‘Voices of Liberation: Albert Luthuli’

Voices of Liberation Albert Luthuli coverOne of my bigger jobs last year was to prepare a revised edition of the HSRC Press’s book, Voices of Liberation: Albert Luthuli, originally edited by Gerald Pillay in 1993. The biggest part of that work was researching and writing a section on Luthuli’s legacy. In pursuit of a more intimate understanding of one of South Africa’s greatest leaders, and the continent’s first Nobel Peace Prize winner, I interviewed some of those who still remember him in person: Ben Turok, one of the last Treason Trialists still in Parliament; Pallo Jordan, a former ANC exile, cabinet minister and renowned historian; and Ela Gandhi, grand-daughter of Mahatma Gandhi, and daughter to Manilal Gandhi, who was a close associate of Luthuli.

It was amazing to meet and talk to these three veterans of South African struggle history, and to build up through their eyes, an image of a truly remarkable man. Though Mandela’s legacy perhaps now outshines Luthuli in popular memory, the latter was certainly no less remarkable.

One of the key questions about the life of Luthuli is the extent to which he did, or didn’t, support the beginning of the armed struggle against apartheid, led by Mandela. It is clear that while a deep commitment to non-violence was more than just a strategic principle for Luthuli, a man of profound Christian faith who was inspired by Gandhi, it seems it also became impossible for him to stand against the pressure of oppression and hatred of oppression that eventually precipitated the armed struggle. Life, at times, becomes more complicated than simple principles and simple arguments and simple dualities allow. Just as what seems clear at distance becomes blurred when we approach too near, so the closer we get to examining Luthuli’s final decision to allow the formation of  Umkhonto weSizwe which became the armed wing of the ANC, the more uncertain we become of how precisely that decision was made.

The book is part of a series that now also includes a volume on Ruth First:

The struggle to free South Africa from its apartheid shackles was long and complex. One of the many ways in which the apartheid regime maintained its stranglehold in South Africa was through controlling the freedom of speech and the flow of information, in an effort to silence the voices of those who opposed it. United by the ideals of freedom and equality, but also nuanced by a wide variety of persuasions, the ‘voices of liberation’ were many: African nationalists, communists, trade-unionists, pan-Africanists, English liberals, human rights activists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Jews, to name but a few. The Voices of Liberation series ensures that the debates and values that shaped the liberation movement are not lost. The series offers a unique combination of biographical information with selections from original speeches and writings in each volume.


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I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.

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