Nokutela Mdima was born in 1873 to Christian converts at a missionary station at Inanda, near Durban. After leaving Inanda Seminary School Mdima worked as a teacher, and married John Langalibalele Dube in 1894 in Inanda. John was the son of the Reverend James Dube, who was a minister at Inanda. The couple left South Africa in April 1896 and travelled to Britain. From there they sailed onto New York ,USA in May 1896.
While the Dubes were in the US they were inspired by the African-American educationist Booker T. Washington, who preached self-reliance – arguing black people had to make economic progress before they could make political progress. Their main training,however, came from the Union Missionary Training Institute where 30 to 45 Christian missionaries from Europe, Asia, Australia, Arabia, and Africa studied. This Brooklyn establishment was able to exist because pastors and professors would volunteer their time. While she was in America the Woman’s Board of Missions published her story, Africa – The Story of My Life, in 1898.
She was “young, with blazing black eyes, smooth brown skin and handsome regular features,” says an article first published in the New York Tribune in 1898. “She speaks good English with a deliberation that is charming and in the softest voice in the world. Her manner is grace itself.”
After returning to South Africa and teaching at Inanda they set up Ohlange Institute, becoming the first black South Africans to start a school. It was her husband who was offered the opportunity to use a farm that his cousin had bought, but it was Nokutela’s links back to Mary Edwards, who led her old school, that substantially helped the couple establish Ohlange Institute.
The Dubes returned to the US at least twice to raise funds for the school – John would speak and Nokutela would perform traditional Zulu songs and play the piano and autoharp, a hand-held wooden box with strings that are plucked.
At Ohlange Institute Nokutela taught music, cooking, housekeeping and tailoring, and also sang and played traditional instruments on fundraising tours. With her husband, she co-wrote Amagama Abantu (A Zulu Song Book), published in 1911. This book is regarded as a milestone in the creation of a new type of Zulu choral music. The Dubes described these secular songs as the first to combine Zulu and European traditions in Christian music. The first printing of this book records both John and Nokutela as joint authors in a plural form of isiZulu.
In addition to his literary works, the Dubes founded the first isiZulu/English newspaper Ilanga laseNatali (The Sun of Natal) in 1903. The Dubes are also credited with making the song “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” popular. The song was sung regularly at morning assembly by Ohlange Institute’s choir. The choir played it at the first meeting of the South African Native National Congress,(the forerunner to the African National Congress) meeting in 1912. It was sung after the closing prayer and the ANC adopted it as its official closing anthem in 1925.
Nokutela Dube`s pioneering work amongst women inspired Lillian Tshabalala and others to found the club movement called “The Daughters of Africa”, in Natal in 1932, modelled on the African-American women’s club movement.
Nokutela and John Dube’s failure to have children was seen to reflect badly on Nokutela and John fathered a child with one of their pupils. In her own childhood, Nokutela had written of the importance and expectation that her people put on having children. A committee was set up to investigate her husband, but they took no action and Nokutela felt humiliated.The couple separated in about 1914, and Nokutela moved to the Transvaal, where she preached in rural communities before becoming ill with kidney disease.
She returned to live with her husband in Johannesburg, and died in 1917 at the age of 44. Her funeral was attended by Pixley ka Isaka Seme and other prominent members of the African National Congress.For almost a century, Nokutela Dube’s remains lay forgotten in the Brixton Cemetery, in Johannesburg, marked simply by a small plaque with the racist initials “CK” which stood for “Christian Kaffir”, and the number 2973.
An official plague was erected on her grave after it was identified by the Johannesburg Parks Service in 2009.In 2013 a headstone for Nokutela Dube was unveiled at an official ceremony in the presence of hers and John Dube`s descendants, and hosted by the Johannesburg City Council.
In 2012, the Carleton College in Minnesota, USA in conjuction with its Head of African Studies Prof Cherif Keita, made a documentary film about the life of Nokutela Dube. Named Ukukhumbula uNokutela – Remembering Nokutela, the film fullfilled the college and Prof Keita`s aim was to raise awareness of Nokutela`s pioneering deeds and work at the turn of the 20th century both in South Africa and in the United States.View the official film trailer below: