John Langalibalele Dube

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John Langalibalele Dube

John Langalibalele Dube (1870-1949) was a South African writer and propagandist for Zulu culture. He was one of the first writers in an African language.

John L. Dube was born on Feb. 11, 1870, at Inanda, Natal. His father was one of the first African ministers ordained by American missionaries. Dube studied at Oberlin College (1888-1890) and later at the Union Missionary Training Institute in Brooklyn.

On his return to Natal in 1901, his admiration for such leaders as Booker T. Washington drove him to found the first native-owned educational institution in South Africa, the Zulu Christian Industrial School, at Ohlange. Its purpose was to teach the Christian religion and modern skills while encouraging the development of Zulu culture. During the first decade of the 20th century, while writing articles in English for the Missionary Review of the World, Dube also launched the first Zulu newspaper, Ilanga laseNatal (The Sun of Natal), in the hope that it would provide useful training ground for future Zulu writers, as indeed it did.

In 1912, when the threat of racialist Boer supremacy in the newly formed Dominion of South Africa awoke African intellectuals to the need for unified all-black action, John Dube was elected the first president of the South African National Congress and was sent with a delegation to gain support in Great Britain. This was of no avail, and as a result of this failure, of personal quarrels among black leaders, and of financial troubles in the organization, Dube withdrew from the Congress in 1917 and dedicated himself to running his institute and his journal, to advising the Zulu royal house, and to writing Isitha somuntu nguye uqobo Iwakhe (1922; The Black Man Is His Own Worst Enemy), in which he preached the gospel of self-help and inner change.

This was one of the first books in Zulu by a native author. But Dube's chief contribution to the growth of vernacular creative writing was Insila ka Tshaka (1930), a semihistorical, ethnographical novel, which was later (1951) translated into English as Jeqe, the Bodyservant of King Tshaka and which recalls the power and the glory of the Zulu empire in the first half of the 19th century while stressing the bloodthirsty cruelty that was associated with it. Dube may be considered the founder of the Zulu novel: it was as a result of his example that the first Zulu novelist of note, R. R. R. Dhlomo (born 1901), gave up his awkward attempts at writing in English and turned to his native tongue. Insila ka Tshaka was Dube's only venture in prose fiction: he later turned back to straight didactic writing, especially a biography of Isaiah Shembe, a Zulu prophet and founder of a dissident church, who died in 1935 after composing the earliest original hymns in the language.

But Dube had not given up politics altogether. While disappointment had caused him to renege his earlier radicalism, he had become the leader of the Natal Native Congress, which was considered eminently reliable by the South African authorities. In 1937 he was elected as Natal's delegate at the Natives' Representative Council, and he became the first African to be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of South Africa. He died on Feb. 11, 1949.

Further Reading

George Shepperson and Thomas Price, Independent African (1958), a study of the Nyasaland movement of 1915, contains numerous references to Dube and his activities. For general background on the area see Donald L. Wiedner, A History of Africa South of the Sahara (1962), and Eric A. Walker, A History of Southern Africa (1964). □

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John Langalibalele Dube

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