Not quite your ordinary family reunion

2007-12-08 00:00

“Today we are here to celebrate a friendship between a white family and a black boy — a friendship that changed the course of South African history and that of the continent,” Professor Cherif Keita announced at the inaugural John Langalibalele Dube Memorial Lecture last week in Durban’s city hall.

“William and his wife Ida Belle Wilcox are two of the unsung prophets of South Africa’s multi-racial democracy,” said Keita. “They were the ones who opened the doors of American education to 16-year-old John Dube in 1887 and later mentored him and partnered with him in the fight against the 1913 Native Land Act.”

The lecture was really a reunion involving two families — the Dubes of KwaZulu-Natal and the Wilcoxes from California. The historic reunion was engineered by Keita, who chairs the Department of French and Francophone Studies at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota.

“I am the least likely person to be telling this story,” he says. “My training is in French and Afro-Caribbean literature and I’m from Mali — all very far from South Africa.”

Keita first visited South Africa in 1999. “I travelled with 18 students to hear stories from South Africans ... heart-rending stories and stories to celebrate.”

During the trip he met Zenzele Dube, grandson of J.L. Dube, who spoke of how his grandfather’s education in the United States had provided the impetus for his pioneering work as a clergyman, educator and a founder of the organisation that was to become the African National Congress.

“When I heard this I thought I had to get the story of Dube in the U.S.,” says Keita, “and bring it back to South Africa as a token of my gratitude for all the stories I heard in here.”

Thus began a project that has since seen Keita make an award-winning documentary film entitled Oberlin-Inanda: The Life and Times of John L. Dube.

After finishing the film Keita contacted Reverend Jackson Wilcox in Fresno, California. When they met last May, Wilcox heard for the first time of the work his grandparents had done in Natal.

“This was a closed book until Cherif opened it for me,” says Wilcox, who, like his grandfather, is a Christian minister. “I was eight years old when he died; his was the first funeral I went to. My grandfather came to this country to serve Christ and he took stands that were difficult — they disowned him.” Indeed, the Wilcoxes’ progressive attitudes brought them into conflict both with the church and the state.


William and Ida Belle Wilcox arrived in South Africa in November 1881 as missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and they settled in Inanda where they met the Dube family. John Dube’s grandmother, Dalitha, had been the first convert of the Lindley Mission Station in Inanda in the late 1840s while his father, Reverend James Dube who died in 1882, had been an ordained minister.

According to Keita, “James Dube’s widow, Elizabeth Shangase, asked Wilcox to take her son to America ‘so he can get an education only white boys get in America’. Wilcox knew of the Reverend Dube, his good reputation and that of his son. He obviously saw something in the boy and said ‘Yes’.”

In 1887, Dube accompanied Wilcox to the U.S. and attended Oberlin College, working at various jobs to support himself. When he returned to Natal he accepted a teaching post, and in 1894 married Nokutela. Along with his brother-in-law John Mdima, Dube established two churches and three preaching stations. After completing his theological training at Union Missionary Seminary in the U.S. he was ordained as a Congregational minister in 1897. During this time, he tried to raise money for an industrial school based on the Tuskegee model of Booker T. Washington. In 1901, Dube obtained 200 acres in the Inanda district and opened the Ohlange School.

In 1904 Dube founded the Zulu-English newspaper Ilanga lase Natal. His writing for the paper established his political reputation and in 1912 he became a founding member and first president of the South African National Congress, which later became the ANC.

Two years later Dube lead a deputation to London to protest the 1913 Native Land Act. Wilcox had also been actively opposing the act. In 1909, he founded the Zulu Industrial Improvement Company, the first shareholding company in South Africa’s history, between a couple of sympathetic whites and 300 blacks with the purpose of giving the Christian blacks, or Amakholwa, the economic power to withstand land appropriation by the colonial administration of Natal. To the annoyance of white farmers in the Estcourt area, Wilcox founded two communities, Cornfields and Tembalihle.

Financing such a venture was problematic and at one point, on Dube’s recommendation, Wilcox took a role as a missionary in a film about Zulu life to raise money. He also wrote the script, but was outraged to find when shooting began that they were expected to perform to a different script. Wilcox, according to his son Mark, refused to have anything to do with “a farcical and fantastic presentation of native character and custom ... He sent back the script with the caustic comment that they had better get Christy’s Minstrels to do it, as he could not train proud Zulus to act in such a travesty of their lives.”

Wilcox was given the Zulu name “Mbuyabatwa” after a plant which is known to grow under the most adverse conditions. “This was a testament to Wilcox’s resilience as a fighter and his determination to stick to his principles and goals even if they were unpopular with other whites,” says Keita.

They proved unpopular enough to see white farmers and the colonial administration drive the Zulu Industrial Improvement Company to bankruptcy and the Wilcoxes out of South Africa in 1919. They settled in California.

When news of Wilcox’s death reached Natal in 1928, Josiah Mapumulo, a radical intellectual, wrote this tribute in Ilanga: “The pastor used to be my teacher and he is the one who encouraged John Dube to go overseas with him. I was in the same class with John Dube who is now famous among our people ... (Wilcox) was a very courageous man who was not afraid to criticise other pastors if they were not acting in the interests of the people. That is why these days we need people like Rev. Wilcox, people who will stand up for the truth.”


In 1917, Dube was ousted from the presidency of the ANC and returned to Ohlange. Over the years, he was involved in a number of attempts aimed at improving conditions for blacks and fostering better relations between the different race groups. His work in education was acclaimed and in 1936 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of South Africa. A year later he was elected to the first Natives Representative Council, an advisory body to the government. In these later years, then a widower, he married Angelina Khumalo of Pretoria and they had three sons and three daughters. Dube died in Durban in 1946.

Zenzele Dube, speaking at the reunion, told of how he had been unable to access the story of his grandfather until now. “We can and should go to our elders for our history. But for me it was not possible due to apartheid. I knew my grandfather had founded the ANC; I knew he had founded the school I was attending. I could have spoken to my grandmother, Angelina Dube, about it all but I couldn’t, I was in exile.”

He was in exile from 1974 until 1991. “One day in 2000 I heard about Professor Keita’s intentions. I knew then that his passion for the history of my family would be life-changing. It has been good not only for our family, but for South Africa and for the United States.

“In Professor Keita we had found the missing link that could bring together all the pieces of my grandfather’s life as well as the reunion of these two families whose friendship changed the course of South African history.”

Value of Christianity

The Wilcoxes were in no doubt about the social and political implications of the Christian gospel they preached: “The Missionary cannot help giving the native an idea of his worth when he teaches the Gospel of Christ,” Wilcox wrote in 1890.

“There is nothing in the whole Bible to show the superiority in a white skin, or that a man born with kinky hair and a dark complexion is not just as good as any other man. When to this idea of worth, which means racial equality, is added an education which is above the simple requirements of religious belief, the man emerges, realising his worth and hating the white man who would kick him off the sidewalk.

As he and his kind become more enlightened, and as their numbers continue to increase more rapidly than the whites, they will not always submit to taxation without representation. They are not always going to be excluded from every place of honour and responsibility.”

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