Lutuli Wins the Nobel Peace Prize Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A leader of the nonviolent struggle against the systematic oppression of nonwhites in South Africa, Zulu chief Albert Lutuli received world recognition with the Nobel Peace Prize.

Summary of Event

On December 10, 1961, on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prizes for 1960 and 1961. The 1960 award, which had been postponed the previous year, was given to Albert Lutuli, Zulu chieftain and leader of the nonviolent struggle against the policy of racial separation, or apartheid, in South Africa. Nobel Peace Prize;Albert Lutuli[Lutuli] Apartheid Racial and ethnic discrimination;South African apartheid South Africa;apartheid Human rights;South Africa [kw]Lutuli Wins the Nobel Peace Prize (Dec. 10, 1961) [kw]Nobel Peace Prize, Lutuli Wins the (Dec. 10, 1961) [kw]Peace Prize, Lutuli Wins the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1961) [kw]Prize, Lutuli Wins the Nobel Peace (Dec. 10, 1961) Nobel Peace Prize;Albert Lutuli[Lutuli] Apartheid Racial and ethnic discrimination;South African apartheid South Africa;apartheid Human rights;South Africa [g]Africa;Dec. 10, 1961: Lutuli Wins the Nobel Peace Prize[07120] [g]South Africa;Dec. 10, 1961: Lutuli Wins the Nobel Peace Prize[07120] [g]Norway;Dec. 10, 1961: Lutuli Wins the Nobel Peace Prize[07120] [c]Human rights;Dec. 10, 1961: Lutuli Wins the Nobel Peace Prize[07120] [c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 10, 1961: Lutuli Wins the Nobel Peace Prize[07120] Lutuli, Albert Mandela, Nelson Tambo, Oliver Jahn, Gunnar

Lutuli was born around 1898, descended from a line of Zulu chiefs including his grandfather Ntaba and his uncle John. Educated at a missionary school near Pietermaritzburg, Lutuli was graduated from Adams Mission Station College in 1921 and remained there teaching Zulu history and literature and leading the college choir. In 1927, he married a fellow teacher, Nokukhanya Bhengu. A devout Christian, he was active in church organizations, held offices in the Durban and District African Football Associations, and in 1933 became president of the African Association of Teachers.

In 1936, after fifteen years of teaching, Lutuli was chosen chief of a Zulu community in Groutville. His duties included civil administration, adjudication, and presiding over tribal ceremonies; as leader, he sought to preserve Zulu culture, promote Christian values, and improve social and labor conditions. He attended the International Missionary Conference in Madras, India, and toured the United States lecturing on missions, through the North American Missionary Conference.

Power in South Africa was concentrated among the white descendents of European settlers. Blacks, descended from African natives, formed the national majority; descendants of Asian immigrants, especially Indians, and Afrikaners of mixed European and African blood were systematically deprived of rights. In 1936, Afrikaner men were disenfranchised in Cape Province, the only province that allowed them the vote, and in 1948 the government instituted an official policy of apartheid, regulating and limiting the rights and movements of nonwhite populations.

In 1944, in response to growing inequities, Lutuli joined the African National Congress African National Congress, South African (ANC), an organization founded in 1912 to work for Africans’ civil rights. In 1951, he was elected president of the ANC’s Natal division. The government ordered Lutuli to choose between his ANC position and his tribal leadership, but Lutuli balked at the ultimatum. The government, as final authority over the Zulus, deposed him as chief. Lutuli’s firm stand earned for him respect among the ANC membership and Africans in general.

Meanwhile, a joint planning congress of African, Indian, and Afrikaner groups led to the Day of Defiance Day of Defiance (1952) , June 26, 1952, which began a campaign of civil disobedience Civil disobedience based on the techniques employed by Mahatma Gandhi in the quest for Indian independence. People throughout the country ignored unjust, restrictive laws; the government responded with violence, arrests, and the Criminal Law Amendment Act Criminal Law Amendment Act, South African (1952) , allowing for the lashing of protesters. When ANC president-general J. S. Moroka Moroka, J. S. dissociated himself from nineteen codefendants in court, Lutuli was elected the organization’s national leader.

Lutuli provided a balance between extremists supporting a militant, purely African agenda, and conservatives seeking cooperation with other groups and the government. He served as president of the ANC from 1952 until his death in 1967, working with such key figures as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu Sisulu, Walter , and Z. K. Matthews Matthews, Z. K. . Mandela, Tambo, and Sisulu had founded the ANC Youth League in the early 1940’s. Mandela, himself restricted to Johannesburg, was Lutuli’s deputy and ANC Transvaal president. Sisulu and Tambo succeeded Mandela as deputies, and Tambo eventually became acting ANC president in exile and Lutuli’s official successor. These men formed the core of the ANC.

As a result of his involvement in the Defiance Campaign, Lutuli was banned from political activities for one year. Nevertheless, he strove to continue the nonviolent struggle, which included creative implementation of the 1949 Programme of Action and a greater effort to involve masses of South Africans. He declared June 26, 1953, a day to light candles as symbols of freedom and to recount to the nation’s children the history of the struggle. In July of 1954 he was banned for two more years, restricted to the Lower Tugela magisterial district in Natal. There he presided over a joint meeting of the ANC, the South African Indian Congress, the Colored People’s Organization, and the Congress of Democrats, where a plan was drafted to poll the populace and create a “Freedom Charter” expressing its beliefs and demands.

This meeting led to the historic Congress of the People Congress of the People, South African (1955) in Kliptown, near Johannesburg, in June, 1955, where more than twenty-eight hundred delegates established the Congress Alliance and adopted the Freedom Charter Freedom Charter (1955) . Lutuli, still banned, was not present to witness the event or accept the Isitwalandwe Seaperankoe, the highest ANC honor. After the congress, he hosted an executive committee meeting to mediate between the “Africanists,” who opposed the Freedom Charter and demanded black exclusiveness in creating a black-dominated South African state, and the “Charterists.”

The government used the 1950 Suppression of Communism Act Suppression of Communism Act, South African (1950) to suppress not only communists but any agitators. In December, 1956, its Operation T Operation T brought simultaneous arrests of 156 alleged conspirators nationwide, including Lutuli, Tambo, Sisulu, Mandela, Matthews, and other ANC and Communist Party leaders. They were all brought to Johannesburg and charged with treason on the grounds that the Freedom Charter was a subversive document. The arrests, while deactivating the leadership, ironically brought it together as never before. Seated alphabetically, Lutuli became close with Communist leader Moses Kotane Kotane, Moses . Lutuli was detained for a year and then released with sixty others in December, 1957. In late 1958, charges were dropped against another sixty-four, leaving thirty-one defendants to come to trial. Although he was banned again in 1959, Lutuli spent much time in Pretoria at the treason trial, testifying to the nonviolent foundations of the ANC. The trial dragged on through March, 1961, with Mandela eventually leading the defense. In the end, all defendants were acquitted.

Meanwhile, well-publicized incidents in Zeerust, Sekhukhuneland, Cato Manor, and Pondoland from 1957 to 1960 over the imposition of Bantu authorities, pass regulations, and cattle culling invoked increasingly repressive measures from the government and increased anger among the repressed. Lutuli was elected to his third term as ANC president in 1958 and oversaw a constitutional revision aimed at rejecting the movement’s growing racialism, which sought to exclude non-Africans and favored rule explicitly by black majority. Lutuli opposed all racial, sexual, and religious discrimination, but dissent within the ANC led to the formation of the Pan-Africanist Congress Pan-Africanist Congress[PanAfricanist Congress] Nationalism;Africa Pan-Africanism[PanAfricanism] (PAC), with exclusionary and afrocentric goals, under the leadership of Robert Sobukwe Sobukwe, Robert . Lutuli steadfastly maintained his belief in nonviolence, but a growing voice of frustration called for armed resistance.

A turning point came in March, 1960, when a mass demonstration against pass regulations at Sharpeville led to a police assault. Sixty-nine people were killed, 180 were wounded, and more than eleven thousand were arrested. The government declared a state of emergency. Lutuli publicly burned his pass in solidarity with the victims and proclaimed a national day of mourning, prayer, and noncompliance. Both the ANC and the PAC were outlawed. Lutuli called for a national convention to determine the will of the people and helped set up a consultative conference of activist leaders. In May, 1961, a convention in Maritzburg of more than fourteen hundred people, many of whom had traveled for days and slept in fields, elected a National Action Council to organize mass demonstrations and strikes and demanded that the government call a national convention. A May, 1961, stay-home campaign was a test of the banned ANC against the government.

It was in this atmosphere of growing militancy, which Lutuli both approved of and feared, that news came to him in Groutville that he had won the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize. The South African government decried the award; then, under international pressure, it granted Lutuli a passport to travel for ten days only, to Norway only, to receive it. Garbed in full tribal attire, he accepted the prize from Gunnar Jahn, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. In his Nobel lecture, he spoke on the emergence of Africa and concluded, bringing his wife on stage, with a Zulu national song. Ironically, on December 16, 1961, days after Lutuli was honored for his commitment to nonviolent resistance, Umkonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation Spear of the Nation ), a newly formed armed wing of the ANC, triggered its first series of sabotage explosions in three cities, marking the initiation of armed struggle.


The award of the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize had effects on Lutuli personally, on the development of the Peace Prize, and on the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Lutuli’s life, on the surface, did not change, for he remained under bans, limited to the Groutville mission, farming, reading, writing, walking, and spending time with friends and family. He maintained what contact he could with his compatriots in the struggle. Tambo had left the country surreptitiously in March, 1961, and led the ANC’s External Mission, and Mandela traveled through Africa as Lutuli’s representative, seeking the support of African leaders, until his capture and imprisonment by South African authorities in 1964.

It was the Peace Prize that gave Lutuli recognition around the world and brought him respect and congratulations from South Africans of all colors. Robert F. Kennedy Kennedy, Robert F. [p]Kennedy, Robert F.;diplomacy , attorney general of the United States, arrived by helicopter on the sands of Groutville to meet with the Nobel laureate. In the year following the Peace Prize, Lutuli was nominated to be president of the South African Coloured People’s Congress and elected honorary president of the National Union of South African Students and rector of Glasgow University. His autobiography, Let My People Go, Let My People Go (Lutuli) written in 1960 and 1961 and published in 1962, further spread his fame and philosophy.

His award marked a new period in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize. Only once before had the honor been given to a non-European or North American—the 1936 prize to Carlos Saavedra Lamas of Argentina—and never before had a non-Westerner, an African or Asian, been recognized. After Lutuli, awards were given to individuals from Vietnam, Japan, the Soviet Union, Israel, Egypt, India, Mexico, Poland, South Africa, Costa Rica, Tibet, and Burma (Myanmar).

Equally important, through recognition of Lutuli, the Norwegian Nobel Committee broadened the concept of peace, previously viewed more in terms of government leaders, disarmament, and the prevention of war, to include struggles over basic human rights, struggles that are often more specific and localized in scope. Lutuli’s award set the precedent for recognition of others whose work lay in efforts to guarantee equality, respect, and compassion as fundamental conditions for world peace. Later recipients in this tradition included Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964), Seán MacBride (1974), Andrei Sakharov (1975), Amnesty International (1977), Mother Teresa (1979), Adolfo Pérez Esquivel (1980), Lech Wałęsa (1983), Bishop Desmond Tutu (1984), Elie Wiesel (1986), Aung San Suu Kyi (1991), Nelson Mandela (1993), and Wangari Maathai (2004), among others.

Finally, though Lutuli’s contribution to the struggle against apartheid cannot be quantified, it is immeasurable. It is true that eventually Lutuli’s comrades and successors in the ANC and the PAC chose to abandon the insistently nonviolent path that he forged, yet it was his leadership in the 1950’s that tested the limits of that approach against the resilience of South Africa’s white minority. Lutuli’s work helped push the government to increasingly repressive measures, bringing the crime of apartheid to the attention of the international community and invoking the approbation of other governments, the United Nations, and antiapartheid movements among the people of many nations. Lutuli knew that the struggle would be difficult and would likely outlast him. Through the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s, it continued, under Tambo’s leadership and spurred by the image of Mandela in prison. As the century entered its last decade, the changes that Lutuli had envisioned began to materialize, with the emancipation of Mandela, the gradual dismantling of apartheid, and the achievement of black majority rule. Nobel Peace Prize;Albert Lutuli[Lutuli] Apartheid Racial and ethnic discrimination;South African apartheid South Africa;apartheid Human rights;South Africa

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abrams, Irwin. The Nobel Peace Prize and the Laureates: An Illustrated Biographical History, 1901-1987. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. Abrams gives a detailed discussion of the conception of the prize, the selection process, the award ceremony, and the Nobel Committee. He examines the laureates one by one, with a general discussion combining personal and professional information, facts, and anecdotes. Appended charts break down the laureates by decade, type of achievement, gender, and age.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foster, Don, Dennis Davis, and Diane Sandler. Detention and Torture in South Africa. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. This densely researched volume examines the historical, legal, and psychological aspects of repression in South Africa through statistical analysis and case studies. Specific in focus, it provides a clear understanding of the institutionalized structures and processes that Lutuli spent his life fighting.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frederikse, Julie. The Unbreakable Thread: Non-racialism in South Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Frederikse interviewed hundreds of people from the struggle against racialism for this book, which traces the nonracialist tradition and movement from the seventeenth century to the 1980’s. Full of quotes, excerpts, photos, and illustrations. It has the feel of a documentary film.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kuper, Leo. An African Bourgeoisie: Race, Class, and Politics in South Africa. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965. Kuper, a member of South Africa’s Liberal Party, provides a thoughtful profile of the nation’s African elite in terms of occupation, organization, class structure, and political activity. Necessarily and effectively woven into the study are events and developments from the antiapartheid movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luthuli, Albert John. Let My People Go. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962. Written before his Nobel Peace Prize. Lutuli chronicles his own personal and political struggles through the 1950’s. This autobiography reveals Lutuli’s wisdom, patience, and passion for nonviolence. Appended are the Freedom Charter and two of Lutuli’s public statements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meer, Fatima. Higher than Hope: The Authorized Biography of Nelson Mandela. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. Meer, wife of a leader of South Africa’s Indian movement and a good friend of Lutuli and Mandela, narrates Mandela’s life story with an effective combination of personal recall, sensitivity, and journalistic historicity. Includes much information about Mandela’s personal life, some of his prison letters, a chronology, and a family tree, but no index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meli, Francis. South Africa Belongs to Us: A History of the ANC. Harare, Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1988. This compendium of facts, quotes, conversations, and other documentary material, written by the editor of the ANC journal, is an insider’s view of the ANC from its origin into the 1980’s. Rich with detail and extremely well documented, the book has ample appended material, including an exhaustive chronology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tambo, Oliver. Preparing for Power: Oliver Tambo Speaks. New York: George Braziller, 1988. The longtime ANC president gives, through speeches interwoven with historical narrative by his wife Adelaide, a resounding articulation of the concerns and attitudes of the ANC. Fascinating and passionate reading from Lutuli’s heir-in-exile.

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Categories: History