John L Dube: A Complex, Bright Sun of Africa

11 February 1871 – 11 February 1946
An almost forgotten aspect of the story is his remarkable wife uNokutela Dube

You have asked me to lead, and perchance you’ve asked me how I intend so. I will show you my frame of mind and ideal in two words – festina lente, hasten slowly. I recognise that the hour has come that we, the Native Races of South Africa, must be up and doing… But I recognise too the necessity of moving cautiously, of making progress prudently.”

Dr John L Dube
- Letter to the South African Native National Congress (later the ANC), accepting nomination as the founding President.

John Dube lived up to his middle name Langalibalele meaning “bright sun”. Dube shone as educator, poet, philosopher and leader but perhaps his most brilliant contribution was as a journalist, and founder of South Africa’s first indigenous Zulu newspaper “Ilanga Lase Natal” in 1903.

In his text, “History of the Black Press in South Africa- 1836- 1960”, Tim Couzens celebrates the contribution made by Dube to African Journalism by quoting M.T. Moerane, an editor of “The World” newspaper. In 1953 Moerane lauded “the builders” of the Black press, referring to Dube and his struggle against English Colonial censorship;

John Langalibalele Dube shone brightly in the firmament of journalism and politics.

John Langalibalele Dube shone brightly in the firmament of journalism and politics.

”The story of Ilanga is an epic of the mighty deeds of a great people, struggling relentlessly against the odds uncounted, pitting themselves against principalities and powers, a panaoramic pageant whose glories shall yet be sung, for the history of the last 50 years of Natal is mirrored in, nay, bound up with J.L. Dube and the Ilanga.”

The Inanda settlement – North of Durban – is Dube’s birthplace and an area that claims connections to many famous people including Mahatma Ghandi and the visionary Isaiah Shembe. Dube was later nicknamed uMafukuzela by his contemporaries. Translated from isiZulu, uMafukuzela unjengelanga means “one who sets his sights on many things and works tirelessly”.

After schooling at Adams College in Amanzimtoti, Dube went on to study theology at Oberlin College in the United States. The work of the prominent African-American orator, author and civil rights movement leader, Booker T. Washington, had a marked influence on Dube.

Husband & Wife Team

Upon returning to South Africa, Dube and his wife Nokutela founded the Zulu Christian Industrial School, later called the Ohlange Institute. It was dedicated to encouraging young people uplift themselves and find a place in modern society. Booker T Washington’s Tuskegee Industrial Institute in Alabama inspired the venture.

In his first editorial in Ilanga Lase Natal on 10 April 1903, he urged black South Africans to engage with his publication:

“Can’t you see how wise white people are? They read the same newspaper. African people should do the same, for when it comes to things that are educational and in terms of getting jobs, education and making us bright, we have to be united, in other words, we should become one bundle.”
Extract from Dr Dube’s first editorial, 10 April 1903

According to a South Africa History Online biography on J.L. Dube, Illanga Lase Natal featured stories on land controversies; laws and acts such as the poll tax; reports such as those of the South African Native Affairs Commission and on political and social developments. Informing black readers about all these issues would soon invite the anger of the Britisch Colonial Authorities.

H.J.E. Dumbrill describes the Bambatha Rebellion as Dube’s first trial of courage. Quoted by Tim Couzens in his piece, History of the Black Press in South Africa- 1836- 1960, Dumbrill describes the moment as follows:

“As the sole mouthpiece of the Zulus, suspicions abounded, especially in official circles, that Ilanga might have instigated the rebellion.”

The Bambatha Rebellion of 1906 was a turning point in South African history. English colonial authorities introduced a poll tax in addition to the existing hut tax to encourage more black men to enter the labour market. Chief Bambatha kaMancinza, leader of the amaZondi clan of the Zulu nation, resisted the introduction and collection of the new tax. His resistance led to a battle in which about 4,000 thousand Zulu warriors with only traditional weapons were massacred by the heavily armed British. Thousands more were flogged and jailed.

Ghandi Down the Road

Ironically down the road from him at the Phoenix Settlement, the young Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi (who later became known as The Mahatma) was actively campaigning for the British troops to use Indian reserve forces to be deployed alongside them, in opposition to tax resistors.

Sir Henry McCallum, a colonial governor at the time forced Dube to publish an apology that appeared in Ilanga as well as Natal’s colonial papers. McCallum was quoted as saying, “I presume you will acknowledge that we are the ruling race.” The McCallum insult and the Bambatha tragedy reflect a complex reality. In true journalistic fashion Dube gave neither side unqualified support. He was opposed to the imposition of the taxes but did not support the Rebellion.

An indication of his dynamic politics is that Dube opposed the arrest and trial of King Dinizulu after the Rebellion and raised funds for his defense. He also arranged a fundraising campaign to send representatives to Britain to protest about the unfairness of the poll and other oppressive aspects of the colonial system.

The Union of South Africa

A few years after the Bambatha Rebellion, white people began the constitutional discussions that led to the Union of South Africa in 1910. Black people were not consulted. Dube was part of a delegation that petitioned the House of Commons in London against the Act of Union. The petition failed.

Instead the South African Native Convention was held in 1912 and that in turn led to the formation of the SA Native National Congress. In 1923 the SANNC became the ANC. Dube accepted the invitation to become the founding president.

The 1913 Natives Land Act had a profound effect on African people across the country. Charged with an impulse to act, Dube led a delegation to protest against this legislation in 1914.

“We have seen our people driven from the places dear to them as the inheritance of generations, to become wanderers on the face of the earth. We have seen many of our people who by their frugality have laid by a little money in the hope of buying a small piece of land where they might make a home for their families and leave something for their children now told that their hopes are in vain; that no European is now permitted to sell or lease land to a native. We do not need any plainer explanation than what we have already seen.”
Extract from Dube’s letter of petition to Great Britain, 14 February 1914

Controversial Views

Dube’s views on segregation became a bone of contention within the SANNC. In his petition against the Natives Land Act of 1913, Dube argued that they (the SANNC) were not against segregation, but it’s unfair application. In the petition, Dube wrote:

“We make no protest against the principle of separation so far as it can be fairly and practically carried out. But we do not see how it is possible for this law to effect any greater separation between the races than obtains now. It is evident that the aim of this law is to compel service by taking away the means of independence and self improvement. This compulsory service at reduced wages and high rents will not be separation, but an intermingling of the most injurious character of both races.”
Extract from Dube’s letter of petition to Great Britain, 14 February 1914

The Congress believed that Dube had compromised on the principle of segregation. In 1917 Dube was ousted from the Presidency of the SANNC and was succeeded by Limpopo-born journalist and teacher Sefako Makgatho.

In 1930, Dube considered supporting the Hertzog Bills. JBM Hertzog, the then Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, was a staunch segregationist. Throughout the 1930s Hertzog’s government passed a number of bills that caused much misery for Africans on all levels – territorial, economic, political and educational. Dube hoped that support of the bills could provide additional funds for development.

In 1931, Heaton Nicholls, a British segregationist, approached Dube for support. Nicholls hoped that he and Dube could convince prominent African leaders across the country to support his Land Settlement scheme. The scheme set out a principle through which natives would be enabled to attain a higher standard of economic production under a system of “local self-government”. The Nicholls scheme, like the Hertzog Natives Bill, was coupled with an attempt to end the franchise of Cape Africans. In return for this, 8 Africans would be elected on equal terms with the Europeans to Senate.

This never transpired and Dube was left disillusioned. He later published a pamphlet, titled Criticisms of the Native Bills, detailing his disenchantment with the government.

Spreading Influence

Ilanga was widely circulated beyond the borders of Natal and Zululand. Muzi Hadebe is one of very few South African historians who have studied the work of Dube in detail. Hadebe notes that a cursory glance at the letters sent to Dube by the readership of the newspaper, indicates that the newspaper was most popular amongst black people nationwide. It served as a new ibandla – a council where people discuss their issues. People would gather together and listen to those who were literate read the newspaper to them. People were interested to hear what Dube had to say about various issues including the 1906 events.

Dube published letters in the newspaper that were critical of the colonial state. People wrote letters, commending him for the good work that he was doing in discouraging them to fight against the colonial state. There were many letters published in the newspaper. Some reader’s letters encouraged Dube with his work of informing the black people about issues that were important to their communities. These letters came from Natal, Zululand and beyond these borders. Those black people who were not involved in fighting wanted to be informed about the war. Ilanga became an important tool for Africans to respond to oppressive laws passed by the colonial government. The pages of Ilanga in the 1930s were filled with translations of these laws into Zulu, in an attempt to encourage Zulu speaking Africans to make their input. Ilanga provided a means for political education in Natal and beyond.

Almost forty years later MT Moerane (Couzens, 1984), paid fitting homage to South Africa’s brilliant son.
“In those days Dube fought and won freedom of expression for the Africans, but not before he was arraigned before the highest citizens of this Colony in her Majesty’s name. The Amagadi warriors rallied… Dube had won the freedom of the press.”

Nokutela Mdima Dube, a forgotten Pioneer.

Nokutela Mdima Dube, a forgotten Pioneer.

An aspect of the Dube story that we cannot ignore is the forgotten history of his one time wife, Nokutule Mdima Dube. Five years ago, Cherif Keita, a Malian-born Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Carleton College, a private liberal arts college in the USA, set himself the task of finding her grave and making her contributions and story more widely known by making a film about ‘Remembering’. His documentation of his quest to unearth and celebrate her genealogy has produced a marvelous excursion into the Nokutule story. At the top of this page is an extract from his film.

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African Nationalist: the Life of John Langalibalele Dube, by William Manning Marable. Published by Michigan Press, 1976. (Pg .63)

A Cursory Glance at the life of John Langalibalele Dube, by Miranda Perry. Published online:

A Talk Upon My Native Land, by John. L Dube. Published by R.M. Swinburne & Co. Printers. Rochester (New York), 1892.

Blood from your children, the colonial origins of generational conflict in South Africa, by Benedict Carton. Published by University of Natal Press, 2000.

History of the Black Press in South Africa - 1836 to1960 by Tim Couzens, 1984.

Pleading for clemency through poetry: discursive issues in the 1906 Poll Tax Rebellion, Muzi Hadebe. Published by Indiana University (Bloomington). (Pg. 7 – 11)

Oberlin – Inanda: The life and times of John L. Dube, a film review by Mwenda Ntarangwi. Published online:

Reluctant Rebellion: the 1906-08 disturbances in Natal, by Shula Marks. Published by Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.

Segregation and Apartheid in Twentieth Century South Africa, by William Beinart and Saul Dubow. Published by Routledge, April 2013.

South Africa History Online