Lost and found: The forgotten heroine

2015-08-18 14:11

Sixty years before Miriam Makeba entered the hall of the UN to publicly denounce apartheid, a woman from Inanda had crisscrossed the east coast and Midwest regions of the US between 1896 and 1899, singing click songs that mesmerised audiences as part of her mission to raise funds for the creation of an independent, industrial education school for blacks, the first of its kind in South Africa. 

The woman, Nokutela Mdima, was one of the earliest graduates of the ground-breaking girls’ school Inanda Seminary and the wife of Reverend John Langalibalele Dube, the co-founder and first president of the ANC. 

The press in the US, not known in those days for its positive outlook on people of colour, said about her: “Nokutela is young, with blazing black eyes, smooth brown skin and handsome regular features. She speaks good English with a deliberation that is charming and in the softest voice in the world. Her manner is grace itself.” 

By founding the Ohlange Institute in 1900, John and Nokutela Dube opened the door of opportunities for children of all races in South Africa after the model of their hero, the African-American educationist Booker T Washington. 

His school, the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, had successfully trained newly freed African slaves in the manual trades, giving them a chance of economic survival in late 19th-century society. 

After leading a life of patriotic self-sacrifice, Nokutela Dube died in January 1917 at the age of 44. But in a cruel twist of irony, she remained forgotten in an unmarked grave in the dilapidated section reserved for black people at the Brixton Cemetery in Johannesburg until 2012. Finding her resting place and bringing her story to her people became my mission in 2009. 

Finding Nokutela was the culmination of a 13-year research project that started with my discovery, during a trip to South Africa in 1999, of the story of John Dube and its surprising connection to the 19th-century US and more unexpectedly to Northfield, Minnesota, the small college town where I live. 

After completing two documentary films – Oberlin-Inanda: The Life and Times of John L Dube and Cemetery Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa, which retold the story of Reverend William Cullen Wilcox, a man who rebelled against the missionary establishment to take young John Dube to the US for better educational opportunities in 1887 – uKukhumbula uNokutela/Remembering Nokutela came to me as a call from the grave, from a woman whose side of the story had been silenced not only by the colonial system under which she lived her short life, but by the patriarchal system, which was alive and well in the heart of a dedicated liberation and pro-democracy movement. 

Nokutela was erased from history because she was a woman who could not have a child. The story goes that John and Nokutela, who grew up together on the grounds of the American Zulu Mission in Inanda, were married in 1894 when John had returned on a long break from the US after completing his high school education in Oberlin, Ohio. 

Their love for each other was solidified by a burning desire to work together to bring light to their people through education. 

In 1896, this mission took them to the US. For the next three years, they studied and raised funds to build Inanda’s Ohlange Institute, a nursery for many artistic, business and political talents since 1900. 

John would make his speeches and Nokutela, who was a talented singer, autoharp and piano player, dazzled audiences with her rendition of Zulu songs, some of which were her own compositions. 

But after 20 years of marriage without offspring, John fathered a child out of wedlock (the child died shortly after birth), and Nokutela left heartbroken to live on her own in the then Eastern Transvaal. 

She died three years later and was buried in Johannesburg, where the couple owned a house in Sophiatown. Nokutela was forgotten. 

Buried with her in her grave identified only as CK (Christian Kaffir) 2973 was the memory of her great deeds for her people, like popularising Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the song that became South Africa’s national anthem. 

Collaboration with the diligent and dedicated staff of Johannesburg City Parks led us to her grave, which received a first plaque with her name in August 2012. 

As a culmination of this retrieval process, a beautiful headstone provided by the KwaZulu-Natal department of arts and culture, the premier’s office and the Gandhi Development Trust was unveiled on August 31 2013. 

Remembering Nokutela is the story of a four-year journey in search of a forgotten heroine of modern African womanhood and the last of a trilogy of films dealing with the intellectual origins of the ANC. 


In honour of Women’s Month, the public is encouraged to visit the grave of Nokutela Mdima Dube at the Brixton Cemetery in Johannesburg. Contact Ayanda Roji on 082 842 0449, or email ayandaroji@gmail.com

Catch a glimpse of uKukhumbula uNokutela/Remembering Nokutela 

The podcast of Professor Keita’s recent SAfm interview is available here

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