This post has been contributed by Cherif Keita.
Keita is Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Carleton College. A native of Mali, he has published books and articles on both social and literary problems in contemporary Africa. He has completed a documentary film entitled “Oberlin-Inanda: The Life and Times of John L. Dube”, about the life of the first President of the African National Congress of South Africa and his education in the U.S. at the end of the nineteenth century. “Cemetery Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa”, his second documentary traces the relationship between John Dube and a Northfield missionary family who mentored him and educated him in the United States.
My condolences to the people of South Africa on the passing of our one and only Madiba, this great symbol of humility, who will forever remain the most genuine voice and the moral conscience of a continent in dire straits. I really hope that all of us, whatever our field of endeavor in life, will prove ourselves worthy of his shining legacy.
This December marks the 14th year of my involvement with the history of South Africa, both as a researcher and as a frequent visitor to a land I fell deeply in love with since my first trip with college students in 1999, to study for a month the topic of “Poetry, Performance and the Politics of Identity in South Africa”. At the core of my passion to understand and absorb the past of this brave nation lies a hidden challenge set before me by President Mandela in 2000, when he had his office sent me a message saying that he himself did not know much about the Reverend John Langalibalele Dube, the man to whom he had paid such a resounding tribute on April 27, 1994, when he traveled to the Ohlange High School in Inanda(KwaZulu-Natal) to vote in the first multi-racial democratic elections. As the whole world was waiting to see him consume the first fruits of this long-awaited victory, he walked up to a poorly kept grave located behind the voting station (the Ohlange Chapel), piously stood in front of it and uttered words that surprised then and continue to surprise to this day many around the world: “Mr. President, I have come to report to you that South Africa is today free!” Mandela was thus saluting John Langalibalele Dube, the first President-General of the ANC, the fighter known in his distant days as Mafukuzela Onjenge Zulu[The Zulu Storm that woke up the Nation], and on whose shoulder he and thousands of his comrades of the liberation movement had stood in the struggle that led to this victory over Apartheid, the most brutal form of colonial and racial oppression.
Receiving Madiba’s grave message about his inability to answer my interview questions, along with his sincere wish that I succeed in my research project, my great excitement and hopes for an on-camera chat about John Dube, to which he had earlier agreed in principle, were suddenly dashed. I was overcome by a terrible feeling of discouragement for I had suddenly missed my chance to meet in person such a giant of history. However, I regained my aplomb a few days later, once I realized that through this canceled meeting, Madiba had offered me a unique gift by admitting his ignorance, something that leaders and particularly often pompous heads of state in Africa rarely do. I told myself that if Mandela, at his age, did not know much about Reverend Dube, the first president of a party and movement he embodied in the eyes of the world, there was one important call to me and to other young people, i.e. to roll up our sleeves and dig out the information for everyone’s edification. That day was born my motivation of the next 13 years, to answer a nagging question: What Would Mandela Like to Know about Dube, about his struggles and his hopes for his people. In a sense, the spirit of Mafukuzela(1871-1946), that had strongly connected with me at Ohlange, in January 1999, during my visit with the students, had clearly spoken to me through Madiba’s voice and through his humble admission that he could not offer anything of substance to a young researcher about the father of his own party.