John Langalibalele Dube

(February 22, 1871 - February 11, 1946)

John Langalibalele Dube was born in Natal in 1871. He was the son of Rev. James Dube one of the first ordained pastors of the American Zulu Mission. John Dube's grandmother was one of the first Christians to be converted by the American Daniel Lindley.

There are many contradictory views and judgements on Dube's life. Let us take a few samples.

B.W. Vilakazi, a poet and author, wrote in 1946 that Dube was "a great, if not the greatest, black man of the missionary epoch in South Africa" and earlier A.S. Vil-Nkomo had written in the same vein: Dube was "one who comes once in many centuries - No one else in his education generation has accomplished so much with such meagre economic means. He was scholar, gentleman, leader, farmer, teacher, politician, patriot and philanthropist".

There were other judgements. To the Governor of Natal in 1906 Dube was "a pronounced Ethiopian who ought to be watched" and John X. Merriman, a Cape "liberal" described Dube in 1912 as a "typical Zulu, with a powerful cruel face. Very moderate and civilised, spoke extraordinarily good English ...". A little later he commented:

"Dube in conversation gave me a glimpse of national feeling which reminded me of Gokhale. How they must hate us - not without cause."

Howard Pim, another "liberal", found Dube frankly "puzzling": "I should say he was strong-willed and a great egotist; but his effect on me is curiously neutral. I am neither attracted nor repelled by him. Apparently the people who get on with him do so with the aid of a little flattery".

I.B. Tabata - in his characteristic style and fashion - referred to Dube (in his 1948 letter to Mandela) as a "principal of some secondary school in Natal" who was simply "a willing stooge in the hands of the Herrenvolk" and has 'led the Zulu back to tribalism, where they stagnate today".

One can only agree with Shula Marks who comments that some of these remarks reveal more about the commentators rather than about Dube.

Significance of Ohlange

Dube was educated at Inanda and Amanzimtoti (later Adams College). In 1887 he accompanied the missionary W.C. Wilcox to America. There he studied at Oberlin College while supporting himself in a variety of jobs and lecturing on the need for industrial education in Natal. He went back to Natal but soon resumed to the U.S. for further training and to collect money for a Zulu industrial school - as he called it - along the lines of the Tuskegee Institute.

In 1901 he was able to achieve his ambition on 200 acres of land in the Inanda district where he established the Zulu Christian Industrial School at Ohlange. Ohlange is within a stone's throw of Phoenix settlement where Gandhi started the newspaper, Indian Opinion, and not far from the dense religious settlement of AmaNazarethi, the Nazareth people, founded the prophet Shembe. One of Dube's achievements at this time was the establishment of a Zulu/English newspaper Ilanga lase Natal (Sun of Natal). He began to establish his political reputation.

The establishment of Ohlange signified a general ferment in the Amakholwa community at the turn of the century. This ferment expressed itself in the independent churches and political organisations which were being formed. There were other sources of influence. Dube was drawing on the prevalent thinking among Blacks in South Africa at the time, and this in turn was influenced by some trends in black thought in the USA. In Natal this black American influence was particularly strong at the time as a result of the American Zulu Mission. Dube's experiences in the States, especially the influence of Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute had shaped his ideas on Ohlange; the finances for his school came largely from the States and from the same sources who supported Tuskegee. But this was not more than inspiration for the founding of Ohlange.

His formative influences came from the American Zulu Mission in Natal. In the 1880s Dube was still a student at Amanzimtoti. The new head of the school, the missionary W.G. Goodenough, realised that the only way to obtain more aid was to satisfy the new government requirements to provide "industrial education' . In 1884-85 Jubilee Hall was built by the pupils of the school themselves. An industrial department was established which came to lay an increasingly important role in the life of the school

By the time Dube left for the States for the first time, printing, shoe-making, blacksmithing, bee-keeping, bricklaying, bookkeeping, book-binding and cartography were being taught at Amanzimtoti. This "industrial education" was the brain-child of the colonial government and what the missionaries did, was to support it as the American Zulu Mission general letter for 1889 confirms:

"If the Zulus are ever to occupy any worthy status in this colony they must be educated in every kind of labour. Missionaries are looking forward with more and more favour upon the industrial training of the native as a valuable feature of: missionary work"

This was Dube's introduction to "practical education" and self-help. He lectured and wrote on this subject. At the age of seventeen he preached to American congregations.

The colonial government soon changed its tactics: they no longer supported it, on the contrary they aimed at its suppression. The white workers and the government in Natal feared "competition" from African - and Indian - artisans in the 1890s. In 1893 government regulations discriminated against secondary schools and substituted an emphasis on "training the mass of the Africans to the lowest level of skill necessary for the labour market" with the result that Amanzimtoti was on the verge of collapse. In 1895 government grants were withdrawn from schools if the products of their industrial work were "allowed to be sold or disposed of in such a manner as to compete with general trade, or if the school was in any way responsible for or associated with the panting and publishing of any newspaper.

This regulation was directed against the Anglican St. Alban's College which produced the African newspaper, Inkanyiso, but the proviso was later used against Dube. We relate this story to dove home the point that Dube's choosing to start an African industrial school and three years later to pant and publish a newspaper on its premises was almost a path of confrontation - a direct challenge to the colonial authorities and the white workers.

Dube and the Bambata Rebellion

Dube bitterly opposed the arrest and trial of Dinizulu in connection with the 1906 Bambata rebellion and actively assisted in raising funds for his defence. Dinizulu, son of the last Zulu king was,.for Africans in South Africa, the symbol of past independence and at their identity as a people - and this is something which Dube, with his recollections of and pride in his African past, was to remain acutely aware of for the rest of his life. The Natal government attempted to suppress Ilanga lase Natal before and during the Bambata Rebellion - it was the object of constant suspicion. Dube publicised Dinizulu's arrest. His relations with the Royal House were to be strong and so enduring that by the 1930's he was acting as their chief adviser, and worked closely with the Regent, Mshlyeni. In 1909 Dube was a member of the delegation to Britain to protest against the Act of Union and in 1912 he accepted the Presidency of the ANC in spite of the pressures put on him by his preoccupation with education. It is said that in 1912 Dube addressed a group of Africans in Zululand to explain the new movement (the ANC) and appeal for unity. A member of the audience shouted:

"I thank Bambata. I thank Bambata very much. Would this spirit might continue! I do not mean the Bambata of the bush who perished at Nkandbla, but I mean this new spirit which we have just heard explained".

Dube's Political Role

When Dube came back from the States in 1905 (after his third visit) there were signs of tension between him and the white missionaries. Ilanga lase Natal attacked the decisions of missionaries on land allotment on the Reserves, and the Mission Reserve rent, as well as the social aloofness of missionaries and their lack of trust for the converts, inadequate selection of African officers and failure to defend African interests. In 1908 he resigned from the pastorate of Inanda. The tension between Dube on the one hand and the government and missionaries on the other hand was resolved in 1907 but he was constantly warned that he was "playing with fire". But in the columns of Ilanga and as part of many delegations of Amakholwa he protested and petitioned the government against the proposed legislations.

But ideologically Dube had accepted the missionary gospel It is true that generally the impact of missionaries on African culture and value systems has been superficial in Africa but for Dube and his generation and the one immediately after him .the "psychological conversion" if not "psychological colonisation" was almost complete. This was one of the sources of contradiction in the views and ideas of this generation.

Talking about the religious aspects of Dube we have said that the Whites were suspicious of Ethiopianism. If by Ethiopianism they meant that Dube and his colleagues were determined to prove and to demonstrate to the whites that the black man can run an educational institution without any white assistance, then we agree with them. That was basically the essence of Ethiopianism. But to them Ethiopianism meant something different - an equivalent of a devil, a black one at that.

Talking about Dube's political baptism, it should be remembered that he was detained during the Anglo-Boer war for alleged seditious statements. The Natal Native Congress was formed during the war Dube, together with Saul Msane, J.T Gumede, Stephen Mini, Mark Radebe, B. Cele, S. Nyongwana, Martin Lutuli expressed African feelings and brought African grievances to the attention of the government. Ipepa lo Hlanga, a non-missionary paper in Natal appeared, sponsored by the same group which rounded Congress and edited by Mark Radebe, but was later to be replaced by John Dube's llanga.

Ilanga, from the outset, was overtly political. Dube used his paper to stress the need for African unity and African representation and to air more specific grievances. It emphasised the need for education, financial help from white philanthropists. In September 1906, Dube was calling for a meeting of the Transvaal, Cape and Natal congresses and "welcoming signs that tribal antagonisms are dying down as indications of progress".

He was a bitter opponent of the 1913 Land Act. He spoke and wrote on this subject. In an article in 1914 he wrote:

"It is only a man with a heart of stone who could hear and see what I hear and see and remain callous and unmoved. It would break your hearts did you but know, as I know, the cruel and undeserved afflictions wrought by the hateful enactment on numberless aged, poor and tender children of my race in this their native land. From the ashes of their burnt out kraals, kicked away like dogs by Christian people from their humble hearths, from the dear old scenes where their fathers were born and grew up in simple peace, bearing malice to none, and envying neither European nor Indian the wealth and plenty they amass themselves from this their land, these unfortunate outcasts pass homeless, unwanted, silently suffering, along the highways and byways of the land, seeking in vain the most unprofitable waste whereon to build their hovel and rest and live, victims of an unknown civilisation that has all too suddenly overwhelmed and overtaken them..."

Dube wrote and spoke strongly and emotively on the government's land policy. The 19i3 Land Act was so hydra-headed that it affected every stratum of African rural society. In 1914 Dube was one of the ANC delegates to London to protest against the Act. This delegation caused some controversy within the ANC. It was fed Dube had made some compromises on the principle of segregation. The bone of contention within the ANC was the Land Act. Dube was ousted from the presidency of the ANC. From this time onwards Dube concentrated his activities in Natal but in the 1940's Xuma influenced him to participate in the movement nationally with some success.

In the 1920s, like some of his generation (and the stratum of mission-educated Africans? he became involved in a series of. "liberal' attempts to establish "racial harmony" between black and white, such as the Smuts' Native Conferences established under the 1920 Act (which Dube left in 1926 on the grounds of their powerlessness) the Joint Councils and many missionary conferences. In 1926 he was one of the South African delegates to the international conference at Le Zoute in Belgium, a visit he combined with fresh fund-raising for Ohlange. He was involved in replacing the left-wing Gumede with Seme as president of the ANC in 1930 and in 1935 became a member of the All African Convention. He represented Natal on the Native Representative Council from 1936 until his death, in 1946, when he was replaced by Chief Albert Lutuli on the Council.

One of Dube's controversial actions was in 1930. He openly flirted with Hertzog's bills in the hope that they would at least Provide some extra additional funds for development. It should be remembered that Dube was ousted from the presidency of the ANC in 1917 for his apparent acceptance of the principle - if not the contemporary practice - of segregation. Dube forged an alliance with the segregationist, Heaton Nicholls, and he toured the country soliciting the support of African leaders in Johannesburg, Kimberly, Bloemfontein and the Eastern Cape for a bill on Land Settlement promoted by Nicholls. This provided for the allocation of seven million morgen of land, to be added to the already scheduled areas, and the provision of adequate funds. The problem was that, like Hertzog's proposals, Heaton Nicholls coupled his land schemes with an attempt to end the franchise of the Cape Africans. This scheme also envisaged the representation of Africans in-the senate. But this never materialised.

But all this did not discredit Dube. In 1935 he was elected to the Executive of the All African Convention. He became disenchanted with the government schemes at a meeting of the Natal Debating Society in 1935 he made a sharp attack on the government's policies, which Jabavu printed as a pamphlet: "Criticisms of the Native Bills". In it Dube expounded his nationalism and his rejection of African inequality and his belief in the principle of African representation.

Dube and Champion

John Dube's political history is a complex and contradictory picture - a reflection of the social contradictions in Natal and in South Africa - which were affecting the Africans most acutely. It was, in a sense, also an expression of a need for survival.

Long before the advent of Whites in Natal "traditional authority" and "custom" was breaking down through Shaka's wars and the consequent upheavals and repercussions. No wonder that the missionaries had it relatively easy to evangelise the Africans and the Africans responded by forming the Ethiopian movement. The Whites were hostile to Ethiopianism which to them was tantamount to a swear-word.

Dube's elite straddles two eras: he witnessed the dramatic changes in African life consequent upon industrialisation. He saw the destruction of African independence and conversion of his people from independent freedom fighters and warriors into "house-boys" and "garden-boys", of independent peasants into dispossessed rural and urban wage workers. He recognised the creation of an urban proletariat and tried to articulate some of its grievances but he could not provide the leadership this new class needed, nor could he empathise with its aspirations.

It was the new crop of leaders, notably Alison Wessels George Champion, a man of completely different style and background, with an urban constituency who were to play this role. From the mid 1920's until Dube's death in 1946 the two contended for dominance in African politics in Natal. Not that the views of the two were mutually exclusive. The same contradictions in Dube's politics were evident in Champion's activities as well. But Champion appealed to much more of a mass audience and was a leader of the "industrial" workers whilst Dube was still part of the religious Amakholwa community. Both showed the same swing between belligerence and servility in their attitude to Whites. But because of land shortage their priorities and even the political philosophy of self-help overlapped. Champion as president of the Natal ANC tried (not unlike Dube) to run the Natal ANC independently of the National Executive Committee.

Dube held contradictory beliefs and values: he was anti-communist but at the same time invited Edward Roux from the Communist Party to coach boys at Ohlange which Roux did.

The depression and drought in the 1930's made the land question even more acute. Dipping schemes were being violently rejected and tax-collectors forcibly ejected from villages; growing militancy in the towns particularly in Durban where squalor, stagnation wages and political repression were ever present; opposition to beer halls and pass laws was the order of the day and police brutality ever present - Johannes Nkosi; communist activist was murdered in Durban on December 16 1930. These were the years of depression and drought and the population increase convinced Dube, more than ever before, of the futility of "violence" in the face of white power; he tried to find an alliterative. The aftermath of the Bambata rebellion was still fresh In his mind; his deeply ingrained desire for law and order - an African tradition "reinforced" and distorted by missionary education - led to some of his inconsistency.

Dube took great pride in his Zulu past - and like many Africans from other ethnic groups - on occasions allowed it to dominate his actions but he was consistent in stressing the great need for African unity. He sympathised with the independent church movement: in 1936 he wrote a short biography of the prophet Shembe, founder of the influential independent church in Natal, the church of Ama-Nazarethi. He strongly believed that education and knowledge were the key to advance. Dube, being exempted from Native Law, could not be dealt with as summarily as both the Minister of Native Affairs and the Governor might have wished.

What should be noted is that Dube's strategy and ideology were outflanked by the times. He had not changed from being a radical to being a conservative as Eddie Roux suggests in his debatable book "Time Longer Than Rope". He died believing in racial equality; demanding justice and striving for African unity. These were revolutionary goals directly challenging the basis of white power and he believed in this to the end of his life. He fought all his life for the unity and liberation of the Africans - a unity and liberation he saw as coming through education, through working with sympathetic whites, through adoption of Christian values and, more importantly, through political organisation under the umbrella of the ANC.

Vil-Nkomo summed up his life when he wrote in Umteleli wa Bantu on February 26,1946 that Dube:

"has revealed to the world at large that it is not quite true to say that the African is incompetent as far as achievement is concerned".

Sechaba, January 1982

A Talk Upon My Native Land”.

This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
AODL African Studies Center MSU NEH Matrix