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

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Marco Werman: Good news for South Africa's ruling party - the African National Congress. According to released today, the ANC easily won yesterday's general election there. That's despite efforts by some opposition parties to discredit the ANC during the campaign, describing the party as a century-old organization, now out of step with post-apartheid, post-Mandela South Africa. The ANC's roots go back to early 20th century when it was created by a man named John Dube. He was a publisher, essayist, educator, and politician. Dube's wife, Nokutela, also played a key role in the activism that led to the formation of the African National Congress in 1912. But most books about Dube and the ANC don't mention her. Cherif Keita is a professor and filmmaker in Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He's researched Nokutela's contribution to South African history and he's made a documentary called "Remembering Nokutela". Professor Keita, thanks for joining us for a few minutes. Cherif Keita: Thank you so much, Marco. Werman: Now, before you tell us about Nokutela and your research into what became of her, just give us a short background, what was going on in South Africa in 1912 that triggered the formation of the ANC? Had there been no nationalist black African party prior to that? Keita: No, there hadn't been, but I think the end of the Anglo-Boer War and the union of South Africa in 1909, which really marked the coming together of the white factions, the British and the Afrikaaners, together to create peace which was at the expense of the blacks. 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. That's when the educated elite and leaders, the traditional chiefs, got together and launched the ANC, the first president of which was John Dube, formed in 1912. Werman: Right. And then you land on this narrative of Nokutela, his wife, that woman we've all forgotten, many of us have forgotten. Keita: That's right. Werman: What role did she play in his political growth, in John Dube's political growth? Keita: Nokutela was key, because I think they started first as educationalists. They wanted to bring an independent education to black South Africans who were still living almost in bondage in relation to the whites. So they picked up on the ideas of Booker T. Washington, the famous African-American, who started Tuskegee, but who himself had been educated at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, in the same spirit of manual trade to give people a way to employ themselves so they wouldn't have to go beg the whites for jobs. When they picked up on the model of Booker T. Washington, they got his endorsement and when they came to study in the US here between 1896 and 1899 in Brooklyn, New York, that's when they started fundraising. So the two of them were a formidable fundraising team. John Dube would speak about the needs of black Africans for education, for enlightenment and then Nokutela would sing afterward. She was the first Zulu woman to sing click songs in the United States. Werman: Click songs? Just like we know of Miriam Makeba's click songs. Keita: That's right. In fact I told that story to Miriam Makeba in 2002. I told her about Nokutela. She was blown by this Nokutela story. Werman: Did she know of Nokutela before? Keita: She knew nothing about Nokutela. So she said, "Hallelujah." Fifty years later comes little Miriam with her click songs. And I would say that these two women, between Nokutela and Miriam Makeba, I mean they were key people in introducing the struggle of the black people in South Africa to the American audience. Werman: So what happened to Nokutela? How is it possible that practically all memory of her has just disappeared until you kinda of revived the story? Keita: Nokutela is the poster person for the marginalization of women in South African history. Upto now the role of women in the early stages of the struggle has been underappreciated. In the case of Nokutela, the fact that she never had a child, that made for a very unhappy marriage with John. Werman: She was unable to bear children, is that right? Keita: To which she was unable to bear a child. And after twenty of marriage, after they had built so much, they had started this pioneering school, they had worked on creating a political party, they had started a newspaper together. They were creating all these groundbreaking institutions, but in their own private life there was this pain. Because she could not have a child I think John Dube did some things on the side and it became a big scandal, so Nokutela felt betrayed. Werman: Did she leave or did he reject her? Keita: No, she left everything behind in 1914. Even in her own family in those days, she didn't get much support because a woman who could not have a child, it didn't matter what else you did with your life. If you didn't have a child, you'd be forgotten and this is what happened to Nokutela. So she died three years later and she was buried quickly in Johannesburg. Werman: And on her gravestone in Johannesburg, which you discovered, it's just a number, her initials, and the fact that's she's Christian. Keita: Yes, there was no gravestone by the time I discovered it. It was just plain ground. That's why the research took so long, it took almost three years. But when there was a mark, we don't know how long this mark stayed on the grave, it was just two initials "CK 2973" which means "Christian 2973". That's the only mark. Werman: And the K for "Kaffir", the South African pejorative. Keita: "Christian Kaffir". That's right. That was the only thing on that grave. And then that got corroded and then disappeared. So 2012, I gathered the family and we put a small plaque. And last August, with the help of the government and the province of Kwa Zulu Natal, we raised a huge headstone on her grave. Werman: So Cherif Keita, what was it like for you, a man from Male - thousands of miles from South Africa, a professor from Minnesota, and you come to these South Africans and you're filling them in on their own remarkable family history. What was that like for you and for them? Keita: Well, it was just amazing. I mean seeing these women who were educated, who in fact were the ones keeping Nokutela's memory to a certain extent, they didn't have a lot of knowledge, so at some point the generations decided that, "We need to immortalize this ancestress of ours." So one of the great great nieces is her name is Nokutela. So the fact that they tried to keep her memory alive, but I was the one who really could bring them the archival material to give them the definite proof that this is what our ancestress has contributed to the history of South Africa. And it gave them so much pride because I mean apartheid meant to beat black people down and believe me, it succeeded. This highly-educated woman really felt that something was missing to give them the sense of pride and I think this is what the research brought to them. Werman: So this revelation about Nokutela, the first First Lady of the ANC can we call her, what have South Africans done with this knowledge that you've kind of dug up for them? Has it changed their own view of themselves, of how they view the ANC? Keita: It has changed. Yes. In fact, not only the sort of Nokutela, just last week I found out that there's a new publication on the cover on which they placed Nokutela's photo and credited me for having found her grave and the newspapers have started to talk about Nokutela now. And Nokutela's story kind of changed the narrative of the ANC and of South Africans on the centenary of their [??] because now President Zuma in his speech would make references to those missionaries who had never had credit and he even announced at some point my research on Nokutela. Werman: Filmmaker and Professor of Literature at Carleton College, Cherif Keita, the man behind the documentary "Remembering Nokutela" about the long-forgotten wife of the founder of the African National Congress. Cherif Keita, great to speak with you. Thank you. Keita: [speaking French]. Merci beaucoup, Marco. Merci. Werman: Thank you.