Dube’s only novel is a modern classic

2009-04-08 00:00

John Langalibalele Dube, a founding member of the African National Congress and its first president, was also author of the first isiZulu novel, U-Jeqe, Insila ka Tshaka. Published in 1930 it has never been out of print. An English translation, Jeqe, the Body-servant of King Shaka, originally published in 1951, has now been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic.

Jeqe is a short novel, a charming blend of adventure and magic informed by a nostalgia for a simpler, rural way of life. Hanging over the book is the influence of H. Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon’s Mines, She, and Allan Quatermain, but it is Haggard’s “all Zulu” novel Nada the Lily, like Dube’s set in the time of Shaka, that plays the major role. There can be little doubt Haggard was in Dube’s mind when he wrote Jeqe as at the time Dube was also involved with F. L. Ntuli in translating Nada the Lily into isiZulu (published as Umbuso kaShaka) and provided a preface.

While Haggard portrays Shaka as a heartless tyrant Dube’s version of the Zulu king is slightly more ambivalent. Shaka is acknowledged as being a good leader who created the Zulu nation but also a man given to excessive behaviour: “Merciless and indifferent to human suffering” he forces Jeqe to take part in a number of atrocities. Jeqe — initially appointed the king’s body-servant as a reward for bravery in battle — finds his own life at risk following Shaka’s assassination and flees

Zululand subsequently enjoying a series of adventures and becoming a great healer and doctor to the Swazi King Sobhuza.

Though Jeqe was Dube’s only venture into creative writing he was also the author of several biographies and topical pamphlets. This Penguin edition reprints Dube’s address given at the Seventh General Missionary Conference of South Africa in 1928.

Stephen Coan

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