PEACE: South Africa’s unknown peacemaker

Thhis statue of Chief Albert Luthuli stnds where he was raised in Groutville, South Aftica. Luthuli was an early president of the African National Congress and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960. – photo by J. Ramatsul

Benjamin Broadbent

In Cape Town’s  Victoria and Albert Waterfront, I recently visited a monument to South Africa’s four Nobel Peace Prize laureates: Nelson Mandela, F.W. de Klerk, Desmond Tutu, and… do you know the fourth? In fact, he was the first of the four. Even more impressively, he was the first African of any nationality to receive the prize. His name was Chief Albert John Luthuli. Never heard of him? Neither had I even though, in addition to being a Zulu Chief, he was also a prominent leader in the Congregational Church of South Africa. As a congregational minister myself (my denomination is the United Church of Christ), I was fascinated to learn about this Chief, President of the African National Congress (ANC), and lifelong advocate of nonviolent protest.

In his book about Lithuli, Bound by Faith, Scott Couper tells the Chief’s story and challenges the prevailing view within the current leadership of the ANC that the ANC President from 1952 till his death in 1967, embraced the shift to violence shortly after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960. Instead, Couper shows, Lithuli remained committed to the path of non-violence until his death, though he refused to condemn the armed struggle (Umkhonto we Sizwe) of his fellow ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela.

Lithuli came by his nonviolent philosophy honestly.  He was never ordained as a minister within the congregational church, but served in most respects as a pastor to the Groutville Congregational Church, preaching a gospel of nonviolence. Groutville is located just north of Durban and the Inanda neighborhood where Mohandas Gandhi established the Phoenix Settlement in 1904. Gandhi had been profoundly influenced by the non-violent teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount, and Chief Lithuli was profoundly influenced by Gandhi’s theory of satyagraha, or soul force. In fact, today there is a Gandhi-Lithuli Chair of Peace Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.

I was in South Africa May – July of this year and one question I carried with me was “What brought about the end of apartheid in South Africa?” I wondered whether violence or peace-making had been the greater influence. Many would point to the violent protests beginning with the Soweto uprising in 1976, recognized each year in South Africa on June 16, Youth Day. In Bound by Faith, Scott Couper makes the controversial, but in my opinion, defensible, argument that the end of apartheid may have been delayed by several decades by the launch of Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961. Lithuli’s Nobel Peace Prize signified a recognition by the global community that apartheid was unjust and doomed. The armed struggle began, inauspiciously, on the very day Lithuli returned from the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm. While Nelson Mandela should be credited with leadership that unified South Africa in significant ways following the fall of apartheid, in 1961 Mandela and others chose violence at exactly the moment when the nonviolent struggle was beginning to change the attitude of the world in favor of Black South Africans and against the racist White minority.

This is a fascinating and compelling argument in favor of non-violence, which is more difficult in many respects than violence. Non-violence requires soul force, a steadfast commitment to peacemaking in the face of violence. This commitment was what Albert Lithuli described in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Through all this cruel treatment in the name of law and order, our people, with a few exceptions, have remained non-violent… but nothing which we have suffered at the hands of the government has turned us from our chosen path of disciplined resistance. It is for this, I believe this award is given.”

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