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Author : Albert Luthuli

Letter from Albert Luthuli to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, U Thant

9 March 1964

P.O. Groutville,

Mr. U. Thant,Secretary-General,
United Nations Organisation

Dear Sir,

I address myself to you on an impending crisis in South Africa. The United Nations has, through the years, made valiant efforts to stave off disastrous race war in South Africa; to put pressures on the South African Government to give rights to the African and other non-White people of our country in accordance with the universally accepted principles of human dignity and justice. We are most deeply appreciative of the efforts made by the nations of the world, through your world organisation, to counter and defeat the forces or racialism.

You no doubt know that my organisation, the African National Congress, for close on half a century, and until it was declared unlawful, sought to achieve its objectives by strictly peaceful and non-violent methods, ranging from representations and protests made to the Government and its representatives in the early years, to mass demonstrations and defiance campaigns and strikes in the later years.

All these endeavours were to no avail. In fact, during the past half century oppression and racial discrimination have increased to such an extent that no one could at this juncture be morally blamed for resorting to violent methods in order to achieve racial equality and freedom from oppression.

I write to you most urgently today to stress that whatever hope there still remains for a negotiated and peaceful settlement of the South African crisis, will be lost, possibly for all time, if the United Nations does not act promptly and with firmness on the vital matter which has moved me to make this urgent appeal.

You will be aware that during this last year our movement has been subjected to relentless persecution. Our organisation has been harried without respite. Our members have been arrested in huge numbers in every corner of the country. If not held on serious political charges, they have been detained under the barbaric "90 Day" detention law under which men and women and youths have been confined indefinitely, in solitary confinement, and physically tortured in attempts to extort confessions and false evidence from them. In numerous trials that took place in various courts throughout the country, some were sentenced to death and others to long terms of imprisonment.

You will also be aware that the last months of the year saw the bringing to trial of nine of the country`s foremost liberation leaders, in the so-called Rivonia Trial in which the leaders are charged with allegedly plotting a war of liberation against the government. The nine include Nelson Mandela, who was arrested shortly after his return from a tour of independent African States in 1962, and who was taken from his prison cell, where he was serving a five-year prison sentence, for leading the 1961 general strike of the African people and leaving South Africa without a passport. Also on trial is Walter Sisulu, formerly Secretary-General of the African National Congress, who was arrested while working underground in the freedom struggle.

The Rivonia trial, it is estimated, will continue for perhaps a further four to six weeks from the time of writing. It could be completed earlier. There is the grave danger that all or some of the nine leaders on trial will receive the death sentence. Such an outcome would be an African tragedy. It would be judicial murder of some of the most outstanding leaders on the African continent. It would have disastrous results for any prospects of a peaceful settlement of the South African situation and could set in motion a chain of actions and counter-actions which would be tragic for everyone in South Africa as they would be difficult to contain.

I address myself to you with the utmost urgency to urge that you use your good offices to avert the tragic crisis threatening South Africa. It is of the utmost importance that the United Nations Expert Group on South Africa bring its work to a rapid conclusion and leave the way open for measures to be adopted to ensure that a fast worsening race situation here does not explode into open violence. It is above all imperative that United Nations action be devised to compel compliance with U.N. resolutions and in particular to save the lives of the nine Rivonia trial leaders; for with them are arraigned, in the dock, all hopes of a peaceful settlement of the crisis in our country.

Yours sincerely,
A.J. Lutuli