by nature Luthuli “was a very humble person. He wouldn’t harm a fly. But he said that there may come a time when we have to use violence — when violence will be forced on us.”

In the citation for Luthuli’s Nobel Peace Prize it was stated that Luthuli had never “succumbed to the temptation to use violent means in the struggle for his people ... so firmly rooted is his conviction that violence and terror must not be employed.”

For Luthuli, the trip to Oslo to accept the prize was, as Suleman points out, “his last journey as a free man”.

On his return, Luthuli’s banning orders were reinstated. Although Suleman continued to meet Luthuli, “The Chief’s stringent banning order and police surveillance made face-to-face meetings between ourselves very difficult, but we kept in touch through third parties and by writing letters to one another.”

Suleman’s last meeting with Luthuli was at McCord’s Hospital in Overport, Durban, where Luthuli had been admitted for an eye operation. “I visited him there and slipped into his ward with a doctor. We chatted about friends and family.”

Luthuli’s life ended tragically on July 21, 1967, when he was struck by a train near his home and later died in hospital of his injuries. When Suleman heard the news he rushed to the hospital but “by then my friend’s body had been removed to the mortuary”.

Luthuli’s family, suspecting something more sinister, have never accepted the inquest verdict of accidental death. While respectful of the family’s feelings, Couper’s book convincingly comes down on the side of the inquest. Although Suleman clearly veers more towards the family’s view, he draws no definite conclusion.

When Suleman began working on the book with Naidoo he was already suffering from the cancer from which he would die in 2005. Although the book was completed he did not live to see its recent publication by the Luthuli Museum.

It does no disservice to Couper’s excellent book to point out that the definitive biography of Luthuli still needs to be written. When that happens, Suleman’s reminiscences will indeed be a valuable source.


• In the Shadow of Chief Albert Luthuli — Reflections of Goolam Suleman by Logan Naidoo is published by the Luthuli Museum.


ALBERT Luthuli’s grandparents, Ntaba and his wife Titisi, were the first converts of American missionary Reverend Aldin Grout and they formed the nucleus of the community that grew up around his mission station at what became known as Groutville. Ntaba became chief and, in all, seven Luthulis would be chiefs of the Groutville community but, as Luthuli records in his autobiography, Let My People Go, they were democratically elected chiefs “contrary to older Zulu custom” and his family never claimed hereditary rights.

Luthuli was born in 1897 near Bulawayo in the then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where his father, John, was working as an evangelist. His father died shortly after Luthuli’s birth and an older brother, Alfred, became head of the family. They returned to South Africa and after a brief stay in Vryheid moved back to Groutville.

In 1914, after attending school at Groutville, Luthuli was sent to the Ohlange Institute founded by John Langalibalele Dube, a founder member of the ANC and its first president. Luthuli spent only two terms there before going to the Edendale College near Pietermaritzburg. After completing his secondary schooling he trained to be a teacher and was appointed principal of the intermediate school at Blaauwbosch in northern Natal. Two years later he obtained a bursary to Adams College for further training. He joined the staff and taught there until 1935. It was at Adams that he met his wife, Nokukhanya Bengu. They married in 1927.

Bowing to pressure from the Groutville community, Luthuli left Adams to stand for chief. After his election he found himself “a petty administrator, presiding over the day-to-day affairs of about 5 000 people living on about 10 000 acres”. His experiences as chief brought him into direct contact with the political, social and economic injustices of the day.

Luthuli joined the ANC in 1945. In 1948, he became a member of the Native Representative Council created by the National Party government. In 1951 he was elected provincial president of the ANC in Natal and the same year gave his backing to the defiance campaign. In 1952 he was elected president-general of the ANC. As a chief Luthuli was not supposed to get involved in politics and was deposed from his chieftainship. Thereafter he devoted his energies to the liberation struggle and was re-elected ANC president-general in 1955 and 1958. The year 1953 saw the first of the banning orders that would progressively restrict his movements until his death.

Luthuli was arrested in 1956 along with 156 leading activists and charged with high treason. He was released in December 1957 after being held in custody for nearly a year. The remaining accused were all acquitted at the end of 1961. A year earlier, shortly after the Sharpeville massacre, Luthuli publicly burnt his pass book during a demonstration in Pretoria and was detained for five months.

In 1961, Luthuli was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and his banning order was lifted for 10 days in December to permit him and his wife to attend the award ceremonies in Oslo, Norway.

Luthuli’s life ended tragically on July 21, 1967, when he was struck by a train near his home and later died of his injuries.


TONIGHT sees the opening of the exhibition Chief Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela In Conversation at the Msunduzi/Voortrekker Museum which is presenting the exhibition in partnership with the Luthuli Museum in Groutville. The exhibition deals with the similarities and differences in leadership of the two leaders, both of whom were presidents of the ANC, received Nobel Peace Prizes and played significant roles in the fight against apartheid.

Both men also share connections with Pietermaritzburg: Luthuli studied as a student at Nuttall’s Teachers Training College at Edendale and Mandela made his last public speech as a free man during the All-in Africa Conference held in the Arya Samaj Hall, Imbali, on March 25, 1961.

Mandela returned to Pietermaritzburg on April 25, 1997, when he was awarded the Freedom of the City.


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