Global Politics

Her contributions to South Africa were unknown, but a new film aims to change that

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Credit: Credit: Courtesy Cherif Keita

African scholar Cherif Keita of Carleton College next to a photo of South African educator, journalist and political activist Nokutela Dube. Keita has produced a documentary about the wife of the founder of the African National Congress, called “Remembering Nokutela”.

The African National Congress continues to dominate South African politics even as its reputation wanes under charges of corruption and a sense that its structures and priorities are out of date in the post-Mandela era.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

The ANC was the symbol of the struggle against apartheid but its roots go back even further, to the turn of the 20th century.

Cherif Keita, of Carleton College in Minnesota, says the creation of the ANC occurred at the end of the Anglo-Boer War which lasted from 1899 to 1902.

"That really marked the coming together of the white factions, the British and the Afrikaners, together to create peace, at the expense of black South Africans," Keita says. "That triggered, I think, a sense of nationalism among the blacks because they realized that if they didn't come together, just like the whites did, then they were completely done for."

So South Africa's educated black elite, its political leaders and traditional tribal chiefs got together and created the African National Congress in 1912.

But it's who founded the African National Congress that Keita has been exploring.

Traditionally, credit goes to John Dube, a South African essayist, philosopher, educator, politician, editor, novelist, and poet. But Keit says Dube's wife, Nokutela Mdima Dube, was just as important.

Keita has just produced a documentary that attempts to restore Nokutela Dube to the narrative of South African history. It's called "Remembering Nokutela."

Keita says Nokutela and her husband started out as educators, influenced by missionaries from the American Midwest who were spreading the gospel - and education - in South Africa. "(Nokutela and John) wanted to bring education to black South Africans who were living almost still in bondage to whites at the turn of the 20th century."

The couple started a school for South African girls and a vocational school for men modeled on the beliefs of Booker T. Washington, the African-American educator, author, and orator. The couple studied in the United states from 1896 and 1899 and got Washington's personal endorsement for their school in South Africa.

And it was in the United States that the Dubes raised money for their schools in South Africa. 

"They were a formidable fundraising team," says Keita. "John Dube would speak about the needs of black Africans for education and enlightenment. Then Nokutela would sing afterward. She was the first Zulu woman to sing click songs in the United States, like Miriam Makeba."

Keita told Miriam Makeba about Nokutela's singing style in 2002. "She was blown away and very proud. She had never heard of Nokutela."

Keita credits both women for bringing the struggle of the black people of South Africa to Americans, separated by about 75 years.

According to Keita, Nokutela's contributions have been ignored for a simple reason. "Nokutela is the poster child for the marginalization of women in South African history."

Keita says the role of women in the early stages of the struggle has been under-appreciated. But, Keita says there's another reason that has to be put into the context of her time.

Nokutela was unable to have a child.

"That made for a very unhappy marriage with John Dube," says Keita. "They spent 20 years together starting schools, creating a political party, and starting a newspaper but in their own private life, there was this pain." 

John Dube had an affair and Nokutela left him. That was in 1914. "Even in her own family in those days, she didn't get much support because she could not have a child. It didn't matter what else you did with your life. If you didnt have a child, you'd be forgotten."

Nokutela died three years later at the age of 44. She was buried in Johannesburg with little fanfare. 

It took Keita three years to find her gave. "By the time I found her grave, there was no gravestone, just plain ground."

Keita found out that Nokutela was buried with a simple headstone engraved with "CK 2973." The C stood for Christian and the K for Kaffir, a pejorative for blacks. 

In 2012, Cherif Keita joined with Nokutela's descendants and put a small plaque on her grave. Then in August 2013, the South African government and the province of Kwa Zulu Natal erected a huge headstone on her grave.

Keita says Nokutela's descendants had been trying to keep her memory alive. He met a great great grand niece who was named Nokutela. But it wasn't until he provided the family with research and documentation that they were able to prove their ancestor's significance.

"Apartheid meant to beat black people down and believe me, it succeeded," Keita says.

Nokutela's story has changed the South African narrative on the origins of the African National Congress and on the centenary of the party's founding in 2012, President Jacob Zuma mentioned Nukutela in his speech.

Take a look at an excerpt from "Remembering Nokutela" below.

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