Excavating forgotten histories in South Africa

Remembering Adelaide Tantsi Dube’s poem 'Africa: My Native Land,' first published in 1913, the same year the white government stripped black South Africans of their land.

Ohlange Institute (Ccarlstead, Flickr CC).

When the 1913 Land Act of the Union of South Africa is recalled in the public imagination, Sol Plaatje’s name and book Native Life in South Africa become the obvious example which captures that historical moment. The Land Act legislated the dispossession of land which had already begun with Dutch settler colonialism; it further entrenched land segregation by prohibiting black people from buying and occupying 93 percent of the land. The remaining 7 percent was demarcated as “native reserves” for the majority of the population. Plaatje’s book was an expose of the effects of the law; he began writing the book in 1914 to share his observations with an international audience and garner sympathy for the growing resistance against the law. While Plaatje’s work is an extensive and rich historical text, I have often wondered what it would mean to read the text in conversation with Adelaide (Tantsi) Dube’s poem “Africa my native land” which was also published in 1913.

The lack of engagement by the public and mainstream education with a variety of historical texts which help with the work of remembering and unremembering poses questions about how narratives are shaped and reshaped over time. The nature of historical studies and analysis remains preoccupied with historical events and profiles of history makers—who are mostly men—as though events happened in isolation rather than in conversation with a complex set of circumstances. This is to say, history is configured through the eyes of those who have access to knowledge production in elite institutions without a serious consideration of oral history.

Published in October 1913, four months after the Land Act passed, “African my native land” raises questions about the poet as well as the ways in which women were participating in public discourse in early 1900s South Africa. Adelaide Tantsi was a writer, activist and teacher who was Charlotte Maxeke’s peer at Wilberforce Institute in Ohio from 1901 until 1904. She was one of the handful of South Africans studying at Wilberforce and returning to South Africa to establish schools and churches. However, in spite of her connection with this small group of the educated elite, little has been written about Adelaide Tantsi in textbooks and historical narratives about early 1900s South Africa other than that she was married to John Langalibalele Dube’s brother (the founding president of the South African Native National Congress, the precursor to the African National Congress), Charles Dube.

Virtually nothing is written about any other writing Tantsi may have contributed to newspapers or her involvement in politics during a period where public discourse was growing in the newspapers in the 1900s. The absence of engagement with Adelaide’s intellectual and cultural production highlights the nature of erasure of black women who wrote themselves into history. Furthermore, her absence reveals the ways in which the transnational experience of black women are seldom taken seriously. The most recent attempt to address this marginalization of black women’s internationalism can be found in the book To Turn the Whole World Over: Black Women and Internationalism (2019) edited by Keisha N. Blain and Tiffany M. Gill, which locates black women within the conversation of internationalism, which is often dominated by narratives about men who were traveling and sharing ideas in the nineteenth century. The book shows how women are part of this tradition, advancing women’s rights and laying the foundation for feminism.

The poem is the only clue we have of Adelaide’s voice and her own engagement with the Land Act which altered the lives of black people and continues to have a political and social presence in South Africa. The poem was published in the newspaper, Ilanga laseNatali, and has been anthologized in other texts such as Women Writing Africa: Southern Region which offers the most extensive information available about Adelaide’s biography, even though it is scant considering that she founded and taught a school she established in Johannesburg before joining Dube’s school, Ohlange Institute in Natal.

I am most interested in the final stanza of the poem:

Despair of thee I never, never will,
Struggle I must for freedom—God’s great gift

Till every drop of blood within my veins
Shall dry upon my troubled bones, oh
thou Dearest Native Land!

These lines resonate with the political rhetoric of African nationalism, suggesting evidence of a poet attuned with the public discourse of her time. “Struggle I must for freedom” continues to resonate in political discourse even today. It is possible that Adelaide could have been a prolific writer whose work remains in the newspaper archive waiting to be excavated. The challenge with the newspaper archive is access; most newspaper archives have only been recently digitized but mostly remain inaccessible in university databases. Other newspapers were destroyed or lost as they were not deemed as a valuable archive to protect.

This is the challenge with erasure: the idea of women in public life seems to emerge anew as though there is no tradition and lineage which has already normalized the political involvement and intellectual labor of black women. But the archives tell us otherwise. Women such as Adelaide Tantsi, Nokuthela Dube, Charlotte Maxeke, Nontsizi Mgqwetho, Lilian Tshabalala, Mina Soga, Frieda Matthews, and Ellen Pumla Ngozwana Kisosonkole (to name a few) were not only in conversation with each other, but they actively participated in the political and social affairs of their time. Without an acknowledgment of these voices and a rich tradition of public engagement, the narratives we hold about the past remain incomplete.

Further Reading