The land has spoken

2009-08-11 00:00

“The land has been talking to me,” says Professor Cherif “Zwelethu” Keita, the Malian-born director of the French and francophone studies Department at Carleton College in the United States. “It has spoken to me and I have delivered what it wanted: the truth.”

The truth Keita speaks of is contained in his second documentary, Cemetery Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa, which was screened at the 2009 Durban International Film Festival last week. It links 19th-century American missionaries William and Ida Belle Wilcox to John Langalibalele Dube, and reveals how the missionaries’ friendship and mentorship of Dube helped the black teacher and clergyman on his path to success.

Keita was given the name “Zwelethu” by the Inanda elders and the Dube family, who received him into their family after his first award-winning documentary, Oberlin-Inanda: The life and Times of John L. Dube. “Giving me that name was a prophecy,” says Keita. “It started to reveal to me the centrality of the land issue in Wilcox and Dube’s political struggle over the years, hence my strong desire to bring the two families together.”

However, Keita couldn’t understand exactly why a Muslim Malian language professor based in the U.S. was conducting such heavy research into Christian missionaries in South Africa. “Near the end of my research the answer came,” he says. “My house in Northfield, Minnesota, is located right next to a cemetery. And in that cemetery are buried the parents of Ida Belle Wilcox. I believe the land was speaking to me. I believe her parent­s wanted me to let the world know the good they had done for downtrodden South Africans, because before I started doing my research, their family thought they were a failure in South Africa.”

The Wilcoxes had been a failure, in Western terms. Most white people who immigrated to South Africa in the 19th century did so to seek their fortune. Not many came to liberate the black South Africans from a lack of education and opportunity. But that is what the Wilcoxes had done. And by the time they returned to the U.S. in their late 60s, they were bankrupt and William Wilcox had to work on an assembly line in Detroit. The couple died in poverty in California, without any acknowledgment for what they had done.

Before Keita’s research, Reverend Jackson Wilcox had only one memory and one inheritance of his grandfather, William. A memory that he never finished anything he started, and a wonky book shelf, an apparent testament to his inability to complete any project.

“It was my duty to reconnect the families and restore pride to the Wilcox family,” says Keita, who brought Reverend Jackson from California and his daughter Deborah from Alaska to South Africa in 2007 to meet the Dubes and to see the mission station the 19th-century Wilcoxes had built in Tembalihle and Cornfields, near Estcourt. The Wilcoxes met with politicians and were enlightened as to how their ancestors had lived and thanklessly worked for the poor.

“We need unifying stories like this to bring us closer to each other,” Keita says. “Positive stories help feed growth, particularly in a time where there is a war of cultures and religions in the world.” He says the Wilcoxes did their work for all races. “Without their sacrifice, we might not have had the liberation struggle in South Africa,” he says. “The Wilcoxes were ahead of their time.”

Indeed, in Wilcox’s own words, which were published in an open letter to Dube in the first issue of his newspaper, in April 1903: “The truth for which you stand is mighty and will prevail”. The truth has finally prevailed, thanks to Keita and the land, which he believes sent him on this long journey.

The Wilcox and Dube families are now reunited and often write to each other. Reverend Jackson Wilcox is currently writing his autobiography, thanks largely to the inspiration of Keita. “Thank you for helping me rediscover my grandparents,” he wrote recently to Keita. The Dubes in turn told Keita: “We cannot repay you for teaching us and the whole of South Africa about our grandfather — you are a member of our family.” Keita, who has done this research over 10 years as a hobby, plans to write a book about the two families and about his own personal spiritual journey. “I will write it soon,” he says. “I have no other choice.”

Who was JL Dube?

The clergyman, teacher and founding editor of iLanga Lase Natal newspaper was also the founding president of the South African Native National Congress, which became the African National Congress. His father, Reverend James Dube, abandoned his claim to the chieftaincy of the AmaQadi clan to become one of South Africa’s first American Zulu Missionaries in the 1860s at the Lindley Mission Station in Inanda. It was here that John was educated and where he met the Wilcoxes.

The Wilcoxes and the Dubes

THE Wilcoxes, educated at ultra-liberal Oberlin College, U.S., arrived in South Africa in 1881 as missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and they settled in Inanda at the Lindley Mission Station. In 1887, Dube travelled to the U.S. with the Wilcoxes and attended their alma mater, Oberlin College. Wilcox gave Dube the opportunity to work in a printing press and let him give speeches in his church. By the end of his time at Oberlin, Dube had written his first book about educating black South Africans, A Familiar Talk Upon My Native Land. Dube and the Wilcoxes returned to South Africa in the 1900s. The Wilcoxes started the Zulu Industrial Improvement Company in 1909 in Tembalihle and Cornfields, the first shareholding company in South Africa made up of sympatheti­c whites and 300 blacks who wanted to give Christian blacks the economic power to withstand land appropriation by the Natal government. Keita believes the 1913 Native Land Act was in response to this measure, and its effects on Native landownership completely bankrupted Wilcox. The Inanda community made a collection of money to send blacklisted and impoverished William Wilcox back to the U.S., while Ida Belle Wilcox went to Bulwer to teach and earn money so she could return the following year in 1919. They never returned to South Africa, where they had hoped to die and be buried among the Zulu community. However, Keita is currently working on an idea to make this wish come true in some form. So stay tuned for the rest of the story.

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