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In the Shadow of Chief Albert Luthuli: Reflections of Goolam Suleman PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 06 June 2011 10:03

Written by Logan Naidoo (Luthuli Museum)

Review by Scott Couper, Inanda Seminary

Arguably, I was the first to read and comment upon an early draft of Logan Naidoo’s text In the Shadow of Chief Albert Luthuli: Reflections of Goolam Suleman (Luthuli Museum, 2010). Approximately ten years ago, I was pastor of the same church at which Luthuli preached and Suleman asked me to review his manuscript and provide advice for future publication. Therefore, after a long wait, and coinciding with the first substantive biography on Luthuli that I authored (Albert Luthuli: Bound by Faith, UKZN Press, 2010), no one is more pleased than I to see this complimentary text.

Naidoo and Barbara Wahlberg set out to publish a ‘social history’ that provides ‘reflections’, ‘recollections’, ‘memories’ and ‘oral testimony’ - and they do so admirably. This genre of history accompanies beautifully more formal profiles that are sourced primarily from the archive. What In the Shadow lacks sometimes in accuracy, it more than compensates for in intimacy. Narratives that can never be recounted from documentary evidence abound in Naidoo’s text. Any admirer of Luthuli or any aficionado of South African history will fully appreciate the treasure trove of stories told by Goolam through his amanuensis.

The text is self-deprecating in the extreme, for it does not bluntly claim what it possibly should: Without E.V. Mahomed and Suleman as Luthuli’s drivers, accountants, secretaries and confidants, the ANC would have ceased to function effectively with him as its banned President-General. They were more than aide de camps. In the Shadow reveals that these members of the Liberal Party and the Natal Indian Congress were indispensible to the African National Congress’ (ANC) continued utilization of Luthuli’s leadership for as long as it did! Perhaps, given the controversies related to Jacob Zuma’s relationships with Schabir Shaik and the Guptas, their contribution will continue to remain downplayed.

In the Shadow contains many anecdotes about Luthuli that are refreshingly welcome against less personal and archival based profiles; most are priceless cloak and dagger narratives that are all the more astounding given the pedestrian reputation of most of the participants. All the following make for exquisite reading: How an American sympathiser stealthily sent correspondence to Luthuli through an ‘undercover’ postbox, Luthuli’s seditious address to the Natal Indian Teachers’ Society, the names of and close calls with local Special Branch officers, Luthuli’s pacification of a zealot’s desire for retribution against a local shopkeeper’s refusal to honour the Potato Boycott, local ruffians who donated venues for secret meetings and the nerve wracking trip with Nelson Mandela from Stanger to Durban previous to his arrest in Howick.

The text obliquely glances off two controversial topics regarding Luthuli. Regarding the issue of violence, Suleman portrays Luthuli’s stance as ambiguous. This position is understandable when one takes into consideration that a social history will primarily reference the family or Suleman who, as the book rightly points out, were “not privy to important strategic information” due to security concerns. However, Suleman is inaccurate in saying that Moses Kotane convinced Luthuli to accept the formation of an armed wing. Luthuli chaired the meetings at which the ANC and others reluctantly yielded to a decision allowing Mandela to form an armed wing without disciplinary action being taken against him. Kotane likely had to explain to Luthuli the rationale for the launch of violence without the President-General’s knowledge on the eve of his return from accepting the Nobel Peace Prize and following months of his harping and pleading for strictly non-violent strategies to be employed.

Regarding Luthuli's death, first, confusingly Suleman indicates that Luthuli did not have any serious problems with his sight despite chronicling just two pages earlier an operation for a blind eye (possibly requiring removal) at McCord Hospital two months before his death. Second, Luthuli died at about 14:25hrs and an autopsy occurred at 16:00hrs. No archival evidence of which I am aware substantiates Suleman’s assertion that the “post-mortem was conducted hurriedly”. Third, a half dozen times throughout the text, Suleman references Luthuli’s poor health. Yet the possibility of a stroke, from which Luthuli had previously suffered and almost died, is not mentioned as a possible or most likely source of disorientation that would predispose him to being struck by a oncoming train (not “from behind”).

For a second printing, I suggest a translated English text of Yengwa’s praise poem alongside the original in isiZulu. Also, the dimmed photo on the rear cover is wonderful and perhaps should be included clearly with the text’s other images.

Reading Reflections enriched me. Suleman, Naidoo, Wahlberg and the Luthuli Museum deserve high accolades for producing against great odds an invaluable contribution to South African historiography. Naidoo published In the Shadow too late to assist in the writing of “a long-overdue biography” that is Bound by Faith; nonetheless they enlighten one another beautifully. Let us all hope that both these texts can be acquired side by side at the Luthuli Museum and in bookstores. Both enhance one another in a manner that honours the memory of Albert Luthuli and the democratic country for which he fought so hard and sacrificed.