THE beginning of each year raises the prospect of anniversaries, commemoration and appropriate reflection. Amongst many, this one will see the centenary of the sinking of the Mendi (21 February), the fortieth anniversary of the murder of Steve Biko (12 September), and the fiftieth of the passing of Albert Luthuli (21 July). The last has already provoked a request for further inquiry: members of the family and of the ANC reject the post-mortem verdict of accidental death and believe that the sinister hand of the apartheid state was somehow involved.
By the standards of his day Luthuli at 69 was arguably an old man in 1967. He was incontrovertibly in poor health, suffering from hypertension and a history of strokes. His death followed an incident on the railway bridge over the Umvoti River in which a train coming towards him struck Luthuli as he used the narrow pedestrian walkway. Conspiracy theorists argue that Luthuli was familiar with the bridge and used to exercising care, raising the possibility that the accident was a cover-up for assassination.
There are many unexplained and unresolved incidents from the apartheid era. Most of them involved either skirmishes around armed incursions in which bodies were hastily buried or disposed of in remote places; or the specific targets of state death squads. The Truth Commission failed to fill in the gaps and the perpetrators either have taken, or will take, their secrets to the grave. Much will never be known.
But the locality and circumstances of Luthuli’s death were very different. And the problem with conspiracy theory in his case is that plausibility relies heavily on the involvement of many people whose sustained complicity is highly unlikely. Luthuli was well respected and highly regarded in many places – he was, after all, a Nobel peace prize winner. Had the nature of his injuries been misrepresented at the time it is inconceivable that nothing has subsequently come to light. Conspiracy theories cannot stand on feelings, wishful thinking and pure suspicion; or simple rejection of the documentary record. They have to be supported by some shred or hint of evidence from or about perpetrators. There has been none.
Nor do the politics of the time provide any rational motive. Luthuli, the ailing elder statesman and figurehead president-general of the ANC, was of more use to the government alive than dead. The ANC’s turn to violence was acknowledged, but not supported, by Luthuli and in a sense he was a divisive figure reminding the organisation of past principles and lost values. One might just as easily argue that the ANC wanted him out of the way, although there is absolutely no reason to believe that either.
The Luthuli family apparently requires closure. Its members are entitled to this, but it is hard to see exactly how an inquiry armed only with speculation can achieve it. Indeed, the result could be the very opposite. Meanwhile there are many apartheid-era deaths that surely do bear investigation. One was the murder of Dulcie September, the ANC’s representative to francophone western Europe, shot in 1988 in Paris by a person never identified. Her death has been linked not only to arms deals between France and apartheid South Africa; but also to a cover-up in the light of further trading in weapons between France and the post-liberation government.
Thami Zulu (Muziwakhe Ngwenya) was an Umkhonto we Sizwe cadre who died a year later. Popular with some, but not with Jacob Zuma who was then chief ANC representative in Mozambique, he was a controversial figure who was detained by ANC security and died in a Lusaka hospital five days after release. Apart from AIDS-related tuberculosis the autopsy revealed poisoning. The ANC posthumously dismissed spying charges against him and blamed government agents for the poison. The truth remains unknown as do the details of Patricia de Lille’s claim of numerous agents, some of whom later held government office, reporting to Pretoria from within the ANC.
There is a common thread among these three cases aside from the fact that there appears to be no appetite for full inquiry: all suggest that the truth could cast the ANC in a bad light. It might perhaps be adding fuel to the conspiratorial fire to suggest that a Luthuli death inquiry could be welcomed in order to deflect attention away from the ANC’s historic sins.
The past is not just another country. The reality of what happened there has a bearing on the way we should consider present and future. The Truth Commission was much applauded, to an extent with good reason. But it may also be seen as part of the rainbow nation myth providing bandages where surgery was required. If a further Luthuli inquiry has any logic, it is to suggest that a second stage Truth Commission is necessary with a broader remit that extends its scope to events that took place over the border in that opaque place called the ANC-in-exile as well as investigating – some for the first time, others in greater detail – human rights abuses that happened inside South Africa.