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First President of the ANC - John Dube

Research that led to a publication on John Dube, the founding president of the African National Congress (ANC), has had a significant impact on government, media and public history and debate in South Africa.

Professor of South African Studies Heather Hughes’ research on the eminent politician culminated in the first full-length Dube biography, First President.

The work, which required research across three continents and five languages, has changed attitudes towards Dube as a political leader and towards the role of women in African nationalism in the early 20th century.

Leading statesmen such as Dube would, in a less discriminatory society, have been well represented in archives.

However, because of the deprivation and denial resulting from apartheid, no important collections of personal papers of any leading African nationalist figures of this first generation have survived.

Professor Hughes hunted down many fragments from archival collections and took oral histories from Dube’s former colleagues, friends and acquaintances.

This research has enabled Professor Hughes to revise the standard account of Dube as the man who individually brought about transformative social and political change, by recovering the suppressed narrative of women’s roles in South African nationalism.

Professor Hughes was able to show that many achievements previously attributed to Dube should either be credited to his first wife, Nokutela, or jointly to the pair of them, such as the founding of the independent school, Ohlange.

"Not only was it the first full-length study of Dube's life, but it also uncovered the remarkable story of his first wife, Nokutela Dube. Given the dearth of black women in the story of South African politics, this was a very important thing to set down in writing for the first time."

First President has featured in the South African press, with many media outlets highlighting the role of Dube’s first wife in the growth of the ANC.

Professor Hughes was invited to select extracts of her work for a double-page spread in City Press, South Africa’s premier ‘black’ newspaper for the day of the ANC centenary. She was also interviewed on national television and radio.

Her work has featured on the blog posts of high-profile figure Zachie Achmat, a leading global campaigner for AIDS treatment, who called First President his book of the year.

Professor Hughes’ research has informed the South African government’s work on land reform and challenged public perceptions of the early history of the ANC. It was quoted extensively in a government green paper (2011) on land reform (which addresses one of the most pressing legacies of apartheid) to strengthen arguments for radical change in land tenure by demonstrating the parallels between land distribution a century ago and in the present day.

As a result of this paper, national reference groups on land reform were set up, working towards the establishment of a land rights management board.

Professor Hughes’ expert knowledge on the life and legacy of the Dubes resulted in her being awarded a contract to produce the content for a heritage exhibition at Dube Trade Port, the largest international air logistics hub in the subcontinent of Southern Africa.

The task entailed writing interpretive text on Dube and other historically prominent figures associated with the area. She included material on the achievements of Nokutela Dube for the first time in a public exhibition.