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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Letter on the current situation and suggesting a multi-racial convention, from Chief Albert J. Luthuli to Prime Minister J. G. Strijdom, 28 May 1957

The Honourable the Prime Minister,

Union of South Africa,

House of Assembly


Honourable Sir,

At a time when in many respects our country is passing through some of the most difficult times in its history, I consider it my duty as leader of the African National Congress, a Union-wide premier political organisation among the African people in the Union of South Africa, to address this letter direct to you as head of the government to apprise you personally of the very grave fears and concern of my people, the Africans, at the situation now existing in the Union, especially anent matters affecting them.

I shall venture to place before you respectfully what I consider to be some of the disturbing features of our situation and suggest steps that could be taken by the Government to meet the position.

I have addressed this letter to you, Sir, and not to any Department for two reasons.

Firstly, because the gravity of our situation requires your direct personal attention and, secondly, because what I shall say fundamentally affects the welfare of the Union of South Africa as a whole since both basically and ill practice, the so-called 'Native Affairs' are, not only inextricably interwoven with the true interests of other racial groups, but are a key to a proper understanding and appraisal of South African Affairs and problems for indeed 'ALL SOUTH AFRICAN POLITICS ARE NATIVE AFFAIRS.'

One of the tragic aspects of the political situation in our country today is the increasing deterioration in race relations, especially in Black- White relations. There can be no two viewpoints on this question. Never has there been such an extremely delicate relationship as now exists between the Government of Whites only, of which you are head, and the vast masses of non-European people in general, and the African people in particular. This unfortunate state of affairs has resulted from a number of factors, the basic one being the policy of segregation, especially its more aggressive form, White baasskap and apartheid.

It is in the economic sphere that this disastrous policy of discrimination has affected Africans hardest and most cruelly. It has brought on them an economic plight that has shown itself in the dire poverty of the people both in the urban and in the rural areas. This fact has long been attested to from time to time by economic experts and by findings of Government Commissions. Recently, as a result of the Rand and Pretoria Bus Boycott, the extreme poverty of Africans in urban areas has been acknowledged by even commerce and industry. It is not necessary for one to describe the generally admitted horrifying state of degradation this poverty has brought upon the African people or to refer in any detail to the tragic social consequences such as disease, malnutrition, bad housing, broken families and delinquency among children and youth.

The denial to the African people of the democratic channels of expression and participation in the government of the country has accentuated the stresses and strains to which they are subject. My people have come to view with alarm every new session of Parliament because it has meant the passing of more oppressive discriminatory legislation there. As a result of this annual influx of new legislation there are already in the Statute Books of the Union of South Africa a large number of laws which cause my people tremendous hardship and suffering. The African people view these laws as further weapons of attack on their very existence as a people. For the sake of brevity I shall refer to only a few of such laws in support of my charge. Here are the categories of some of such laws. I cite:

THE LAND LAWS which to all intents and purposes deny the African people the right to own land in both the rural and urban areas. In rural areas Africans are tenants in State rural reserves or in privately-owned land. In urban areas they are tenants in municipal lands.

The land allocated to Africans in rural areas is most inadequate. It will only be 13% of the entire land surface of the Union when all the land promised them in the Native' s Land and Trust Act of 1936 shall have been acquired. On account of this inadequacy of land the African people live under extremely congested conditions in rural areas and in the urban areas and find it difficult to make a living above subsistence level from the land. These land laws are in many respects reminiscent of the worst features of the feudal laws of medieval days.

THE PASS LAWS, which not only deny the African people freedom of movement, but are enforced in ways that cause the people much unnecessary suffering and humiliation.

They are definitely an affront to human personality and it is not surprising that their extension to our womenfolk has resulted in Union-wide protests and in the expression of deep indignation by the entire African population. These protests and demonstrations are indicative of a state of unrest and intense tension among the African people.

Section 10 of the Natives (Urban Areas) Consolidation Act of 1945, as substituted by Section 27 of Act 54 of1952, places serious and far-reaching restrictions on the right of my people to enter into and remain within an urban area in order to compel them to seek employment on European farms where working conditions are extremely shocking. Acting under this provision local authorities and members of the police force have forcibly re- moved from their homes and families thousands upon thousands of my people in the interest of the European farming industry.

THE MASTER AND SERVANTS ACT, which is designed effectively to limit to unskilled categories the participation of the African people in industry and commerce. This relegates the bulk of African workers to low uneconomic wages. My people note with grave concern the efforts of your Government to destroy the African Trade Union Movement.

The current session of Parliament affords the country no respite from Apartheid legislation. It has before it a large number of measures of far-reaching consequences for the country in general, and the African j f people in particular. There is the Native Laws Amendment Bill, which is seen by the African people as another measure attacking the civil and religious liberties of the people and aimed at preventing contact on a basis of human dignity and equality between the African people and the rest of our multi-racial population.

The African people are similarly disturbed by other measures now before Parliament such as the bill on Apartheid in University Education, the Apartheid Nursing Bill, the measure to increase indirect taxation of the African people despite their poverty, and a bill intended to prevent the operation of alternative bus services where the boycott weapon has been effectively used by a people who have no other means of seeking redress against an economic injustice.

We are greatly concerned at the policy of Apartheid and the administrative action flowing from it because we honestly believe that these are against the true interest of democracy and freedom. I would like to point out here that the enforcement of the discriminatory apartheid laws brings the African people into unnecessary contact with the police. Unfortunately, the impatient and domineering manner in which the police often do their work among Africans results in unfortunate clashes between the people and the police. The net result is that Africans tend to lose respect for the law and come to look upon the Union of South Africa as a Police State.

What does my Congress stand for?

My Congress is deeply wedded to the ideals of democracy and has at all times emphasised its firm and unshakeable belief in the need for the creation of a society in South Africa based on the upholding of democratic values: values which are today cherished the world over by all civilised peoples.

We believe in a society in which the White and non-white peoples of the Union will work and live in harmony for the common good of our fatherland and share equally in the good things of life which our country offers in abundance.

We believe in the brotherhood of man and in the upholding of human respect and dignity. Never has my Congress preached hatred against any racial group in the Union. On the contrary, it has stretched out its hand of friendship to all South Africans of all races, emphasising that there is sufficient room for all in this beautiful country of ours in which we can and must live in peace and friendship. Unfortunately, there are people, among them Ministers of the Crown - Mr. Louw, Mr. Schoeman, Dr. Verwoerd, to mention some - who, according to Press reports, believe that the aims and objects of the African National Congress are to drive the White man out of Southern Africa and set up a 'Native State'. These people charge that the African National Congress is highly subversive and fosters a communistic- tainted African Nationalism or a rabid tyrannical and narrow African Nationalism and intends, in either case, to deprive the White minority in South Africa of their share in the Government of the country.

This is not - and never has been - the policy of my Congress. On the contrary, Congress believes in a common society and holds that citizens of a country, regardless of their race or colour, have the right to full participation in the government and in the control of their future. Anyone who has taken the slightest trouble to study the policy of my Congress and followed its activities should know how baseless and unfounded these fears about Congress are.

Why do we believe in a common society?

Firstly, we believe in a common society because we honestly hold that anything to the contrary unduly works against normal human behaviour, for the gregarious nature of man enables him to flourish to his best in association with others who cherish lofty ideals. 'Not for good or for worse', but for 'good and better things' the African has accepted the higher moral and spiritual values inherent in the fundamental concepts of what, for lack of better terminology, is called 'Western Civilisation'. Apartheid, so far, has revealed itself as an attempt by White South Africa to shunt the African off the tried civilised road by getting him to glorify unduly his tribal past.

Secondly, we believe that the close spiritual and normal contact facilitated by a common society structure in one nation makes it easier to develop friendship and mutual respect and understanding among various groups in a nation; this is especially valuable in a multi-racial nation like ours and these qualities - friendship, mutual respect and understanding, and a common loyalty - are a sine qua non to the building of a truly united nation from a heterogeneous society. In our view, it will not be easy to develop a common loyalty to South Africa when its people by law are kept strictly apart spiritually and socially. Such a state of affairs is likely to give rise to unjustified fears and suspicions which often lead to deadly hatreds among the people and, more often than not, end in industrious antagonism within the nation.

Lastly, we hold the view that the concept of a common society conforms more than does apartheid to the early traditional closer Black-White contact. This undoubtedly, accounts for the relatively rapid way in which Africans, from the days of these early contacts, to their advantage and that of South Africa as a whole, took to and absorbed fairly rapidly Christian teachings and the education that accompanied it.

Strongly holding as we do the views I have just stated, you will appreciate, Sir, with that heartfelt concern, alarm and disappointment we learnt recently from Press reports that the Government intends banning the African National Congress and arresting 2 000 more of its members. I humbly submit that such an action would serve to increase the dangerous gulf that exists between the Government and the African people and, in particular, those African leaders who have knowledge of social and economic forces at work in the modern South Africa of today and the world in general. No loyal South African, White or non-white, should view with equanimity such a situation. It is this loyalty and deep concern for the welfare of the Union that makes me say most emphatically that your Government has no justification whatsoever in banning the African National Congress and making further arrests of its members. I would support my plea by emphasis with all the strength at my command that such actions would be against the true interests of South Africa.

I make no undue claim when I say that my Congress represents the true and fundamental aspirations and views of practically all the African people in the Union, and these aspirations and views are not alien to the best interests of our common country. Rather, it will be found that they conform to the United Nations Charter and the international Declaration of Human Rights.

If it should appear that my Congress pleads strongly and uncompromisingly for the advancement of the African people only, it would not be because it is actuated by a partisan spirit, but rather because the African people are at the lowest rung of the ladder. I am sure that with the same zeal, vigour and devotion it would espouse - and in fact does espouse - the upliftment of other under-privileged peoples regardless of their colour or race.

My people crave for an opportunity to work for a great United South Africa in which they can develop their personalities and capabilities to the fullest with the rest of the country's population in the interest of the country as a whole. No country can prosper when antagonisms divide its people and when, as we Africans see it, Government policy is directly opposed to the legitimate wishes and interests of a great majority of the population.

I might here point out that the African National Congress has always sought to achieve its objectives by using non-violent methods. In its most militant activities it has never used nor attempted to use physical force. It has used non-violent means and ways recognised as legitimate in the civilised world, especially in the case of a people, such as we are, who find themselves denied all effective constitutional means of voicing themselves in the sovereign forum of the country.

I would, for emphasis, reiterate that it is our ardent desire in Congress to see human conduct and relations motivated by an over-riding passion for peace and friendshipinSouth Africa and in the would in general and so we would as strongly be opposed to Black domination, or any other kind of domination from whatever source, as we are uncompromisingly opposed to White domination. We regard domination, exploitation and racialism as arch enemies of mankind.

What should be the Government's reply to the views and aspirations of my organisation which I have tried faithfully to present?

In my opinion, the only real answer the Government could give to the stand of my Congress and its inevitable agitation, is for it to make an earnest effort to meet the progressive aspirations of the African people and not to attempt to silence Congress and its leadership by bannings and arrests, for it is the African National Congress and its leadership that is the authentic and responsible voice of the people.

Rather than outlaw the African National Congress or persecute its members and supporters, the Government, in a statesmanlike manner, should reconsider its 'Native policy' with a view to bringing it in conformity with democratic and moral values inherent in any way of life meriting to be described as civilised.

It is the considered view of my Congress that the lack of effective contact and responsible consultation between the Government and the non- European people is at the root of the growing deterioration in race relations and in the relation between the African people and the Government.

Unless healthy contact and purposeful consultation take place at the highest level between the Government and the accredited leaders of the people, misunderstanding and strained relations must grow.

Persistently to ignore the legitimate wishes and interests of the African people and permanently to close the door to consultation with representative organisations enjoying the loyalty of the people, is not the path of statesmanship and can lead only to even more dangerous tensions and chaos in the country.

The Government should earnestly address itself to seeking means and ways of establishing some permanent democratic machinery to enable all citizens to participate intelligently and effectively in the government of the country as is done in all truly democratic states. The existing forms of consultation, such as do exist, are, in my opinion, not only inadequate, but undemocratic: the quarterly meetings of African chiefs, the Bantu Authorities (where these exist) and the Advisory Boards in urban areas; even the so-called Native Representatives in the Senate and in the House of Assembly can be no substitute for truly democratic representation and consultation.

My Congress is convinced that it is today urgently necessary for the Government to devise new ways to meet the challenging problems before South Africa. It is eminently in the interest of the country as a whole that this present impasse be broken and the danger to future tensions recognised and averted before it is too late.

It should not be beyond the capacity of statesmen in South Africa - and I would not like to believe that South Africa is bankrupt of statesmanship - to take faith in steps which could inaugurate a new era in interracial co-operation and harmony in our country.

As I have stressed directly and indirectly throughout this letter, no time should be lost in making contact with the leadership of organisations and bodies, among them the African National Congress, representative of organised African opinion, with a view not only to discuss the problems and issues such as I have drawn attention to in this letter, but to consider the advisability and possibility of calling a multi-racial convention to seek a solution to our pressing national problems.

In the name of the African National Congress, I am happy to make this approach to you in the hope that our country's future and i happiness will triumph over established conventions, procedures and party considerations.

I need hardly to mention that in the event of your Government not acceding to this request, my organisation must continue to fight for the rights of my people.

I am,

Honourable Sir,

Yours respectfully,

A.J. Luthuli



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