Vol. 12 No. 8 · 19 April 1990

R.W. Johnson pays his respects to Mrs Luthuli

2913 words

At an enormous ‘peace’ rally in Durban at the end of February Nelson Mandela called upon the warring Inkatha and UDF factions to ‘throw your arms into the sea’, an appeal which met with considerable applause. Perhaps the loudest ovation of all, however, came when Mandela announced, at the meeting’s end, that he had ‘a wonderful present’ to offer the crowd – ‘the mother of the nation’. This was not, as it might once have been, an introduction to Winnie Mandela – who sat silently by – but to a frail old lady of 86, the widow of the former ANC leader and Nobel Peace Prize-winner, Chief Albert Luthuli. It was a master card to play, not merely because of the continuing public ambivalence towards Winnie, but because Chief Albert Luthuli still occupies a special place in the hearts of the predominantly Zulu crowd, irrespective of whether they were ANC or Inkatha supporters. Luthuli had been a dignified, almost saintly man, who died in restriction, his movement banned.

In Durban the Luthulis count as local people, living just fifty miles up the coast at Groutville, near Stanger. Mrs Luthuli has lived a quiet life there since her husband died in 1967. To the more than a hundred thousand young blacks who had come to the rally, hearing Mandela mention the name Luthuli was to hear the voice of an older generation reaching back still further with a gesture that not merely awakened the past but, in paying it homage, reclaimed it. Just a fortnight before, I had driven up to Groutville to seek out Mrs Luthuli and had spent a morning talking to her and her son Edgar.

‘Nelson used to come here often,’ said Edgar, ‘along with Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and M.B. Yengwa. They used to talk for hours and hours. With father and Yengwa being Zulus and the other three all Xhosas, they talked mainly in English. When I see Nelson now on TV I can see that the other ANC leaders look to him as something of a father figure, and I realise that Nelson and the others had the same relationship to my father. Especially Yengwa – he was the ANC organiser in Durban. Yengwa just used to walk in without knocking, go into the kitchen, make my father tea and they’d sit down and chat for hours. Yengwa died in exile far away, in London.’

Edgar spoke without bitterness. Mrs Luthuli sat next to him and at times seemed lost in her own thoughts. Despite her age she had travelled to Johannesburg to greet Walter Sisulu and the other Rivonia detainees when they were released and she had, she said, fully intended to visit Mandela in Cape Town until the news arrived of his impending visit to Durban. She spoke fondly of ‘Nelson’ as of another son and, raising a bird-like and somewhat unsteady fist in salute, gave the ANC cry, Amandla! (‘power’), in a voice cracked with age. Her son said that on 11 February he had left his mother watching Nelson coming out of jail on TV ‘and then I came back and asked, “Have you seen Nelson?” and she said no. I said: “But he was the one holding the woman by the hand.” She said: “Oh, is that one Nelson?” You see, she still thinks of him as a young man, he’s been so long in jail.’

Mrs Luthuli said that she had always been confident that ‘I would live to see the change come – and now I have seen it.’ She laughed aloud with the sheer happiness of the fact. I asked if she’d never had any doubts. She laughed again. ‘When you struggle for something for so long,’ she said, ‘you expect to win.’ Her only real regret was that her husband had died in 1967 without seeing any significant change.

Groutville lies deep within rural Zululand. This is Alan Paton’s South Africa: a lush, unchanging landscape of waving sugar-cane, banana plantations, hardwood trees and African smallholdings. Out here it’s the same old Natal I knew as a boy, a green, untidy place where everything grows too easily and where you have to watch out for snakes, a world through which bare-footed Africans trek vast distances along dusty roads. Just fifty miles from Durban you find a patient acceptance of hardship which, to the European eye, seems medieval, even primeval. African children are all around – half the population is under fifteen – playing the same games they always did, while the social life of the teenagers seems to revolve around the verandah of the crumbling general store which is Groutville’s only shop (Edgar Luthuli owns grocery and liquor stores nearby). ‘Whatever happens in South Africa,’ Edgar says, ‘Groutville won’t change much.’

Mrs Luthuli’s house is the one pictured on the cover of Albert Luthuli’s book, Let my people go. It’s not the sort of house you would have expected a Nobel Prize-winner to have lived in – it’s small, the paint is peeling, the old tin roof looks in need of repair and the somewhat overgrown state of the garden cannot hide a liberal scattering of tins, used batteries and other litter. ‘Mother insists on doing everything for herself, even the gardening. That’s why it looks this way,’ sighs Edgar. ‘She absolutely refuses to have a servant. It’s a matter of principle.’ That explained, I realised, the old man I’d found sleeping in the servant’s quarters when I’d called before. I’d thought he was a servant and been puzzled to find him asleep in the middle of the afternoon. In fact, he was a blind man who needed somewhere to go. Mrs Luthuli is a good Christian and wholly without any sense of her social position. The whole village, I discovered, knows her simply as ‘Granny’.

‘After Nelson and the others were jailed and the ANC was banned, my father stayed in the house all the time,’ said Edgar. ‘He was under a restriction order which meant he couldn’t even go into town’ – that is, the small town of Stanger. ‘He was primarily a man of God, and most of the time he just prayed.’ What did he pray for? ‘For the land,’ said Edgar, as if surprised by my question. ‘For the country. For justice. We had family prayers together every day. We all prayed for those things.’ Did his faith never waver, I ask, when his prayers were always so unanswered? ‘But that would have been like blaming God,’ said Edgar, with genuine astonishment. ‘That would have been quite impossible.’ He must have been strong, I say. Did he immerse himself in the affairs of the church and draw support from that? ‘He couldn’t go to the church in Stanger,’ Edgar replied, ‘unless he got a special permit from the Minister of Justice allowing him to go into town for it. He refused to ask for that. The priest would come out here to give him communion.’

Your mind plays over the quiet cruelty of the thing. They had got this old man under restriction. They’d smashed the movement which was his life’s work, jailed his friends and protégés. They knew that going to church was the one big thing left in his life and so they made that impossible for him unless he bent the knee and applied for a permit – which they would then be able to wave at the world to show he accepted their legitimacy, that even Luthuli had agreed to be a good kaffir in the end. And the men who took those decisions would have prayed every Sunday in their own Dutch Reformed Church, would probably have read the Lesson. But this old man is fully their match. He refuses to apply to them even though it means cutting himself off from his beloved church. I could have come here then, you think, and just seen an old man praying, seen a priest visit him on Sundays, and never realised that this still rural silence, the old man’s very immobility, those odd priestly visits all betokened an immense struggle of political wills. There will, one day, you feel with anger, be a reckoning for all this, for all the small, calculated cruelties as well as the monstrous crimes and injustices. And then you realise that Luthuli would have preached forgiveness, would not have wanted any ‘reckoning’. In any case, the men who did those things have been dead some years. There’s no punishing them now.

‘Mind you,’ said Edgar, ‘he wasn’t completely cut off. Sometimes he got messages from Nelson. It’s a secret how that was done, I’m sorry I can’t tell you how that was done even now. Oliver Tambo corresponded from London. Someone from England – maybe it was David Astor, he was a friend – sent him the Observer. And he had lots of American friends, especially Martin Luther King. It was a terrible thing for us when Martin was killed. Father had a whole collection of Martin’s speeches on tape and he used to play them over and over again.’ Strange to think of that quintessentially American voice booming out into this quiet Zululand quiet, competing at night with the dense hum of crickets and the bullfrogs’ hollow roar. Well, maybe not so strange – King and Luthuli shared the same gospel of non-violence and passive resistance, after all. And they had the same troubles with their young lions who despaired of non-violence. When, after Sharpeville, the new young leaders of the ANC, led by Mandela, launched the armed struggle, Luthuli played no part in it – although he loyally refused to criticise the younger men in any way. And now Mandela finds himself in exactly the same relationship to his young lions – determined not to criticise them but talking a language of moderation and compromise.

Language is a good part of the problem. Young township blacks have been raised on the heady rhetoric of struggle, the cries of Amandla!, the rhythmic excitement of the toyi-toyi, the freedom songs, the emotion-charged singing of ‘Nkosi Sikelele Afrika’ at an unending line of political funerals. It is all very high-adrenalin stuff. Ever since 1976 the township youth have taken the lesson that only militancy, ever greater militancy, gets you anywhere. The rhetoric, indeed what is already the tradition of that militancy, has an immense, obliterating power. One only has to look at the States and the way Jesse Jackson has picked up and hepped up the old Martin Luther King rhetoric to see the power of militant language. Jackson may be a self-advertising photo-opportunist, but he has the magic words, the political jive-talk, the rhetorical style, and with them he has simply rolled over black politicians whose claims were based on mere competence and practicality. South Africa could well see the same phenomenon – every black politician must, perforce, include some militant style in his repertoire.

Your father, I say to Edgar, had an opportunity the present ANC leaders do not have. Nowadays it is Buthelezi who appeals to the proud Zulu history of anti-colonial struggle, who talks of Rorke’s Drift and Isandhlwana. Because Buthelezi monopolises that tradition, the ANC cannot speak to it. But in your father’s day there was no Inkatha – and your father was a Zulu chief. Didn’t he ever feel he was fighting the battles of Shaka, Dingaan and Cetewayo against the whites? ‘No,’ said Edgar. ‘He was interested in them only as history. I don’t think he would ever have wanted to use their names in speeches. He was never against whites, he hated racialism. Even at the end, when he was persecuted so, that did not change.’

How far, I asked, had people kept up their contacts with Mrs Luthuli after her husband’s death? ‘Well, Oliver did for a while, and Albertina wrote an awful lot’ – Oliver Tambo, that is, and Albertina Sisulu. ‘She was very good. But you know these people get preoccupied with the struggle and correspondence trails off. Albertina became one of the leaders of the UDF, after all, and then she got banned herself.’ What about Winnie Mandela? Had she ever been to visit? ‘No. She came to Stanger not long ago to address a meeting. She didn’t visit us, but I’m sure she was very busy.’ What about letters? ‘The main people who write are American friends, especially the Kings. Coretta has been to the house here.’ A picture of Martin Luther King sits on the wall near a print of The Last Supper.

When the news of Mandela’s release came, the children had marched and done the toyi-toyi through the village. The adults all stayed in their houses. ‘They were all happy too,’ said Edgar, ‘but people here like to keep their opinions to themselves.’ Groutville looked to me like natural Inkatha territory, I said. Edgar looked up, his face full of caution. ‘I don’t know how many are Inkatha and how many ANC. Like I said, people like to keep their views to themselves. I think it’s better that way. There’s been no trouble between Inkatha and the ANC or UDF here in Groutville and we want it to stay like that. People know all about the trouble elsewhere in Natal – it’s very frightening.’ Do they know, I ask, about all the problems with the children in the townships? Edgar paused and then conceded: ‘Yes, well, that probably was part of it. People know the children elsewhere have been very fierce to the adults, so perhaps they are a bit afraid too. If they’d gone out into the street when the children were doing the toyi-toyi, the children might have said that they were interfering. They might have been angry. Nobody here wants trouble.’ I gazed out across the verandah at the children playing in the next garden. So it had actually come to this. Even here in the rural stillness of Groutville, people were a bit afraid of their own children, had been wary of sharing their celebration with them on the fabulous day when ‘change had come.’ Cry the beloved country indeed.

Wasn’t it rather difficult, I asked, when Chief Buthelezi insisted that Chief Luthuli, had he been alive, would have supported Inkatha? Buthelezi’s argument is that in exile the ANC has changed, that in the old days the ANC had included both a conservative (Zulu) strain and a radical (Xhosa) element: now the radical tendency had simply taken over. Edgar laughed and asked what the young men who ran the ANC now thought of that. I said it annoyed them very much. Edgar laughed again. ‘I decided I wasn’t cut out for politics,’ he said. ‘We try to be neutral. Well, no, obviously we are an ANC family, no doubt about that. I think it’s wrong for political leaders even to mention questions of race, like Zulu and Xhosa.’ Edgar paused as if turning over the notion of the ANC having changed – for there is certainly no doubting the contrast between Chief Luthuli’s Christian non-violence and today’s young ANC militants with their rhetoric of socialism and the armed struggle. ‘Don’t you think,’ he asked, ‘that we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere to have all this violence? We must have. In the Fifties we had the ANC versus the PAC, but there was no trouble between them like there is between Inkatha and the ANC. We must have made a mistake somewhere.’

My question, I realised, had verged on the unfair, for the dreadful political violence in Natal has made the position of the Luthuli family very difficult. They are bearers of the ANC tradition but ensconced deep within Buthelezi’s territory, their loyalties and allegiance under tremendous pressure. ‘Tell me,’ Edgar said, ‘what do people overseas think of the ANC’s economic policy?’ I said that Mandela’s recent endorsement of the old ANC line of sweeping nationalisations had not gone down well. Given what was happening elsewhere in the world, people tended to see such a policy as a throwback to the Fifties. Edgar, a businessman himself after all, nodded with understanding.

‘And these young men in the ANC leadership now, do you think they ever think of my father and his philosophy? Has it made any mark on them – or are those ideas gone for ever’? Perhaps now that change had begun, I said, people would rediscover his father’s ideas. Edgar nodded. ‘After all, they’ve gone back to defiance campaigns. They were his idea. And we must have peace and reconciliation, starting with peace between Inkatha and the ANC.’ I said that one of the problems was that if Mandela and Buthelezi tried to make peace between their organisations, there might be some elements within the ANC who would strongly resist the notion of accepting Buthelezi as an ally. They might be tempted to join the PAC. ‘If the price of peace is that the ANC loses some support,’ Edgar said, ‘we must lose the support and still choose peace. You always have to choose peace. The ANC leaders will come back from exile in glory. They must have their triumph. But they must not be pompous or power-seeking. It is best if they are ordinary, modest people. That’s what people want.’

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