Returned to memory

2011-07-18 00:00

ON April 27, 1994, the then president of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela, descended on the Ohlange Institute, a school founded by John Langalibalele Mafukuzela Dube, a Congregational Church minister, a politician, and, most importantly (for Mandela), the first president-general of the ANC when it was established in 1912. At the age of 72, Mandela had come to cast his first vote for the election of a democratic government in South Africa. He went straight to Dube’s chapel and cast his vote. From there he slowly went in a pensive mood straight to Dube’s grave, which lies about 500 metres from the chapel. Mandela stood in front of the grave and uttered these words: “Mr President, I am here to report that today South Africa is free.”

The immediate question that comes to mind is, who was this president Mandela was reporting to? What makes him so important that Mandela would leave Pretoria in the early hours of the morning during the most important day of South Africa’s history to cast his vote in a chapel, located in a more than a century-old school in the rural community of Inanda near Durban? For Mandela this was no ordinary day for South Africa, for it was the day of the first fully democratic elections. The chapel at Ohlange was no ordinary chapel for it had been built by Dube and from it for over 40 years Dube had preached the social gospel that spoke of the day of freedom that was to come to the people of South Africa, saying that one day there will be a movement for the African people: “Out of darkness, through to the glorious light”. (Ukuphuma ebumnyameni uyongena ekukhanyeni.)

Ohlange Institute itself, where the chapel was located, was no ordinary South African township school, for it was built by Dube himself, thus becoming the first school to be built and managed by Africans themselves at a time when conventional thinking did not believe that African people could develop and maintain institutions of their own. Dube was no ordinary ordained minister of the American Zulu Mission (AZM). He had walked the fine path bet­ween religion and politics, civilisation and African culture. This had led to his being a co-founder of first, the Natal Native Congress (NNC) and then of the ANC of which Mandela was now president and was the obvious winner of the elections, and would consequently become the first president of a democratic South Africa.

In the words of Langa Dube (Dube’s grandson): “President Mandela had come to connect with my grandfather’s spirit so that he could have the strength and wisdom needed to lead the country.” The environment was a scene of high religious concentration because graves of Africans are sacred spaces and so is the place of worship. The cumulative effect was that this was a ritual of a spiritual handover. We can say that at that moment Dube was handing over the legitimacy to run the country to Mandela. It was both a sacred time and sacred space.

History has taught us that the tragedy of life is that women tend to be dropped from memory no matter what their contribution is to society. Very few people actually know of John Dube’s first wife Nokutela Dube (née Mdima), who was his companion for over 24 years, before she died of severe pneumonia and kidney infection in 1917. John and Nokutela were married in January 1894 in Inanda after John’s unsuccessful attempt to get a qualification in the United States. Soon after their marriage, the couple embarked on a mission expedition in Incwadi where in the space of three years they managed to start two schools and two churches.

At the time, John had no qualifications, neither was he ordained, while Nokutela was already a qualified and experienced teacher. So it is not absurd to assume that the importance of a school would have been crystallised by Nokutela who was already a teacher in those early years. So as John went about facilitating the starting of the school and churches, she was teaching and developing the curriculum. In 1896, they decided to go to the U.S for John to get a theological qualification and for Nokutela to further her studies. They arrived in Brooklyn, New York, where they registered themselves at the Union Missionary Seminary. The couple toured different churches and community halls where John spoke about the need for education for his people in Natal, and Nokutela sang for the crowds. It is said that while John was a great orator Nokutela was a marvellous musician. Through these tours, they were able to pay for their upkeep and studies in the U.S. and also raised enough money for them to start a school once they got back.

In 1899, the Dubes came back to Inanda. John became the pastor of the Inanda congregation and Nokutela taught. Then they opened Ohlange Christian Industrial School, the main objective of which was to provide education for African children in a school that was free of control by both the government and the missionaries. This was a school by Africans, with Africans and for African people. John became principal and Nokutela headed the domestic and music departments.

African people are cast in music. It is in music that their politics is embedded. It is in music that their wisdom is stored. It is in music that their religion is expressed. It is in music that their whole being finds meaning and, of course, even at the eschato or final moments in life they are accompanied by music. If one considers this then Nokutela was a not a music teacher, she was a life orienteer. She influenced people who had influence. Perhaps even John learnt from this. In 1911, John and Nokutela published the first Zulu song book. In this its centenary year it deserves to be noted by all who love choral music. One of those who benefited from Nokutela’s musical skills is Reuben Caluza, who was a student and later a teacher at Ohlange and went on to become a legend of choral music not only in South Africa but internationally.

In 1903, John started Ilanga lase Natal which is still publishing today.

In 1912, John was elected the first president of the South African Native National Congress, which in 1923 became the ANC. In 1914, John led a delegation to England to protest against the Native Land Act of 1913. This delegation was not immediately successful. In fact, in the short term it was a dismal failure, but in retrospect we can see that it took the struggle of the African people to an international level in its own modest way.

John and Nokutela did not have children and this accounts for the stress in their marriage which led to a separation early in 1916. Nokutela moved out of their marital home at Inanda to stay at Wakkerstroom in the then Eastern Transvaal. John moved to Johannesburg to work as director of the Native Farmers’ Association of Africa limited. But he was still the principal of Ohlange and had a strong involvement with Ilanga.

Nokutela contracted a kidney infection and pneumonia. John arranged for medical help and for her to be brought to his Johannesburg house in Sophiatown. Unfortunately help came too late and on January 26, 1917, she died in the Sophiatown house. She was buried at Brixton Cemetery.

Soon after that, Doris Lessing’s words “Women often get dropped from memory and then history” came true. Indeed, Nokutela was dropped from memory and then in history because very little is remembered and said about her. For Nokutela it was worse because being barren and living in separation exposed her to a double stigma. This is unfortunate because it is a fact of history that without her work and support for John we would not have had the two schools she established at Incwadi, an ordained John, Ohlange, Ilanga and maybe even Caluza, the legend of choral music. Only three weeks ago, in a book written by Heather Hughes on John titled First President has Nokutela’s story begun to be told, but more work still has to be done to tell the stories of these two giants and pioneers of our liberation, John and Nokutela Dube.

Memorial lecture

ON August 25, the College of Humanities, University of KwaZulu-Natal, will be hosting the John Langalibalele Dube Memorial Lecture at the Margaret Kirkwood Hall at Edgewood Campus in Pinetown at 5 pm. The guest lecturer will be Professor Cherif Keita from Carlton College in the U.S. Keita produced the first documentary on the life of Dube, From Inanda to Oberlin: The life and times of John Langalibalele Dube.

Can you help?

R. SIMANGALISO Kumalo, who is head of the School of Theology and Religion on the local campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, also runs the John Dube Memorial Project and he is appealing for people who may have photographs of John and Nokutela Dube and his second wife, Angelina, or photographs of people associated with the Dubes such as William Wilcox and Reuben Caluza, to contact him at 082 343 0693 or 033 260 5540. His e-mail is He is also requesting people who have copies of Dube’s books, Ushembe, Ukuziphatha, Isitha somuntu nguye uqobo lwakhe, Zulu song book (a compilation of choral songs) Talks on my Native Land and other material by Dube to contact him.

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