Letter of John Langalibalele Dube, accepting position of president of South Sfrican Native National Congress, 2 February 1912

[John Langalibalele Dube could not attend the Conference in Bloemfontein on 8 January 1912 which founded the South African Native National Congress (later renamed the African National Congress) and elected him President. He wrote a letter to the participants in the Conference accepting the position. It was published in his paper, Ilanga Lase Natal, February 2, 1912.]

Chiefs and gentlemen of the South African Native National Congress!

It is meet that my first word to you should be one expressive of my high and heartfelt appreciation of the confidence which my countrymen assembled in Bloemfontein have thought well to repose in me, and of my thanks for this unique honour, all unexpected and undeserved, which they have thrust upon me. Not even present at their gathering (having been unavoidably debarred that pleasure by pressing educational and editorial calls at home), they nevertheless went out of their way to seek me out in this remotest corner of Natal and to elect me the first President of this the first interstate Native Congress of all South Africa. For this kind act I now do thank them and the dignity bestowed I formally accept.

Gentlemen, it seems to me that the day of our race’s renaissance is at length at hand, indeed it would not be inappropriate to mark the 8th day of January, and in future years, so to commemorate it as the “red-letter day” of our people’s hopes, as the Birthday of our existence as a political entity in this new South Africa.

I say this “new South Africa!” for the South Africa we see today developing before us is no more the South Africa known to our fathers. Yet none the less will it be the home and native land of our children.  And for them we have to make straight the path and prepare a comfortable “place in the sun.” Although, as a race we possess the unique distinction of being the first born sons of this great and beautiful continent; although as a race we can claim an ancestry more ancient than almost any round about us, yet as citizens of the glorious British Empire, we are the last born children, just awaking into political life, born on this 8th day of January, in this year 1912.

Yes, politically, new born babes, we are still very young and inexperienced, and as such it behoves us to feel our way slowly and warily. While teaching ourselves to walk boldly and upright before all mankind, we must still be careful ever to seek out the way where wisdom (nor mere sentiment or desire) leadeth, treading softly, ploddingly, along the bright path illumined by righteousness and reason””the steep and thorny path, yet only one that will safely and surely lead us to our goal, the attainment of our rightful inheritance as sons of Africa and citizens of the South African Commonwealth.

Many are the difficulties I foresee in our way””enemies without, fierce but frank; dangers within, undesigned perhaps, but still more harmful. It will be an uphill fight, but our watchword shall be “Excelsior!”””Onward, higher; cautiously plodding! By dint of our perseverance, our patience, our reasonableness, our law-abiding methods, and the justice of our demands, all these obstacles shall be removed and enemies overcome. We have been distinguished by the world as a race of born gentlemen””a truly glorious title, bestowed on few other peoples!””and by the gentleness of our manners(poor though we may be, unlettered and ill-clad) and by the nobility of our character shall we break down the adamantine wall of colour prejudice and force even our enemies to be our admirers and our friends.

Gentlemen, for better or worse, even you have selected me to be for the nonce your president. As such I trust you will therefore permit me to indicate the way, and I trow I shall never lead you astray. For while I shall at all times endeavour to be a straight goer, I propose also to be a strong leader””not one dragged by the nose, still less one pulled by the tail, for as already said, my war-cry is””Onward! Upward into the higher places of civilization and Christianity;--not backward into the slump of darkness, nor downward into the abyss of antiquated tribal system””our salvation is not there, but in preparing ourselves to take an honoured place among the nations.

You have asked me to lead, and perchance you would ask me how I intended to do so. I will show you my frame of mind and my ideal in two words””I take for my motto(and I hope as my faithful and dutiful followers, it will yours also), Festina lente, Hasten slowly,; and for my patron saint I select that great and edifying man, Booker T. Washington.

I recognize that the hour is come when we, the Native races of South Africa, must be up and doing; for God helps those who help themselves. But I recognise too the necessity of moving cautiously, of making progress prudently. I see the danger we have to fear, lest the too impetuous amongst us, become too ambitious to the start, too pushful, too eager to attain their majority in a day; in a word, contracting swelled head, and toppling over the apple-cart. Therefore, I say, festina lente.

And Booker Washington is to be my guiding star(would that he were nigh to give us the help of his wise counsel!) I have chosen this great man, firstly, because he is perhaps the most famous and best living example of our Africa’s sons; and secondly, because, like him, I too have my heart centred mainly in the education of my race; therein me thinks lies the shortest and best way to their mental, moral, social and political betterment. Throughout ten long, tiring years and up to the present moment I have sacrificed all my time, all my strength and all my means upon this altar of my people’s supremest need””the need of an enlightenment, of knowledge, of understanding, of refinement of manners and refinement of mind. And if for the nonce I am ready to respond to my compatriots’ call to serve them in the more urgent, and withal more perilous sphere of political activity, I shall on that account by no means lessen my educational and editorial effort on their behalf. On the contrary, I cherish a hope that my more honoured position in the Native Commonwealth and my wider contact with the native world may rather tend to make these efforts still more extensive and effective.

All the same, while I believe that in education my race will find its greatest earthly blessing, I am forced to avow that, at this present juncture of the reformation of the South African Commonwealth, it has a still more pressing need””the need of political vigilance and guidance, of political emancipation and rights.

This NATIVE CONGRESS, then,--if I may venture to speak as its appointed mouthpiece””representing as it does the whole body of educated Nativedom throughout South Africa, respectfully tenders the Government its submission and its support, and prays that the Government may in return honour it with its confidence and grant its lawful requests their due consideration.

The policy which I am convinced, will prove the surest and quickest(and the policy which I hope our Society will follow) is one of deep and dutiful respect for the rulers whom God has placed over us; a policy of hopeful reliance in that sense of common justice and love of freedom so innate in the British character, that these will ultimately triumph over all other baser tendencies to colour prejudice and class tyranny. I feel assured that, if we approach this inherently religious and magnanimous British people in a respectful and reasonable manner, they will not refuse us a hearing, and will not refuse us our rights. Indeed they it is who have taught us to seek and strive; we follow but their own example; Whatever political rights the British citizen now enjoys, he has won only at the cost of centuries of constant struggle; and surely he will not think ill of us if we now humbly follow in his footsteps. But while we wage our little war, it shall always and only be along the constitutional way of peaceful endeavour and patient pegging away. An honest, manly fight every Britisher admires. We propose to put one up; and by God’s help we shall win.

JOHN L. DUBE