The forgotten founding figure of African nationalism

Nokutela Dube wasn't just the wife of John Dube, one of the founders of the continent's oldest liberation movement, the African National Congress.

Nokutela Mdima Dube.

For ninety-five years the remains of Nokutela Mdima Dube lay ignored in the Brixton Cemetery in Johannesburg. Similarly ignored were her contributions to the founding and development of a critical set of institutions – the Ohlange Institute, the Inanda Seminary, the Ilange lase Natal newspaper, and the African National Congress – and cultural practices – Zulu chorale music, the valuation of the education of women. Upon her death at age 44 in 1917, Nokutela, the estranged first wife of ANC founder John Dube, was interred without individual marking in the section of the cemetery marked “C.K.” (“Christian Kaffir”).

Four years ago, Cherif Keita, a Malian-born Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Carleton College, a private liberal arts college in southern Minnesota, set himself the task of finding her grave and bringing together the far reaches of her family, while making her contributions and story more widely known by erecting a proper monument and making a film about Remembering. His documentation of his quest to unearth and celebrate her genealogy has produced a marvelous excursion into the genealogy of knowledge for his film’s viewers. Here is a trailer for the film.

Professor Keita began his investigations into South African history in the late 1990s, when he discovered that missionaries from the small town, Northfield, in which Carleton is located, had helped educate John Dube, the ANC’s founder. Keita developed an appreciation not only for these missionaries, who had been expelled from South Africa and ended their lives penniless in the U.S., but also for Dube, whose historical contributions had been overshadowed by the roles played in the mid-late 20th century struggles by Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela. Keita turned to documentary film as a vehicle to tell these stories, producing “Oberlin-Inanda: The Life and Times of John L. Dube” (2005) and “Cemetery Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa” (2009). “Remembering Nokutela” is the third piece of his trilogy. All three of these films explore in understated but suggestive ways the complexity of the relationships between American missionaries and South African revolutionaries, and between Christianity and African pride, which unfolded over the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Remembering Nokutela offers multiple layers of investigation to the ambitious teacher. On the surface it excavates a long-buried story and honors the contributions of a talented and dedicated woman. Viewers learn that Nokutela was a talented musician who journeyed to the U.S. in the late 1890s, where she performed to raise funds to support the projects she and her husband were launching in the Natal province, a industrial education school for boys and girls on the Tuskegee model, the first Zulu-English newspaper, and the first anti-colonial movement, the African National Congress. Just beneath its surface, this film prompts a pair of fruitful conversations: why was her story erased from the historical narrative?; and how do we go about researching such a story?

Both of these conversations are interwoven with stories about women and by women, stories which ask viewers to consider the roles accorded women and claimed by women in South Africa. Dube and Nokutela never had children, which Keita suggests led to their estrangement and, ultimately, her replacement in the South African liberation narrative by Dube’s second wife, Angeline Khumalo, with whom he had six children. The erasure of Nokutela from history, despite her significant achievements, suggests that women activists who did not fulfill women’s traditionally valued role of motherhood could be denied their place in the historical record altogether. At the same time, the filmmaker is only able to reconstruct Nokutela’s story through the oral narratives provided by her great grand nieces. Although she had no sons or daughters, no direct descendants, the pieces of her story were held by the granddaughters of her sisters and Dube’s second wife, and Keita goes on an historical treasure hunt to find and compose those pieces. His quest brings these women together in the present, some to meet for the first time, some to heal longstanding enmities and alienations, all to celebrate their common ancestor’s accomplishments. Seeming at times like a trickster figure, Keita moves in and out of these women’s homes and lives, collecting their stories but also enabling them to touch each other.

As the shared project of constructing an appropriate memorial for Nokutela and consecrating it with an appropriate ceremony takes shape, the film suggests the possibilities of transformation contained in what the African American writer Toni Morrison so aptly named “rememory.” Keita allows viewers to absorb the film’s final scenes, in which a Zulu chorale group performs the classic a cappella song Mbube (popularly known around the world as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”). The ceremony attendees, mostly older women who have been sitting in folding chairs, move their bodies, and some get up to dance, dropping a cane or a crutch or dancing with a crutch. They seem filled with the music and with the community that remembering Nokutela has created.

Remembering Nokutela was screened as part of the first African Film Festival (November 15-21, 2013) at the Saint Anthony Main Cinemas) sponsored by the Film Society of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, US. The series was curated by a committee of dedicated Twin Cities scholars and cultural producers, eager to present a breadth of genres and geographies, ranging from Egypt to South Africa. For more information on the series, please see The African Film Festival also reflects the expanding and deepening presence of Africans in the Twin Cities – Somalis, Liberians, Ethiopians, Oromos, Togolese, Nigerians, Egyptians, Palestinians, and more. Film, music, theater, poetry, literature, and politics in this community are increasingly reflecting their presence and expressing their agency.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.