August 7, 2017
Why would Nelson Mandela cast his first vote in an Indian township in the homelands of the Zulu when he came from the Xhosa people? Today’s adventure in Durban took me some distance from the standard tourist fare. Instead, I was able to learn a little bit about the lives of three men who began bending the arc of South African history toward justice: Mohandas K. Gandhi, Isaiah Shembe, and John L. Dube.
My destination was the Inanda Heritage Route. From the information I could find online, it was apparent that I would be heading well off the beaten path for this adventure. I was able to navigate the construction site at the entrance from the M41 to the N2. The red earth of Durban was very apparent! I traveled south to the R102 and headed away from downtown; very shortly I was on the M25, traveling into townships and industrial areas. The M25 was tarred, which gave me some confidence. I grinned when I passed a garbage dumpster that was literally on fire; I hear the phrase “dumpster fire” frequently in relation to the news, and here was the real deal! Every kilometer or so I saw a series of blue and white flags celebrating the people whose former homes I would visit today. Soon I turned onto a small dirt road, flanked by shacks, that led up a short hill to my first site for the day. An attendant waved me into the parking lot for Phoenix Settlement.
While people associate Gandhi with India casting off English rule, few realize that the first two decades of his career in social justice took place in South Africa. When Gandhi arrived in South Africa in 1893, he was really struggling to get his law career into motion. After he was thrown off a train in Pietermaritzburg for trying to use his first-class train ticket, his consciousness that racial discrimination must be countered began to grow. He read Tolstoy, Ruskin, and Thoreau avidly.
In 1904, Gandhi decided to create the Phoenix Settlement on 100 acres of land to the northwest of Durban. He named his house “Sarvodaya,” meaning “progress of all.” Life for the community that grew there was very spartan; Gandhi held that human work should always target needs rather than desires (a theme John Ruskin popularized in Unto This Last). He began to spin his own thread to weave homespun clothing.
His wife and children moved to join him, as did activists from throughout South Africa. Gandhi began a newspaper, entitled the Indian Opinion, and published it from the Phoenix Settlement. He continued to live in South Africa until 1914.
In the closing days of the Apartheid government, different ethnic groups were deliberately played against each other. During 1985, the Inanda area, adjoining the Phoenix Settlement, erupted in riots. Much of the Phoenix Settlement, including Sarvodaya, was burned to the ground. After 1994, however, the democratic government recreated the main buildings of Phoenix from historic photographs. Today, the former printing press serves as a computer skills training laboratory for the surrounding community under the Gandhi Development Trust, charging only R20 ZAR (less than $2 USD) for ten hours of training in Microsoft Word!
I enjoyed my time at Phoenix. The site acts as a guidepost to other historical sites linked to the Inanda community, with a museum featuring information about all three people I highlight in this post. I had the place to myself for a bit, but then two busloads of students from New Hampshire arrived at the site. They had come to Durban on a church mission trip.
Born in the 1870s to a Zulu family, Isaiah Shembe experienced a powerful vision while a young man, and he became part of the Wesleyan Church and then the Baptist Church. He became an evangelist, and his interaction with Nkabinde, a formerly Lutheran prophet, led him to create a healing ministry in 1910. Just a year later, he created the iBandla amaNazaretha (Nazareth Baptist Church), and he transformed a farm within walking distance of Gandhi’s Phoenix Settlement into the holy city of Ekuphakameni.
Shembe’s church has continued to grow in membership since his death in 1935, now incorporating millions of followers. Much of its appeal comes from his syncretic abilities, transforming the Zulu art of praise poetry into a powerful set of hymns. His hymnal, primarily composed between 1910 and 1940, may have been the first book ever published in the Zulu language. Today, one may see the “Nazaretha” described as an “African Initiated Church,” reflecting that its practices were defined by Africans for Africans. In 1976, the church suffered a schism, resulting in a new settlement being created a short drive to the west in Ebuhleni.
I was curious to learn more about the Nazaretha, but their towns were not set up as museums or monuments. I would have needed to set up prior arrangements with a tour guide to visit those locations. Instead I followed the buses of students from Gandhi’s site back to the tar road, through a couple of turns, and then hopped off the M25 onto a dirt track. It jolted upwards to a ridge featuring the Ohlange Library and the Ohlange High School. We had arrived at the Ohlange Institute!
Born in 1871 to Christian converts at the Inanda Mission Station, John Dube was destined to become the first president of the African National Congress. As a boy, John Dube got into a fight at school, and American missionary William Wilcox was asked to have a word with him. Their relationship grew over time, and when Wilcox returned to the United States, John Dube came along, becoming a student at Oberlin College in Ohio. His collaboration with Wilcox continued, though, and Dube began raising funds for a school in South Africa by giving talks on a tour through several states, and he authored a book on the challenges of being caught between the traditional values of his home and the structures of the Western world. He alternated between South Africa and the United States between 1892 and 1900, gaining an ordination as priest by the Congregational Church and forming a relationship with Booker T. Washington, who impressed upon Dube the importance of career training for empowering young people with self-reliance.
John Dube began making his mark on South Africa in 1900, when he founded the Zulu Christian Industrial Institute, renamed a year later to the Ohlange Institute. His chosen site was, again, within walking distance of the Phoenix Settlement and of the Shembe town of Ekuphakameni. It ranked as the first educational institution with a black director in South Africa. Its initial enrollment of 63 students soon bloomed to more than 100; by 1917, women were also allowed to enroll. In 1903, Dube created a Zulu-language newspaper Ilanga Lase Natal (the Natal Sun). His message of “Honour the man who works” and scornful “demise of the idler” began reaching a wider community. The school’s finances had become threatened enough by 1924 that Dube allowed the school to become part of the “Department of Native Education” (note that while the Nationalists did not bring “Apartheid” to the government until 1948, the earlier government under Smuts had plenty of racial limits in place).
Dube’s enduring relationship with the American religious community put him in a difficult position. He was committed to non-violence, and the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion put him on the opposite side of the Zulu chiefs. Nonetheless, his prominence in fostering the growth of the Zulu community positioned him well for the 1912 convocation of educated South African elites to establish the South African Native National Congress, renamed in 1923 to become the African National Congress.
When Nelson Mandela cast his ballot in 1994 at the John L. Dube building of the Ohlange Institute, he walked to the memorial monument at Dube’s grave and said, “I have come to report, Mr. President, that South Africa is now free.” He explained his decision to come to this site with these words:
I voted at Ohlange High School in Inanda, a green and hilly township just north of Durban, for it was there that John Dube, the first president of the ANC, was buried… When I walked to the voting station, my mind dwelt on the heroes who had fallen so that I might be where I was that day, the men and women who had made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause that was now finally succeeding… I did not go into that voting station alone on 27th April; I was casting my vote with all of them.
During my time at the Ohlange Institute, the students of the high school on the site showed a lot of curiosity about their visitors. One boy asked to have his picture taken with me. A group of girls were giggling behind me, and when I turned around to say hello, one said, “you are handsome!” We all laughed.
With these three giants in my mind, I was ready for a moment apart from the world. I should be clear that the two sites I had visited (Phoenix Settlement and Ohlange Institute) were quite close to the M25 highway that burrows into the heart of this principally Indian township. Both sites had security gates and personnel guarding entry, and I could walk around each with a sense of security. The dirt roads connecting the sites to the highway were somewhat worrisome, with shacks or cinderblock houses beside them. My next destination was at least a kilometer off the M25, though, and I was unsure what I would find.
Just navigating to the turnoff for Mzinyathi Falls was a bit shocking. On that route, the M25 juts north from a traffic circle that doubles as a public square / taxi minibus rank, and I missed my turn on the first attempt. I was soon back on course, driving past “tuck shops” built from shipping containers. When I saw the turn for the Falls, my face fell. The route south was just a dirt road of one lane. The Litchi-Car bounced and jostled merrily along, and soon the endless rows of shacks and cinderblock houses gave way to a ravine on the left side. No sign indicated that I had reached the falls, though, and I bounced on another quarter mile before turning around for fear that my car couldn’t navigate back up the slope.
When my eyes landed on the falls, though, I felt it was all worth it. Ironically, they were easier to see on the way back to the highway! I fell into conversation with Nehemiah, a Zambian who had come to South Africa to work in a friend’s shop (it didn’t turn out well). We stood at a half wall on the edge of the ravine, and I shot photos and videos of the cascade.
When one has been in a dry country for a while, the sound of water becomes a little magical, really. It does not surprise me that these falls are considered a holy place for baptisms by the followers of Isaiah Shembe. I loved the rainbow reflecting off the water vapor at the bottom. Perhaps South Africa has “moved on” from being the Rainbow Nation, but I still take comfort in my belief that the leaders of tomorrow still feel inspired by luminaries like Gandhi, Shembe, and Dube.