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Albert Luthuli - Bound by Faith PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Coan   
Wednesday, 09 February 2011 14:17

Scott Couper
University of KwaZulu-Natal Press

More than forty years after the death of its subject Scott Couper's book rectifies a glaring omission in South African historiography - a biography of former president of the ANC and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Albert Luthuli. Such a large gap of time has seen propagandists rather than historians appropriate the Luthuli story and convert it to their own ends.

Consequently Couper's biography has a specific focus, and one he pursues with determination: to wrest Luthuli's life from the nationalist-inspired version of it that has refashioned the facts to fit current political agendas. Received wisdom - in the ANC at least - is that Luthuli was fully behind the armed struggle. He wasn't, says Couper. A stance directly related to his Christian practice and belief which saw him hesitant at being a party to violence.

However Luthuli, on his own admission, was no pacifist and though he clearly advocated non-violent protest when the ANC finally moved towards armed violence his position was to some extent ambivalent. He never publicly condemned either the formation or the activities of Umkhonto we Siswe (MK) and his view that it should be created but not activated is surely a case of splitting ethical hairs.

In some respects Luthuli looks to have turned a blind eye while Nelson Mandela formed MK, an organisation which had an ambiguous relationship with the ANC: separate but under ANC control, seemingly allowing for a parallel strategy in which MK could blow up things while the ANC officially remained non-violent.

Though Luthuli never "denounced the launching of MK activities, he continued to publicly discourage violent strategies until April 1962 and exclusively advocated for non-violent methods until his death," writes Couper. "Luthuli's incessant harping on non-violence long after MK's launch deeply disturbed many of his more militant colleagues", especially as Luthuli's views directly contradicted those of Mandela's as expressed in the MK manifesto.

At the core of Couper's book is the eclipse of Luthuli by the ANC’s rising star, the feisty Mandela, who cleverly stepped into the power vacuum created by Luthuli's banning which had effectively limited his leadership. The nature of the ANC itself also changed when it in turn was banned and thus forced to operate clandestinely, without the checks and balances of open democracy.

Ultimately Luthuli's non-violent approach may have been more pragmatic than Mandela's, says Couper, who regards the move to violence as being "disastrous for the movement" Couper's not alone. Joe Slovo thought the initiation of violence "at best, an heroic failure" that left the liberation movement "abysmally weak in the years that followed." The armed struggle plus the ANCs cosying up to Russia and China during the Cold War provoked worse reactions from the apartheid state, alienated friends in the West and probably prolonged the fall of apartheid.

The other major concern of Couper's book is Luthuli's death in 1967 when he was hit by a train while crossing a bridge near his Groutville home. While Couper respects the Luthuli family's belief that the death was the result of foul play on the part of the apartheid state he points out that "to make such claims historians and other professional commentators must be held to a higher standard of evidence than the family." Couper's conclusion is simple: it was an accident and those who think it was an assassination ignore the inquest reports.

Inquest aside, murdering Luthuli simply makes no sense. By 1967 he was a spent force within the ANC, a titular leader considered obsolete by his own movement and certainly no longer a threat to the apartheid regime. Nobody had anything to gain by his murder. "The myth that Luthuli was killed, like the myth that he supported the turn to violence, leads to inaccurate interpretations of Luthuli," says Couper.

Meticulously researched Albert Luthuli - Bound by Faith is a timely and valuable corrective to the prevailing myths about its subject and the armed struggle. Couper has done South Africa a signal service in rescuing his subject from the propagandists and the politicians.