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How to Approach Heaven

The struggle for freedom is a reckless, foolish and sacrosanct adventure – so believed Albert Luthuli, the president of the African National Congress. A devout Christian, a man deeply committed to land and community, Luthuli saw the relationship between a nation and its ideals as founded on shared values, not the ingratiated construct that beleaguers the nationalism playing out in South Africa today. Jon Soske delves into the unpublished notebooks and speeches of a revered leader, who thought, fought and sometimes raged for justice.

Who would have expected this kind of anger? No, it was not a whispered, corroding rage fed by his personal fears or the tedious humiliations that a black man faced at every predictable turn, even if he was president of South Africa’s most representative organisation. Luthuli’s anger was far more – if I can use this word to write about him – terrible. He was a kind man, gentle, a loving man. He nurtured his fury deliberately, and it seems to have grown stronger through his patience, through his tremendous sense of inevitability. Moments of outrage are so evenly spread across his notebooks – amid branch minutes, draft speeches, letters to friends and comrades, and stock lists for his store – that they are all but unremarkable, or at least they would be in another man’s handwriting. Perhaps I had become inured to the image of the Christian and Nobel Peace Prize winner, the icon of non-violence and multiracialism. Luthuli, the wrathful. The unforgiving. No one has ever described him in these terms.

But there is no question that the words are his, written – more often scrawled, his penmanship is almost indecipherable – in the Croxley exercise books that were popular at the time. (A remnant of his days as a school teacher?) He was withering about the “willing slaves” among the oppressed, the pseudo-leaders who gave legitimacy to apartheid institutions such as the Bantu School Boards or the Native Representative Councils. In unpublished speeches (most of his speeches are still unpublished), he lashed out at the “mockery” and “insult” of the government’s claims that Africans were satisfied. On three occasions, in marginal jottings written years apart, he scolded “Coloureds” for trying to find a place within the system by imitating whites. He used the term “moderate” in a fashion that verged on insult. Why did I not suspect that his legendary modesty, his humour and aura of respectability, might sometimes mask a devastating irony? Why had I never read just a bit of swagger in between the lines? In a draft letter to Oliver Tambo from 1956, Luthuli protested against attempts to exclude him from policy decisions in the ANC with this mordant aside: “it cannot be supposed that we [were] wrong to express ourselves democratically”. So said the president to his general secretary. Banned from appearing in public throughout most of the 1950s, he waged a ceaseless campaign to maintain the dignity of his office, which he saw as embodying the dignity of Africans as a people, in the face of the government’s contempt and the relentless, puerile and infantilising insults of the white press and public. Obviously, he knew irony in its sinews.

His strongest statements of censure, however, were reserved for the passivity of both blacks and whites. Writing after the Holocaust and the Nuremberg trials, which provoked an international discussion on the nature of individual and collective guilt, Luthuli was deeply concerned with the problem of complicity. He did not doubt that failure to oppose the regime – not morally or symbolically, but through active resistance as part of the liberation struggle – was a form of assent. On this matter, his judgement was unsparing. (Both Fanon and Biko would develop similar arguments by invoking Karl Jasper’s idea of “metaphysical guilt”.)

Of course, the nature of complicity varied for the oppressed and their oppressors. African passivity – he once derided it in a speech as “your silent groanings” – lent credence to apartheid propaganda, especially once the regime began to craft its taglines to suit the sensitivities of foreign ears. Political inertia offered a form of self-destructive collaboration, a “shame” and “cowardice” that degraded the very possibility of African nationhood. In contrast, Luthuli’s papers make clear that he saw white South Africans, despite the acts of exceptional individuals, as conscious and committed supporters of minority rule, whether apartheid or in some more palatable guise. He held whites, as a whole, responsible for the injustices directed against Africans. “We, in the African National Congress,” Luthuli remarked in a 1953 speech, “were never in doubt the desire to oppress Africans [is] found among a majority of whites.” This verdict was not only directed against supporters of the National Party, but against moderates and liberals as well, the “friends of the African”.

By almost any standard, he drew these conclusions late in life. In the early 1950s, Luthuli was still delivering lectures that genuflected before the improvement of government services for Africans and urged a balanced consideration of apartheid laws (“the evils of apartheid seem to outweigh its possible benefits,” he concluded gingerly). In short, Luthuli softened his speeches with the burnished equivocations that the state and liberals alike expected from “responsible” black leaders. The world pivoted in 1952. For the first time in modern South African history, white politicians lost control of the debate. The struggles of Africans and their political allies forced the agenda. After he led the Natal ANC into non-violent civil disobedience against apartheid legislation (the famous Defiance Campaign), the government demanded that Luthuli resign either his position in the ANC or his elected chieftainship of the Groutville Mission Reserve. Luthuli threw the choice back at them.

I wonder if he looked out over his fields and pondered the fact that he faced pressure to keep his chieftainship from the same kinds of people – probably some of the very same people – who had so vigorously dissuaded him from taking the post 17 years earlier: the Anglo establishment of Natal, the modern, Christian and irreproachably civilised guardians, white and black, of respectability. Even at these moments of crisis, when he rejected their urgings completely, he still used their language (civilisation, partnership, progress…). To this day, this vocabulary misleads unwary readers, creating a patina of moderation. If Luthuli always came back to these words, I suspect that it was because he spent years, stretching into decades, considering the false promises and lies built on them. His notebooks indicate that he was the kind of man who thought slowly and methodically, returning to the same ideas over time, aware that they remained, perhaps by inner necessity, incomplete. Eventually, he decided that the underlying meanings of terms like “progress” and “civilisation”, so fundamental and yet so elusive, were in peril. They could only be redeemed by African hands.

Before assuming his chieftainship, Luthuli had been promoted – alongside another future leader of the ANC, Z.K. Matthews ­– to one of the first posts held by an African at Adams, the renowned teacher training college. Later, he became the secretary of the African Teachers Association. In the rhetoric of uplift and racial progress that dominated middle class black politics, he was a first: an example of accomplishment, a living refutation of African savagery, a pioneer who would call younger Christians to the vocation of civilisation, venturing across the Sinai and into the promised land. Many of his peers felt aggrieved when Luthuli resigned this position – and perhaps by his abdication of what was then a considerable salary for an African – in order to assume a “traditional” leadership role.

He spent the next 17 years on the land. He worked with his community to prise a living from inadequate pieces of ground. He adjudicated disputes over every possible matter of occupancy and ownership (the legal and customary intricacies of belonging). He watched the government strangle the reserves despite extraordinary efforts by residents towards their improvement. He raised vegetables to sell at the market. He farmed sugar cane. In 1956, awaiting arrest on charges of treason, he wrote a letter to an American friend expressing concern about his family’s subsistence. Most of his property was not yet planted. It is possible that no other president of the ANC possessed such an exhaustive knowledge of rural African life, of the soil and its disappointments, of the everyday challenges of living side-by-side and sharing earth. When the government deposed Luthuli, the residents of Groutville refused to elect a new chief in his place.

Luthuli did not originally entitle his famous response to the government “The Road to Freedom is via the Cross”. The draft carried the rather more circumscribed heading “A Personal Statement on his Dismissal from the Chieftainship of the AbaseMakolweni Tribe in the Umvoti Mission Reserve, Groutville, Lower Tugela District, by Albert John Luthuli”. If the listing of geographical precisions suggests an officiousness, mimicking the language of a bureaucrat, he wrote in his individual capacity. In doing so, Luthuli asserted the right to answer the government in formal terms irrespective of its threat to strip his appointment. In other words, he claimed standing based on personhood. He assumed citizenship.

In contrast, the later title helped recast the statement as a broader manifesto of non-violent resistance and Christian piety, a reframing assisted by Luthuli’s transformation into a national symbol and subsequent election to the presidency of the ANC. The handwritten version, however, indicates that the expression “via the cross” was originally used in a somewhat more specific sense. It was the climax of Luthuli’s proclamation that he would remain part of the liberation struggle whatever the consequences –  “ridicule, imprisonment, a concentration camp, flogging, banishment and even death” (the appearance of camps in Kenya had reinforced the association between settler colonialism and fascism). Linked to the preceding phrase by a colon (it became a full stop in the final copy), Luthuli’s invocation of the cross functioned as an example of sacrifice and suffering. He was making an argument about the nature of leadership.

It was an argument that he would develop across several fronts for the rest of his political career. At a philosophical level, the celebration of sacrifice over station – the crucifixion was also a metaphor of rebirth and the rebelliousness of spring – built on the critique of materialism developed by the ANC Youth League intellectual Anton Lembede in the 1940s. When Luthuli appealed to the people’s spirit of revolt, and based the obligation to resist on the God-given force of personality, he was also arguing against the pragmatism expressed by some middle class African leaders. Human beings did not, he insisted elsewhere, find their fulfilment in economic progress (and certainly not in the scraps offered by the regime). They became whole through the pursuit of ideals, such as fellowship and justice. More immediately, Luthuli’s refusal to resign from the ANC was part of a larger debate in the 1950s over the nature of African political tradition. The apartheid government sanitised white supremacy through the rhetoric of “Africans developing along their own lines”, which entailed refashioning chiefs into government enforcers under the cover of tradition. Rejecting this authoritarian vision of leadership, Luthuli’s understanding of the inkosi as voice and servant, and thus inseparable from his community, went hand-in-hand with a critique of tribalism. For if the local folds into and composes the nation, chiefs could only restrict themselves to “tribal affairs” by betraying the broader aspirations of their people.

In histories of the liberation struggle, this statement’s defence of non-violent resistance sometimes appears framed in terms of the later debate over armed struggle. This is anachronistic. In 1952, the main target of Luthuli’s polemic was “what liberal-minded people rightly regarded as the path of moderation”. In short, Luthuli had declared a break with his own past. (He famously asked, “who will dare deny that 30 years of my life have been spent knocking in vain, patiently, moderately and modestly at a closed and barred door?” The final version removed the word “dare”, cushioning his anger and allowing some readers to imagine an appeal rather than a challenge.) Yet he avoided casting this break in oppositional terms, and thereby positioning liberals and moderates as his antagonists. Paraphrasing Christ’s words to Simon the fisherman, Luthuli described his decision as “launching further into the deep”. He invited his former allies to join him there.

It is hard to find the right words to describe this moment. Yes, the gesture had its strategic ends. But it was more than just spin. Luthuli was demonstrating a way of understanding both liberation and nationhood. As his notebooks show, he thought about the question of white South Africans in similar terms. Fully convinced that the vast majority of whites actively supported minority rule, he nevertheless saw a common society as the ultimate outcome of the struggle. He was fighting against white South Africans in order to affirm – and then to create, to celebrate – an inclusive understanding of nationhood that would encompass both communities. He was fighting his enemies for the possibility of living among his enemies.

The anticolonial thinker who came closest to this position was not Gandhi, whose appeals for moral rebirth had little purchase in the context of settler colonialism, but the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. Without denying the foreign provenance of Israeli colonialism, Said’s 1979 The Idea of Palestine challenged Zionism’s delusion – which, like all paranoid fantasies, is profoundly dangerous – that Palestinians and their struggles somehow originated from outside. Two decades later, Said would invert his critique into a political imperative: “we cannot coexist as two communities of detached and uncommunicatingly separate suffering.” The awkwardness of Said’s invented word – uncommunicatingly – served to emphasise the nature of separation. What would it mean for victims and perpetrators to share their bound, but distinct, sufferings as a way of being together? This braided we is a demand made by the oppressed: it deploys a grammar of empathy and identification refused by settler society. Under the status quo, it is unrealisable. It requires launching into deeper waters.

After reading his notebooks, it is clear to me that Luthuli found his solution to this dilemma in a particular understanding of African nationalism. He did not dissolve the African political subject into a broader idea such as multiracialism or the South African nation. (Notably, he ratified the Freedom Charter, which only employs the word Africa within the amalgam “South Africa”, as a general statement of principles, but he rarely mentioned it in later writings or speeches.) African nationalism, he concluded by the late 1950s, would demonstrate the feasibility of democracy in situations of social, cultural and racial heterogeneity. It was, by its very nature, inclusive. Inclusion did not signify assimilation. It was an act of welcoming born of Africa’s capacity to incorporate the foreign while retaining its sense of self. Luthuli once offered the example of early missionaries and traders who lived peacefully among African societies. Not only were they welcomed as strangers, Africans borrowed ideas and technologies without abandoning their own ways of life. This conception drew on a great political tradition of hospitality, alliance, and inclusive notions of kinship that – as historians Jan Vansina and Paul Landau have shown – stretched across millennia.

The result was a flexible or, perhaps more accurately, a nested understanding of nationalism. Rejecting the premise that nationhood presupposed cultural or racial homogeneity (or social cohesion in the ANC’s current jargon), Luthuli envisioned nation as the struggle to create and maintain a way of life based on shared values. He could therefore imagine African nationalism existing side-by-side and enabling the emergence of a unified South African identity. (Significantly, the ANC rejected a broad, “all-race” party in 1959, arguing that Africans still needed their own political organisation and nation-building programme.) Over time, this process might lead to a single culture. Luthuli tended to leave this question open. In the context of the anti-apartheid struggle, African nationalism’s inclusion of the outsider – an act of generosity based on common principles – allowed for a new political subject to emerge from the interplay of difference. This possibility seemed so immediate, so intuitively plausible, that Luthuli never elaborated his thinking on the matter. (I suspect that he saw it as a practical issue to be worked through in the course of events: the freedom struggle was an experiment in creating new forms of sociality.) But examples of this logic abound in his notebooks. If Zulus could form part of an African nation without abandoning their language and culture, or South Africa could participate as an entity within the broader pan African enterprise, then why would a unified South Africa require the dissolution of separate identities? In isiZulu, Luthuli expressed this idea as a nation composed of many nations: “kulelizwe siyizizwe eziningi”.

Following this logic, Luthuli staked out a position as president of the ANC that would have struck many of his contemporaries as heretical. Today, it has been discreetly forgotten. He rejected the idea of the African majority and the framework of majoritarian democracy in principle. As he explained in a 1952 speech to the Natal ANC, “Umqondo wokwahlukaniselana kawukho kulendaba ngaba asilwi impi ezoba nempango … yabiwe, kodwa yimpi yokuthola amathuba aphelele, nenkululeko. Lamanani awabiwa ayasetshenziswa ngothandayo.” (Luthuli’s translation: “Freedom is enjoyed with others, and not mathematically and proportionally shared with them: it is to each according to his talent and ability.”) After reading abridged versions of this argument in published speeches, I assumed that he used formulae like “sharing in power” in order to placate white fears. I was wrong. In his notebooks, Luthuli returned to this line of thinking in half a dozen locations, each time underlining that democracy was not reducible to the “tyranny of numbers”. It scarcely needs emphasising that he accepted the principle of one person, one vote. Nevertheless, he believed that state institutions enabled a democratic process whose essence lay elsewhere. (Significantly, his notebooks contain almost no material addressing constitutional matters.) Self-determination, a concept that Luthuli endorsed through its transformation, occurred in the form of a negotiated relationship with others who were also, invariably, a part of oneself. It was not an endpoint, exhausted at the moment of victory.

Everything depended on the relationship between a nation and its ideals. In November 1952, two months after the government delivered its ultimatum, Luthuli returned to Adams to deliver a sermon entitled “Christian Life: a Constant Venture”. He began by once again quoting Christ’s injunction from Luke 5:4, “Go into the deep and put out your nets…”. In the next verse, Jesus promises Simon (he will become Peter, the apostle who initially failed to understand that Christianity was a universal gospel) that he will grow into a fisherman for the people through heeding Christ’s words. It was a biblical justification for faith and, inseparably, risk. It was the answer to the uncountable questions that Luthuli must have asked – not only about the dangers to himself and his family, but about the collective gamble of the liberation struggle, its wager with a nation of nations. What do the people truly need? What gives them life as a people? Speaking to an audience of students raised on the promises of civilisation and economic progress, many of whose families had sacrificed enormously for their education, Luthuli instructed them to abandon their earthly comforts and securities. Only by launching into the depths could they work to cultivate a life around Christian ideals, which he elsewhere stressed were universal ideals found across cultures, in imperfect fellowship. To underscore this point, he quoted an unidentified source: “This divine recklessness, this holy foolishness, is the beginning of salvation.” It could only ever be a beginning.

Luthuli asked his young audience, in effect, to embrace freedom. Is it possible, reopening his notebooks almost five decades after his death, to read this word with the same unalloyed conviction? Luthuli believed that freedom was a divine gift, inherent in human beings, yet undermined by poverty and oppression. Although it was the goal of the liberation struggle, freedom nevertheless belonged outside of the political realm. It was a reckless, foolish, and sacrosanct adventure. It was an abyss, discovered while crossing the bottomless reaches of a harrowed sea, and the indestructible foundation of democracy. Both the struggle for freedom and its enjoyment required a particular relationship with the ideal: the willingness to sacrifice, to abandon the self for an unrealised truth. Freedom, Luthuli might have added, was the power to share the earth. It required a new conception of sovereignty.


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This story features in the Chronic Books (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.

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