At midday, on a bright Wednesday on June 8, 1966, the small sugarcane farming community of Groutville, outside Durban, in South Africa’s coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal, was shocked and surprised. On that day one of the most powerful United States politicians landed in a small aircraft, on a soccer field, in their town. Against the law, the New York senator Robert Kennedy stepped out of the plane on his way to visit the banned chief and President of the African National Congress (ANC), Albert Luthuli.
Albertina Luthuli, now 84 and Albert’s eldest daughter, was a medical student at the Non-European Medical School in Durban at the time when her mother called her home because an important visitor was coming to meet her father.
“That one was a historic moment in the history of apartheid South Africa. Robert Kennedy’s bother, JF Kennedy, who was the president of the United States had been shot in Dallas. Robert Kennedy had been the attorney general under John Kennedy. He felt that what his brother was doing was important to change the world… and South Africa was the hotspot of human rights violations at the time,” Luthuli tells FORBES AFRICA at the house in Groutville where she grew up. It was converted into the Luthuli Museum in August 2004.
In 1966, the South African government warmly received Kennedy and his wife Ethel. Government officials took them around the capital city of Pretoria and to the urban township Soweto, where they visited mineworkers in hostels. Albertina says the government took Kennedy where they could show him a success story about South Africa, but he was not fooled, he insisted on meeting the banned ANC leader in his village to learn of the struggle Albert was leading against oppression.
“Pretoria’s response to that was that our leader is a communist, therefore we would not let you go see him,” she says.
The government didn’t want anything to do with Kennedy’s visit to Luthuli but the American embassy took him there under diplomatic immunity.
“Can you imagine? They landed on a soccer field right down there and then they had a talk. Under the restraining orders Chief [Luthuli] was only allowed to talk to one person at the time. So, they sat on a bench outside this yard, which is the big memory of that event, and they talked. They sat close to each other, there was chemistry,” recalls Albertina, a retired medical doctor who spent 21 years in exile.
She says the meeting of minds on a bench was a great annoyance to the government. Last year, the daughters of the two leaders remembered the day and sat together on the same spot their father sat 50 years before. Kerry Kennedy had flown to South Africa just to meet Albertina.
Within two years of the meeting on the bench, both men would be dead. Like his brother, Kennedy was shot dead by an assassin in California, just two years after visiting Groutville in defiance of the South African authorities.
“It was an act of intolerable defiance; they couldn’t really take it lying down. This man has visited Luthuli and at that point they felt they were controlling with banning orders. They had refused international leaders who wanted to come see him. To them this visit was completely unacceptable,” says Albertina.
“As family we believed it played a part in the death of my father, because they were quite happy when the special branch kept my father under surveillance so that he doesn’t influence others. But I can confirm the executive ANC members, like the Mandelas, they used to meet him underground and discuss their matters.”
In August 1962, the future president, Nelson Mandela, was disguised as chauffeur while driving his fellow activist Cecil Williams. They were arrested on their way home from Durban to Johannesburg, at a police roadblock in Howick. Mandela had just returned from traveling through Africa and London where he had received military training and drummed up support for the ANC. He was jailed for five years for leaving the country without a permit and causing strikes.
“Mandela had a background with the youth league, so the youth of the time worked very close with the leadership of the movement. When the ANC decided it was time for the armed struggle it was at the same time continuing with the non-violent militant struggle. Mandela was then given the task to champion the cause of the armed struggle in particular in Africa. So he used to come to my father to report about the progress,” says Albertina.
Just before Mandela was arrested, he convinced Chief Luthuli to support the armed struggle. It was launched on December 16, 1961, a few months after Luthuli had accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.
Albertina says the young militant Mandela learned to be disciplined from her father, which helped South Africa transition to democracy in 1994.
“He learned the struggle was going to be long and difficult. When he was on Robben Island, he became a teacher like my father,” she says.
The truth about the death of Chief Luthuli in 1967 is not so easy to uncover.
“The circumstances around his death haven’t been told and we can’t tell because we were not there. Only the government of the day told its version. When they had the inquest, the postmortem, the district surgeon and everybody else, they were all functionaries of the system. So they did as they were told,” says Albertina.
Chief Luthuli was president of the ANC from 1952 until 1967, when he died, in what was said to be a train accident, 10 kilometers from his Groutville home. As with the Kennedys’ assassinations in 1963 and 1968, many believed Chief Luthuli was assassinated by a government wanting to get rid of him.
Just like their home when she was growing up, Albertina’s surgery was constantly raided by the police, in Clermont, a township outside Durban. Because she feared for her life, and those of her children, Albertina went into exile with her husband Pascal Ngakane, an ANC activist and also a medical doctor. Albertina worked in health in the United Kingdom, Lesotho and Zimbabwe.
At home, the Chief, as many called Luthuli, was just an ordinary father who loved his wife and children. Albertina, the second-born who had six siblings, described her home as peaceful where hard work was king. The Chief met his wife Nokukhanya at Adams College where he taught and she was a student.
“Both our parents were teachers at Adams College. My home was really a school away from school, with parents entrenching hard work. All of us were asked what we wanted to be when we finished school, so that they could have a hand in helping you along the line,” says Albertina.
She grew up at a time when girls weren’t encouraged to pursue science and mathematics, but in the Luthuli family this was not the case.
“You found the schools, even the one I went to, St Francis College, sort of shutting you down because you are a girl, because you will be sitting in class with boys. So, my father took it upon himself to speak to the principal and said ‘this is what my daughter wants to do. She’s not going to be distracted by boys, she knows what she wants’. That’s how I later became a medical doctor,” she says.
It wasn’t just family. Groutville, a village in the heart of sugarcane fields, drew workers from afar. Many of these farmworkers had never been to school, so menial jobs were all they could do. The Chief reached out to these people, living in compounds, offering them basic lessons and political teaching.
“He started a night school, but it wasn’t a registered school; it was an informal school where he also taught these men about their basic rights, how not to become victims of abuse in the hands of employers,” says Albertina.
“One of the things he loved was music. Here at home we had a choir. All of us, the mother, the father and children, would sit here in the dining room and sing together. My mother sang soprano, father a baritone and us children fitted in cantata,” she says.
“Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi was educated at Adams College and he grew up in this environment where (Zulu) royalty didn’t pay much attention to education, so he became this education hungry heir to the Buthelezi throne. It was close to the Zulu King throne. He visited my father and introduced himself,” says Luthuli.
From then, Buthelezi joined a group of Zulu chiefs mentored by Chief Luthuli.
“If my father had not died in 1967, a lot of this war, between Zulu to Zulu and Zulu to other Africans, could have been avoided. I believe that, because Buthelezi admired my father, he could have reconciled the differences between the parties. The people around Buthelezi encouraged the black on black violence,” she says sadly.
The untimely death of a father that sadly may have led to the untimely death of many innocent sons.