‘Remember to call at my grave’

2013-09-16 00:00

LAST Saturday, a tombstone was unveiled in Johannesburg Brixton’s Cemetery over the previously unmarked grave of Nokutela Dube, née Mdima, the first wife of John Langalibalele Dube, first president of the ANC, creator of the Ohlange Institute at Inanda, and founder of the newspaper Ilanga lase Natal.

That Nokutela was an important figure in her own right was made clear earlier in the preceding week when she was awarded a posthumous Mahatma Gandhi Satyagraha Award by the Gandhi Development Trust at a function held at Durban’s City Hall.

When the descendants of Nokutela Dube, went up on stage to accept her award, much mention was made of Chérif Keita and the key role he has played in bringing Nokutela Dube back into history, as well as finding her long-forgotten grave.

For well over a decade, Keita has been uncovering the history of the Dubes and, in what can only be called a labour of love, he has made two films to take his findings to a wider audience.

Keita, professor of French and Francophone African and Caribbean literatures at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, in the U.S., as well as an authority on the music of his native country, Mali, first visited South Africa in 1999. “I travelled with 18 students to hear stories from South Africans,” he told The Witness in a previous interview. “There were heart-rending stories, and stories to celebrate.”

Back in 1999, Keita also met Zenzele Dube, grandson of John Dube, who told Keita how his grandfather’s education in the U.S. had provided the impetus for his life when he returned to South Africa. “When I heard this I thought I had to get the story of Dube in the U.S.,” said Keita, “and bring it back to South Africa as a token of my gratitude for all the stories I heard while I was here.”

Thus began a project that saw Keita make the award-winning documentary film Oberlin-Inanda: The Life and Times of John L. Dube, which linked the story of Inanda to Dube’s education in the U.S. at Oberlin College in Ohio.

Keita followed up with another film, Cemetery Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa, detailing the previously untold story of the American missionary Reverend William Wilcox, under whose wing Dube first went to the U.S. Keita also organised the Wilcox descendants’ visit to South Africa in 2007 to meet the Dube family.

Keita now visits South Africa on an annual basis. “I feel like a local. I have even been given a Zulu name, Zwelethu [it means “our land”, but is used here in the sense that he belongs to the place]. I feel like a child of KwaZulu-Natal.”

During a visit to South Africa in 2011, Keita gave the John Langalibalele Dube Memorial Lecture at the Edgewood Campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, but spent the rest of his time following another Dube trail, that of Nokutela Mdima, who became Dube’s first wife.

“John Dube led me to the Wilcoxes and they led me back to Nokutela,” said Keita. “It’s as if she is crying out for my attention — that she has invited me to speak for her. I did what I did for John Dube and for the Wilcoxes, now it’s Nokutela’s turn.”

Keita describes the Wilcoxes as the American adoptive parents of John Dube and Nokutela Ndima. “They both grew up to together as mission children,” said Keita. “They were both moulded by William and Ida Wilcox. Nokutela was Ida’s pupil at Inanda from 1881 on.

“In 1882, at the age of about 13, Nokutela wrote an essay titled My Home, which Ida sent to the Rice County Journal in Northfield, Minnesota, the Wilcoxes home town,” he said.

“It was published as part of a regular series by Ida who wrote about her experiences as a missionary and she used Nokutela’s essay to demonstrate the dedication of Zulu students in learning English at Inanda.”

The Wilcoxes also provided a role model as a couple, according to Keita. “Ida went everywhere with her husband; they were always together. And together they were strong.”

In 1887, William Wilcox took Dube to the U.S. where he attended Oberlin College. When Dube returned to Natal he accepted a teaching post and, in 1894, married Nokutela Mdima. The couple subsequently made several visits to the U.S., mainly to raise funds to realise their joint vision of an independent school for Africans.

“It was a great partnership that generated so much in terms of fund raising,” said Keita. “And they were valued there as equals. The Los Angeles Times of February 13, 1898, featured Nokutela in its feature Women of note.

An American journalist described Nokutela as “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.”

“During the tour of the U.S. with John, she was the first black South African woman to use music to speak about her people, mesmerising audiences in the late 1890s singing click songs,” said Keita.

“Miriam Makeba was so excited in November 2001, when I told her about Nokutela, and proud to have been on a trail blazed by another young South African woman more than 50 years before her. ‘Alleluia,’ she said, ‘I come along 60 years later and do the same thing.’ Miriam felt she was part of a tradition.”

Nokutela was a talented musician. “She built up the musical culture that was so much part of Ohlange and with her husband, she produced A Zulu Song Book, published in 1911. In it there is A Prayer for the Children of Ohlange. It’s to the tune of Nkosi Sikelele Africa but with different words. It’s essentially a praise song of Dube.

“Ohlange was her creation along with John’s, and as such she was the first mother of the children of Ohlange.” But the powerful partnership of husband and wife was to come to an abrupt end. In 1914, as revealed in Heather Hughes 2011 biography, First President, Dube had a child by a female student at Ohlange. The child died shortly thereafter, making it easier to prevent the matter becoming public knowledge.

In an interview with The Witness, Hughes talked about the event, one more tragedy than scandal. “It came out of a long, long period of pain, almost mourning, that he and Nokutela couldn’t have children,” she said.

“In hindsight, we don’t have to moralise or be judgmental. We can explain and understand. It was the end of their marriage and the end of their joint venture.”

Nokutela was so distressed that she left Inanda and went to live on a farm in Wakkerstroom in the then Transvaal. “She left everything. It must have been so tragic for her,” said Keita. “The whole incident possibly led to the breakdown in her health.”

Dube also spent much of his time in Johannesburg, where the Dube’s had a house in Sophiatown. When he heard Nokutela was suffering from a kidney infection, Dube arranged for her to be taken to Sophiatown. But it was too late. Nokutela died on January 26, 1917, and was buried in the Brixton Cemetery, her grave recorded in the burial register as CK 2973. The CK standing for “Christian Kaffir”.

Three years later, in 1920, Dube married Angelina Khumalo. They had six children, four surviving to adulthood. Dube died in 1946.

The site of Nokutela’s grave was left unmarked and its location forgotten. Something Keita set out to remedy. During his 2011 visit, Keita went to Brixton Cemetery and, assisted by Alan Buff, the manager of Johannesburg’s Parks and Gardens, and Rufus Moleseng, the cemetery’s caretaker, he was able to locate Nokutela’s final resting place. Since then, an engraved marker stone has been placed on the grave and last weekend the final tombstone was unveiled. Attending the ceremony was the former KZN premier and now ANC national treasurer, Zweli Mkhize, Minister of Arts and Culture Paul Mashatile, and KZN MEC for Social Development Weziwe Thusi, as well as members of the Mdima and Dube families.

Those attending the unveiling were also shown a rough cut of a new documentary film by Keita, Ukukhumbula Nokutela (Remembering Nokutela), which was shown the previous weekend in Durban to guests and delegates at an ANC conference marking 100 years of the ANC Women’s League at Coastlands Hotel near the Durban beachfront. Speaking at this event, Keita quoted the poem Remember by Don Mattera, the first line of which reads: “Remember to call at my grave when freedom finally walks the land.”

Keita has done far more than remember to call at Nokutela’s grave, he has returned her to the national memory.

“My mission is to exhume her in a figurative sense,” said Keita. “Nokutela is crying for recognition. Biologically she may have been unable to produce children, but intellectually and spiritually she had many, many children at Ohlange, and thousands of intellectual heirs who went on to become pioneers in South Africa.”

• feature1@witness.co.za

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