"One day I was in the Township with this driver and we went past a line of men who were all handcuffed. I don't know what for, maybe for having no pass or something. Anyway the driver said, 'Why don't you ever draw things like that?' I didn't know what to say. Then just when I was still thinking, a funeral for a child came past. A funeral on a monday morning. You know, all the people in black on a lorry. And as the funeral went past those men in handcuffs, those men watched it go past, and those with hats took off their hats. I said to the guy I was with, 'That's what I want to draw!' "
Dumile was born on May 21st 1939 in Worcester, a little town in the Cape Province, to devout Christian parents who were descendants of the Xhosa tribe. His father was an active lay preacher. At the age of 6, after his mother's death, the family moved to Cape Town. Life was hard, as the artist recollected: "One day when I was very small, I was walking in the street and I found a guitar. A real, new guitar just lying there! I picked it up and took it home. Hey, I was so happy! But my Father was evangelist and he wouldn't let me play it. So it just sat there. And then one day I pulled off one string and another day I pulled off another string. It wasn't being used. Then I began to pull it apart and one day we used it for firewood."
From an early age he loved drawing and carving, and visited the nearby Xhosa caves to see rock paintings done by his ancestors. He was known to draw on every conceivable surface, which led to considerable trouble at school where he would be punished for defacing school books. For him it was a compulsion, and so as to avoid punishment and to spend more time with his friends he began to skip lessons, although even when playing truant he would sit and draw whilst his friends played on the swings.
At the age of eleven his father's health began to deteriorate, and he was sent to live with his uncle in Johannesburg. Six years later in 1959, his father died. The same year Dumile began working in a pottery, painting 'native scenes' which featured the familiar aloes, huts, hillsides and blanketed figures of the African landscape. He continued working in the pottery until 1963 when he contracted tuberculosis and had to be isolated in the Baragwanath Sanatorium for 3 months. Fortuitously, he met another talented young man, Ephraim Ngatane, who would later become an artist and lifelong friend. By this stage Dumile had begun doing his own sculptures and was keen to develop his skill as a stone carver. His confidence received a further boost when the nurses asked him and Ngatane to paint murals in the sanatorium.