The Early Years
He was born in Solusi Mission, near Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in 1898 – the son of a translator and Seventh Day Adventist mission worker, John Bunyan Luthuli and his wife Mtonya. His father died shortly after his birth and in 1908 the family returned to their ancestral home in Groutville, KwaDukuza (Stanger) on the North Coast of KwaZulu-Natal.
He started his school career at a nearby Mission school and later went on to study at the Ohlange Institute which was found by Dr John Dube, the first president of the African national Congress.
His first teaching position
He went on to do a two year teacher training course at a Methodist institution in Edendale, near Pietermaritzburg and later accepted his first post – the running of a small school at Blaauwbosch in the Natal Midlands.
He trained further at Adams College and on completion of his studies was offered a bursary from Fort Hare University. He turned this down and instead chose to continue teaching as part of the staff of Adams Collage so as to support his family.
In 1927 he married Nokukhanya Bengbu, granddaughter of the Zulu chief Dhlokolo of the Ngcolosi. Between the years 1929 and 1945 the couple had seven children.
In 1928 he was elected secretary of the African Teachers Association, a position he held until 1933, when he became president of the same body, founding the Zulu Language and Cultural Society as it’s auxiliary.
His role as Chief of Groutville
He returned to Groutville in 1936 to take up the position of chief to which he had been elected by the ‘Abasemakholweni’ people.
He joined the ANC in 1945 and the next year, was elected to the Native Representative Council, an advisory body that was later abandoned.
He travelled to India and America
Luthuli served on the executive committee of the Christian Council of South Africa and was one of its delegates to an International Missionary Conference held in Madras, India, in 1938.
In 1948, he accepted a lecture tour of the United States under the patronages of the American Board and the North American Missionary Conference.
Luthuli joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1944 and was elected onto the executive committee of the Natal branch in 1945.
In 1946 he was elected onto the short-lived Native Representative Council, to replace Dr Dube who had died of a stroke.
In 1951 his position as president of the ANC Natal branch put him on a path of conflict with his government sanctioned role as a chief. His public support for the Defiance Campaign of 1952, a non-violent protest against the repressive Pass Laws, was a prime example of this. He was later deposed as chief and issued a public statement called “the Road to Freedom is via the Cross” to the press.
President of the Natal Branch of the ANC
In 1952 Albert Luthuli was elected the President General of the ANC and together with the then provincial president for the ANC in Transvaal Nelson Mandela and nearly 100 others faced a government banning order.
His first banning order
In 1953, the Government served Luthuli with a one year banning order which was renewed on 11 July 1954. The banning orders prohibited Luthuli from attending public gatherings and confined him to the Stanger (KwaDukuza) magisterial district for two years (Luthuli was given a total of 4 banning orders during his life-time).
In 1956 Chief Luthuli – along with 145 other leaders – was arrested on a charge of high treason. He was released in the early stages of the trial and though repeated banning and arrests were causing operational difficulties for the ANC leadership, Chief Luthuli was re-elected as president general in 1955 and then again in 1958. It was a position he held until his untimely death in 1967.
During this period Chief Luthuli endured the harshness of a repressive regime. On 21 March 1960 when hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in the Sharpeville Township were massacred, Chief Luthuli publicly burnt his pass book and called on South Africans to observe a national day of mourning. He was detained and given a suspended sentence and then released.
He was further confined to a smaller area around his home under the Suppression of Communism Act and banned from receiving visitors, issuing statements and attending church services.
The Nobel Peace Prize
In 1961 for his outstanding efforts to secure political freedom in apartheid South Africa Chief Luthuli received the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize for Peace.
Facing mounting pressure nationally and internationally, the South African government permitted Chief Luthuli to travel to Norway to receive his award.
A year later he was not allowed to travel to United Kingdom when he was appointed honorary rector of the University of Glasgow in 1962. In the same year, his autobiography Let My People Go was published.
Recognition of Chief Luthuli’s stature as an international icon in the cause of human dignity attracted many luminaries to his home, among who was United States Senator Robert Kennedy who paid him an unofficial visit in 1966.
Chief Luthuli led the ANC until 21 July 1967 when while out on a walk near his home he was reportedly struck by a train and killed. At the time of his death he was still under a restriction order. His life, work and philosophy remain an enduring legacy to South Africa and the world.