Africa’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace Albert John Mvumbi Luthuli, a Zulu-speaking member of South Africa, was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1898, where his father was employed as a Seventh Day Adventist missionary interpreter. Upon his father’s death when he was only 10, he moved to South Africa and learned the proper Zulu traditions.
Luthuli received his schooling at a mission school in Groutville, KwaZulu-Natal and later attended the Adams teacher-training college education near Durban. After graduation he became one of the school’s first three Black instructors lecturing Zulu literature. He was a deeply religious man, and during his studies at Adam’s College he became a lay preacher. His Christian beliefs acted as a basis for his attitude towards political life in South Africa at a time when many of his contemporaries were calling for a more militant response to Apartheid. In 1927 he married fellow Adam’s College teacher Nokukhanya Bhengu, the granddaughter of a hereditary Zulu Chief.
In 1936 he left the teaching profession when he became chief of the Abasemakholweni tribe at Groutville up to 1952 (his was not an hereditary position, but awarded as the result of an election). Though he ruled a tribe plagued by poverty and hunger, he was not yet aware of the need for political action to solve the problems of his people. In 1938 Luthuli went to India as a delegate of the Christian Council of South Africa, and in 1948 he attended the North American Missionary Conference. While he was there he undertook a lecture tour under the auspices of the American Board and the North American Missionary Conference.
It was not until 1945 that he joined the African National Congress (ANC), a very active political organization. Early in 1946 he was elected to the Natives Representative Council, and remained a member until its dissolution in 1946. Violence by the police and army against striking Black miners led to his first political protest. In 1948 the Afrikaner Nationalist Party came to power, determined to enforce a policy of apartheid, or racial separation. The ANC elected Luthuli as its provincial president for Natal in 1951.
During November of 1952 he was relieved of his duties as tribal chief by the government who paid his salary, and in December he was elected President of the African National Congress, and became internationally known as leader of non-violent opposition to apartheid.
During August 1955 the executives of the ANC, South African Indian Congress, the Congress of Democrats and South African Coloured People’s Organisation recommended the adoption of the Freedom Charter by each of their respective Congresses. A million signature-campaign was formulated to popularise the Charter and the 10 000 ‘Freedom Volunteers’ succeeded in collecting nearly 100 000 signatures to the Charter, half of them in the former province of Transvaal.
From 1956 he went through frequent arrests and harassment by the South African government, and in 1959 the government banished him to his village. In 1960 the ANC was outlawed. As a result of his activism, he and many others were arrested and tried for treason in 1956. Luthuli was not convicted, but the government banned his activities and confined him to his neighborhood.
In 1960 he became the first African to be awarded the Nobel peace prize for his efforts in pursuing a nonviolent campaign against racial discrimination in South Africa. On 5 December 1961 Luthuli and his wife left Durban plane for Oslo via London to receive the Peace Prize. It is ironical that the policy of nonviolence was abandoned by some of the Black South African organisations within a month of his accepting the award in 1961.
He retired from political life in 1961 and lived in enforced isolation. By now he was partially blind and ill. In 1962 he was elected Rector of Glasgow University (an honorary position), and in 1963 published his autobiography, Let My People G’. Although suffering from ill health and failing eyesight, and still restricted to his home in Stranger, Albert Luthuli remained president-general of the ANC. He died when a train struck him near his home at Stanger on 21 July 1967.