IN  a world in which books are under pressure from a multiplicity of electronic media, historical and political biography stands out as a genre holding its own. Recent subjects include Steve Biko and a range of modern politicians; plus John Dube, Theophilus Shepstone, Magema Magwaza Fuze – and Albert Luthuli.

Interest in Luthuli’s life was recently highlighted by front page coverage in The Witness of the donation to the museum that bears his name at Groutville of a notebook containing his handwritten comments. The contents, headed ‘My Outlook’ and dated 1957, reportedly reflect the two main, interconnected themes of Luthuli’s thinking: deep Christian faith and opposition to apartheid. According to Luthuli’s biographer other documents found at the museum during renovations have disappeared, some possibly overseas.

Luthuli died in 1967, yet it was not until 2010 that a comprehensive account of his life was published. Its author, Scott Couper, now Development Manager at Inanda Seminary, was once pastor at Luthuli’s former church. His research led him to the conclusion that faith and his role in the Congregational church consistent with his kholwa (Christian convert) background were the dominant and motivating forces in Luthuli’s life. A man of moral conviction, a sense of civic responsibility as chief at Groutville, and a belief in social justice, racial reconciliation and integration he was naturally deeply opposed to apartheid. He was deposed as chief by the government after taking part in the 1952 Defiance Campaign and at the end of the same year became president-general of the ANC. His distinguished leadership earned him the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize.

Before he accepted it in 1961 he knew about the formation of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). Couper argues that Luthuli was convinced of the certainty of eventual liberation and so did not alter his principled opposition to violence. Theologian Simangaliso Kumalo supports this view: Luthuli believed that ‘the road to freedom [was] via the Cross’. Once the armed struggle was adopted he was effectively sidelined by the movement. On top of his banning by the government, Couper poignantly echoes the title of his autobiography Let My People Go in his view that ‘Luthuli’s people … let him go’. As Ben Turok points out in an interview for an unscreened documentary A Question of Violence: the Chief Albert Luthuli Story produced by Sabido Productions, the ANC’s internal debate and meetings went unrecorded. There is no documentary evidence. Couper as biographer relies on Luthuli’s own writing on non-violence and points out that political allegiance does not rule out a greater loyalty.

Luthuli died in relative obscurity as a sugar farmer and general trader, but not without controversy, most of it retrospective. At the age of nearly 70, with poor sight and hearing and having suffered a series of mild strokes, he was walking along a narrow pathway on the railway bridge across the Mvoti River when he was struck by a freight train. Couper’s reasoned conclusion, backed by much medical and legal evidence, is that accidents happened, even in apartheid South Africa. But political correctness demands an assassination. There is not a scrap of hard evidence of what would have amounted to monumental conspiracy and cover up beyond the capacity of the inept apartheid regime. Even Kumalo buys into intrigue: Luthuli ‘lost his life in mysterious ways’.

Couper’s take on Luthuli unleashed a frenzy of criticism from President Jacob Zuma downwards. At the Luthuli Memorial Lecture in November 2010, at which the book was being sold, Zuma reportedly marched up to the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press table and pounding the book said ‘This is it, this is it’. In his address, remembers Couper, he ‘laid into my research and work … without mentioning the title.’ Opposition to the book resorted to the well-worn tactic of illegitimacy: only ANC members or Luthuli’s family could possibly know his story. History, it appeared, is a script reserved for politically approved writers. Mac Maharaj in Sabido Production’s documentary maintained that Luthuli’s first loyalty was to the ANC and that any contrary view implies that the ANC and Nelson Mandela are lying. He describes Couper’s history as ‘distortion’. It is a cynical viewpoint, making out, in order to perpetuate the myth of ANC collectivity and consensus, that Luthuli was a hypocrite. As Couper has noted, this is a ‘betrayal of Luthuli’.

Couper helped to found the Luthuli Museum and lodged all his research material there, and his book and the doctoral thesis on which it is based are in the museum library. But the book is not available for sale. Nor, says Couper, has he been included in any museum event since its publication. Adele Branch of UKZN Press, the book’s publisher, says that she tried to market it to the museum but telephone enquiries led nowhere and emails went unanswered. It has not been possible to get an official response, but a well-informed source suggested to The Witness that the museum possibly preferred to be ‘objective and neutral’ amidst the political controversy.

Its mission, however, is to ‘conserve, uphold, promote and propagate the life, values, philosophies and legacy’ of Luthuli ‘in the struggle against apartheid oppression, respect for human rights and life devotion to non-violent resolution to world problems’. Its objectives include research and promotion of a culture of learning. And its vision reads ‘let the spirit of Luthuli speak to all’. The museum’s website has little to say about Luthuli’s Christian commitment. While it records that he was ‘reportedly’ struck by a train, it uses the term ‘accident site’ and will assist trips to it by prior arrangement, which suggests support for Couper’s view.

There is a parallel. In 1988, the ANC intellectual and MK cadre Jabulani Nxumalo, whose travelling name was Mzala, published a popular but scholarly book in Britain on Mangosuthu Buthelezi sub-titled Chief with a Double Agenda that deals with the individual, the administration of the KwaZulu bantustan and Inkatha. Its unflattering approach did not escape criticism in academic circles: it was felt that Mzala had not adequately explained Inkatha’s successful mobilisation strategy.

He died in February 1991. The book had been available for three years but there was a sudden demand from Buthelezi’s lawyer, Jenny Friedman, that it be withdrawn from circulation in libraries and from supply by the local publisher, David Philip, on the grounds that it was defamatory. No attempt had been made to sue Mzala and just weeks later the Inkatha funding scandal and its intimate links with the security state were exposed.

The book has remained as elusive as any formerly banned under draconian apartheid regulations. Claims of defamation – a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter? – have never been tested in court. The classic measures of defamation – untruth published with malicious intent and without a public interest defence – have not been subject to legal process. Universities protested (academics at University of Natal were slandered by Ilanga as ‘ANC fetch and carry boys’) and eventually the book was returned to the library shelves. But it has never been freely available in South African bookshops.

The details of these two cases differ considerably. But a common thread is disapproval and denunciation by heavyweight politicians and political parties. Historians collect evidence, assess its reliability and veracity, and arrive at reasoned conclusions. There is always room for other interpretations, but these must observe the rigour of academic process – evidence, for example. Ignoring books or hobbling them with defamation claims does not advance the search for historical truth. And there is little doubt that South Africa faces a constant danger that vested interests will try to entrench their versions of history as the dominant view. Our past is highly contested terrain that continues to be suffused by subtle forms of censorship and self-censorship.

This article was first published in The Witness on 8 November 2013 and entitled ‘A tale of two books’.

Further reading: Scott Couper, Albert Luthuli: Bound by Faith (Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2010); Mzala, Gatsha Buthelezi: Chief With a Double Agenda (London: Zed, 1988).