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.
In December 2004, I completed my first film, “Oberlin-Inanda: The Life and Times of John L. Dube”(54 min, edited by Aleshia Mueller), which was selected for the 2005 Pan African Film Festival of Ouagadougou(FESPACO). My wish having been that a representative of the Dube family be present for the unveiling of this little-known story to an international audience of African cinema aficionados, I turned to President Thabo Mbeki with a request for financial support. The committed Pan Africanist he is, President Mbeki obliged generously by sending Mr. Zenzele Dube, the grandson of John Dube, to the festival in Ouagadougou, where the film attracted a lot of attention, press coverage and even garnered a Special Mention for Best documentary for a special prize. This was followed by President Mbeki’s letter of gratitude to me on behalf of the people of South Africa, written by Dr. Pallo Jordan, his Minister of Arts and Culture, along with a request that this first ever film about Dube be made available to SABC, the country’s public broadcaster. In honoring Dube this way, President Mbeki was also honoring the struggle legacy of his own maternal uncle, the late Manasseh T. Moerane, the famous editor of The World(later the Sowetan), who was trained as a young man by Reverend John Dube, as a teacher at Ohlange and as a contributing journalist to John Dube’s Ilanga Lase Natal, the first secular English-Zulu newspaper started in 1903.
In July 2005, I arrived in Durban with the film, as part of the Official selection of the Durban International Film Festival. The then Consul General of India in Durban, H.E. Ajay Swarup, sent some of his staff members to attend the first screening and later contacted me himself with the request that I give him and an important member of the Durban Indian community a private showing. He explained to me that this person was very much interested in my film but had limited mobility due to a stroke. This person turned out to be Professor Fatima Meer, whom I knew as a close friend of Nelson and Winnie Mandela and because of the book she had written about them, Higher Than Hope. I was truly honored by this unexpected opportunity. I was even more honored when, after watching the film with Consul General Ajay Swarup and myself in her living room, she asked if I had a copy for Madiba, because she wanted to have one hand delivered to him by her nephew, who, she said, was Mr. Mandela’s lawyer and was scheduled to see him a few days later. At the same time, a communication with the other Indian Consul General in South Africa, H.E. Suresh Goel, led to the film’s Johannesburg premiere, in front of a packed room and the presence of prestigious people such as officials of the Gauteng Provincial government, the family of Mahatma Gandhi, the late Mrs. Amina Cachalia, a life-long stalwart friend of Madiba, and Mr. Ahmed Kathrada, a Rivonia-trialist and Robben Island co-inmate for 27 years, to whom befell the honor of opening the evening.
My second film, “Cemetery Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa”(2009, 57 min, edited by D. Fucci), wove an even more personal thread between me and the
story of South Africa’s liberation, through my eerie discovery that John Dube owed his unique chance for education in America in the late 19th century to a family of white missionaries, Reverend William Cullen Wilcox(1850-1928) and his wife, Ida Belle(1858-1940), a native of my small Minnesota town of Northfield. This long-deceased couple had shown their strong and early commitment to the cause of social justice for all in South Africa, by not only educating 16-year old John Dube as their “adoptive” son in 1887 but also by fighting courageously against the 1913 Natives Land Act, cornerstone of the segregation edifice, for which they were driven out of South Africa in 1918 by the British colonial administration and colonists in the Natal Midlands. After I successfully followed the trace of this amazing couple, from a cemetery behind my house in Northfield to their final resting place in the Forest Lawn Cemetery of Glendale, California, the newly elected President of South Africa, Mr. Jacob Zuma, in one of his first official acts, sent in November 2009 the then Premier of the Province of KwaZulu-Natal, Dr. Zweli Mkhize and a delegation, to join me in California to pay an official tribute of the people of Democratic South Africa to a couple that had fought for social justice for all in South Africa and had died in abject poverty and total anonymity in their distant homeland in 1928 and 1940. This film was shown in various places: Ouagadougou, Durban, and in Tokyo, along with “Oberlin-Inanda: The Life and Times of John L. Dube, as the closing acts of Cinema Africa, a festival commemorating in 2010, the Centennial of Japan’s official relations with the Republic of South Africa.
In September 2011, “Cemetery Stories” was invited for a screening at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory, by Mr Ahmed Kathrada and other officials of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Given that by then, Nelson Mandela was too old to sit and watch the film with everyone, a copy was sent to his residence. At the end of the screening, I was presented with a French version of Mandela’s most recent book, Pensées pour moi-même, a gift to which I reciprocated with Outcast to Ambassador: The Musical Odyssey of Salif Keita, the English version of my 2009 book about Salif Keita, the great Malian singer whose voice, according to Mr. Kathrada, had often brought a “Sunshine day”(dixit Osibisa) to sad Robben Island inmates like Mandela and himself. That day was truly a great one for me!
Years have passed since my correspondence with the Great Man and I never had an opportunity to meet him in person. Now that he has passed on, I share with the
whole world, a deep sense of loss but at the same time, I keep within me a certain sense of personal satisfaction that my research and my three films on the Dube story were successfully completed in his lifetime. My third film, “Remembering Nokutela/uKukhumbula uNokutela”(56 minutes, edited by Dominic Fucci), about John Dube talented first wife, Nokutela Mdima Dube(1873-1917), the last member of an overlooked but seminal quartet of pioneers in South Africa’s history(John and Nokutela Dube, William and Ida Belle Wilcox), had its world premiere in Minneapolis on November 17, while Madiba was still with us(see a review by Peter Rachleff in Africa Is A Country, November 26). I hope that, where he is today, he is pleased with me, for the fact that I have succeeded in meeting the challenge he placed before me in 2000 to teach him personally, and the people of South Africa, what they desperately wanted to know about a distant chapter of their Long Walk to Freedom. As Nelson Rolihlahala Mandela is laid to rest in his native village of Qunu, in South Africa, I cannot help but think of the link between him and the two Northfield pioneers of the democracy struggle in South Africa: Mrs. Ida Belle Clary and her Ohio-born husband, William Cullen Wilcox. These two unheralded individuals, who became missionaries after studying together at Oberlin College(Ohio), took to colonial South Africa some of the core values of the American Republic and used them to plant the seeds of the vibrant multiracial democracy this African country has been enjoying since the historic election of Nelson Mandela as its first black president in 1994.
After wedding in Northfield in August 1881, William Cullen Wilcox and Ida Belle could have easily led the life of two ordinary missionaries of the American Board in Inanda, in the British colony of Natal(South Africa), but they chose not to because they categorically rejected the racism on which South African colonial society was based, an attitude that insidiously permeated life even at a Christian mission station. They were revolted by the many subtle segregationist rules restricting their daily interaction with the Zulu community they were supposed to bring to Christ. Wilcox unambiguously presented a dissenting view of the missionary’s role:
“The Missionary cannot help giving the native an idea of his worth when he teaches the Gospel of Christ. There is nothing in the whole Bible to show the superiority in a white skin, or that a man born with kinky hair and a dark complexion is not just as good as any other man.”
As pioneers of what came to be known in the 20th century as Liberation Theology, they saw the need to add to the Gospel of Christ that of Self Help and Independence. That meant telling the Zulus that they should not pay taxes without being given a fair representation in the government ruling their lives. It meant also advocating unity among the Zulus in order to counter the unjust laws shackling them. Wilcox would often say: “You Zulus, you are just like your British colonial masters, too quarrelsome to unite, otherwise I do not see how such a small number of them can rule you.” These missionaries quickly realized that any conversion of the Africans to Christianity had to go hand in hand with measures to protect them against the brutalities of white colonial rule. As one can imagine, the Wilcoxes had a very contentious relation not only with white South Africans but also with their employer, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions(ABCFM), whose attitude on the land issue they considered an insidious complicity with colonialism. They decided that providing Africans with an education that would empower them beyond the religious sphere, i.e, a secular education, was the best way to curb the evils of the colonial system. Wilcox’s own words reflect their deep trust in the transformative power of education:
When to this idea of worth, which means racial equality, is added an education which is above the simple requirements of religious belief, the man emerges, realizing his worth and hating the white man who would kick him off the sidewalk. As he and his kind become more enlightened, and as their numbers continue to increase more rapidly than the whites, they will not always submit to taxation without representation. They are not always going to be excluded from every place of honor and responsibility.
These words, which were loaded with the prophecy of a democratic and multiracial South Africa, encapsulate the motivations which led William and Ida Belle Wilcox to do in 1887, as they were being terminated and sent back home, what other missionaries had refused to do: to accept a desperate Zulu mother’s plea to take her young 16-year old son to America so that he could receive the education he desired beyond the confines of South Africa. Although they anticipated hard times for themselves back in America, they accepted this request and took as their “adoptive” son a boy named John Langalibalele Dube, who after finishing his high school and college education in the US in 1899, returned to his country as an ordained pastor of the Congregational Church and a committed trailblazing educationist. He became thanks to the liberal and progressive education he received in the United States the very thorn the Wilcoxes had planned to stick into the side of the white colonists in South Africa. John Dube and his wife Nokutela Mdima, another student of the Wilcoxes in Inanda, started in 1900 the trailblazing Ohlange Institute, the first black-owned industrial education school modeled on the Tuskegee Institute of the African-American leader Booker T. Washington, where they began a distinguished tradition of training the future leaders of the revolution in South Africa. In 1994, this is the ground where Nelson Mandela cast his vote, saying to the world: “this is where everything started!” Mandela was honoring John Dube not only as the co-founder of the African National Congress, the liberation movement that made him famous but also for having been its first President from 1912 to 1917. It was in 1914 that John Dube led the first Delegation of the ANC to England to protest to the Crown the abuses committed under the British flag. None of these historic developments in Africa would have been possible without the courageous decision of this American couple to bring into their family the additional burden of a promising young African boy, thereby changing the course of the continent’s future. The mentoring given by the Wilcoxes to young Dube led to other momentous actions by the latter, back in his country. It is Wilcox who taught Dube the trade of printing during the summer of 1888, while the family was living in the small NY town of Keene Valley in the Adirondacks, where William Wilcox was serving as the pastor at the Congregational Church, while the family was eagerly looking for an opportunity to return to South Africa as missionaries. This fact explains another pioneering act of John Dube in 1903: the launching on the grounds of his school of Ilanga Lase Natal[The Natal Sun], the first English-Zulu newspaper, published to this day, which incidentally became a platform for Reverend Wilcox in his fight against British colonialism until 1918, when finally a coalition of the Natal administration and the colonists managed to drive the couple out of South Africa for the last time, with only the clothes on their back.
The Northfield News of October 24, 1919 reported a visit by William and Ida Belle Wilcox to this town, the first after they were ultimately driven out of South Africa, after 38 years during which the fought bravely for social justice and racial equality in a land so far from theirs. They had returned to their base, spiritually rich with the appreciation of many black communities in Natal, South Africa, but without anything tangible results to show for their efforts: in 1919, every visible sign indicated that South Africa was going to remain the “White Man’s country” for a long time to come. Moreover, they now had to face the harsh judgment of people in America, and many in their own immediate family, who could not understand how they had returned so poor from a land where whiteness was a secure passport to success. Yet, even in the depth of such quandary, the Northfield News reported that they still had hopes to raise funds and go back to Natal, South Africa, to resume their missionary work. But this was not to be: by then they were deemed too old for anyone here or around the US to invest wholeheartedly in their mission. After a few stops in Michigan and Ohio to visit relatives, they moved to California, where Wilcox was able to build a very modest home for himself and Ida Belle, managing to scrape a living doing odd jobs and caring for other people’s small children. They spent their last years in the close proximity of their own grownup children and grandchildren in various parts of California. William Cullen Wilcox died in 1928. But the people of South Africa had not forgotten his courage and commitment to their cause. Thus when the news of his death reached Natal, John Dube’s newspaper Ilanga Lase Natal published the following reaction:
I was deeply saddened to read of the demise of Rev. Wilcox from your beloved newspaper. The Pastor used to be my teacher and he is the one who encouraged John Dube to go overseas with him. I was in the same class with John Dube who is now famous among our people….. Rev. Wilcox was known as Mbuyabatwa by the local people. I can liken him to General Booth[the founder of the Salvation Army] for his creativity and dynamism. He was a very courageous man who was not afraid to criticize other pastors if they were not acting in the interests of the people. That is why these days we need people like Rev. Wilcox, people who will stand up for the truth.
Ida Belle died in 1940 after spending her final years in a retirement home for old missionaries in Monrovia, California. For decades, while South Africa’s fight for freedom took many twists and turns, both were lying in oblivion at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California, until November 2009, when redemption finally came for them, with the arrival of a high-level delegation to their resting place in California, to express South Africa’s gratitude to them for contributing to its struggle for Freedom and multiracial democracy. In December of the same year, their 90-year old grandson, Reverend Jackson Wilcox of Fresno, California, and their great-granddaughter Deborah Altermatt of Alaska, flew to Pretoria, the capital of South Africa to receive from the hands of the President their posthumous Medal of the Grand Companions of Oliver Tambo, the highest honor granted by South Africa to foreign nationals who have helped its “Long March to Freedom”.
From this brief overview of the struggle for freedom, from 19th century Northfield to the rolling hills of Qunu, where Nelson Mandela was laid to rest, one can see clearly the role played by leaders such as John Dube and his mentors, William and Ida Belle Wilcox, and more recently by Mandela and his generation, people who took a principled stand against the injustice and oppression of Apartheid and sacrificed themselves for the good of our common humanity.
Long live the spirit of Mandela, Dube, and Wilcox and may their models of leadership and sacrifice permeate our thoughts and actions for decades to come.