Remember to call at my grave: Madiba and John Dube

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 on my first trip with college students in 1999. 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 send 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, where the picture above was taken) 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 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, even as he was wishing me success 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, his message was an important call to me and to other young people 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, 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 July 2005, I arrived in Durban with my first film, “Oberlin-Inanda: The Life and Times of John L. Dube” (2005, edited by A. Mueller, 54 min.), 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 with a 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 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 through 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 in her living room, she asked if I had a copy for Madiba, because she wanted to have one 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 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.

In September 2011, “Cemetery Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa” (2009, edited by D. Fucci, 57 min.), my second film, was screened at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory by Mr Ahmed Kathrada and other officials of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Given that by then, Madiba was too old to sit and watch the film with everyone, a personal copy was sent to his residence. At the end of the screening, I was presented with a French version of Madiba’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 Madiba and himself. That day was truly a great 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 three films on the Dube story were successfully completed in Madiba’s lifetime. My third film, “Remembering Nokutela/uKukhumbula uNokutela” (56 minutes, edited by Dominic Fucci), about the late Mrs 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 here).

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 wanted and needed to know about a distant chapter of their Long Walk to Freedom. May Nelson Rolihlahala Mandela find his place among the glorious ancestors (amaDlozi) of Africa and may all of us be vigorously possessed by his great spirit, once he is laid to rest in his home of Qunu!

I conclude with these prophetic words of the venerable South African poet, Don Mattera, written in the depth of the liberation struggle and that spell out, I believe, the spiritual essence of presidential candidate Nelson Mandela’s visit to John Langalibalele Dube’s grave on April 27, 1994:

Remember to call at my grave
When freedom finally
Walks the land
So that I may rise
To tread familiar paths
To see broken chains
Fallen prejudice
Forgotten injury
Pardoned pains.

And when my eyes have filled their sight
Do not run away from fright
If I crumble to dust again.

It will only be the bliss
Of a long-awaited dream
That bids me rest
When freedom finally walks the land…

Further Reading

Reading List: Mutt_Lon

The books that the author, a Cameroonian novelist, has been reading share an ethics of political engagement, a quest for identity and cultural inventory, and an ear for the voices and harmonies of African languages.