Preacher, teacher, writer

2009-01-07 00:00

John Langalibalele Dube, a founding member of the African National Congress and its first president, was also the author of the first novel to have been written in the Zulu language, 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, first published in 1951, has now been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic.

Dube was born in 1871, the son of an American-Zulu mission pastor, James Dube. He was christened John Dube, with the middle name Langalibalele meaning “bright sun”.

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. In 1886, Dube’s mother, Elizabeth, asked the American missionary Reverend William Wilcox to take her son to the United States to be educated and Wilcox agreed. In 1887, the young 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 Ndima.

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 raised money for an industrial school based on the Tuskegee model of Booker T. Washington. In 1901, he obtained 81 hectares of land in the Inanda district and opened the Ohlange School.

In 1903, Dube founded the newspaper Ilanga lase Natal (the Sun of Natal) which he ran until 1934. His journalism established his political reputation and in 1912 he became a founding member and the first president of the South African National Congress (SANNC), which later became the ANC. In June 1914, he led the party’s first deputation to London to protest the recent Land Act (with Sol T. Plaatje as secretary).

In the April prior to this trip, Dube met the novelist Henry Rider Haggard in Durban. Haggard is best known as the author of King Solomon’s Mines, Allan Quatermain and She written in the 1880s, but by 1914 he was recognised as an agricultural authority and it was for his expertise in this area that he was appointed to the Dominions Royal Commission tasked with visiting the dominions of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Newfoundland and South Africa to investigate how they could assist Britain, then up against tough economic competition from Germany and the U.S.

While he was in Durban, Haggard made a point of seeing Dube and their meeting is detailed in Haggard’s Diary of an African Journey. Haggard initially recorded the interview in his rough notebook, reading it back to Dube who “declared it to be correctly set down”.

Haggard noted that “[Dube] impressed me most favourably” and, after Dube had detailed his objections to the Land Act, observed that “the case which he presented seems to me one hard to answer”.

“There is no doubt this new Land Act inflicts great hardships ... and if an effort were made to enforce it everywhere I do not know what would happen.”

However, Haggard thought Dube’s petition to the British king had little hope of success. Pondering South Africa’s future, Haggard added prophetically that the majority African population could not “be permanently neglected (or is oppressed the word?) by one million-and-a-quarter whites. Compressed steam will escape somehow and somewhere.”

If Haggard was impressed by Dube it is unfortunately not known what Dube thought of Haggard. Although Dube frequently wrote about his meetings with famous people in Ilanga, this was one meeting that he does not appear to have recorded. But Haggard was clearly in Dube’s mind when he wrote Jeqe. At the time Dube was also involved in F. L. Ntuli’s translation into Zulu of Haggard’s novel, Nada the Lily (published as Umbuso kaShaka, also in 1930), for which Dube wrote the preface.

Nada the Lily is also set in the time of Shaka, who is portrayed by Haggard 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 as a man given to excessive behaviour. “Merciless and indifferent to human suffering”, he forces Jeqe to take part in a number of atrocities.

Jeqe, who was 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. He subsequently enjoys a series of adventures and becomes a great healer and doctor to the Swazi King Sobhuza.

The English version of Jeqe was translated after Dube’s death by J. Boxwell, a family friend and professor of the Zulu language.

Although Jeqe, the Body-servant of King Shaka was Dube’s only venture into creative writing, he was also the author of several biographies and topical pamphlets. The new Penguin edition reprints Dube’s address given at the Seventh General Missionary Conference of South Africa in 1928.

Back in 1917, Dube had been ousted from the presidency of the ANC and returned to Ohlange. Over the years, he was involved in a number of attempts 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 the honorary degree of doctor of philosophy by the University of South Africa. A year later, Dube 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 and they had three sons and three daughters.

Dube died in Durban in 1946 and was buried in the cemetery alongside the chapel of the school he had established close to half a century before.

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