R.W. Johnson pays his respects to Mrs Luthuli

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.

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