- First President: a life of John L Dube, founding president of the ANC
Heather Hughes' biography of the first president of the African National Congress (then known as the South African Native National Congress), founder of the Zulu Christian Industrial School (commonly known as Ohlange High School) and Ilanga laseNatali (now known as Ilanga) newspaper - all institutions still in existence today - provides the reader with a rich and yet complex story of a 'historically significant' figure in the annals of South African history. In some ways within African politics, the period from 1900 to 1915 belongs to John Langalibalele Dube. His work cut across various fields, key among them are education, media, politics (both local and national), and the world of letters. But it was in the institutions that he helped found that his impact on SA has been largely felt. So, it is no wonder that his influence in the South African political landscape has been quite visible and contested over the years. Interestingly, it might be precisely this significant presence of the figure of John Dube in the national life of South Africa that has meant that few scholars dared to grapple with the meaning of his work. Hughes suggests that it is partly because of the dearth or nonexistence of a John Dube archive.
First President begins with a rather sad story of the disposal (possible internment) of Dube's personal collection comprising diaries and letters when he died on February 11, 1946. The identity of a hand that saw to the safekeeping or destruction of Dube's personal records and artifacts remains a mystery to this day. I do not share the author's view that this 'incident should remain shrouded in mystery'. For, when I read the opening page of Hughes' biography of John Dube a few questions came to mind. First, what [End Page 159] does the narration of this story by members of the Dube family do to their own sense of who they are, when they know that someone out there might be in possession of the artifacts of their father, grandfather or great grandfather? Second, how does one come to terms with a (double) family loss (personal artifacts) that has a potential to impact on matters of inheritance across generations?
Notwithstanding the damage this particular act did on how historians and biographers reconstruct the life of John Dube, Hughes succeeds in giving a balanced account of Dube's life. The first three chapters of the book introduce the reader to personalities who laid a foundation for John Dube that had a profound impact on his life in the twentieth century. Hughes moves from the politics of the Zulu kingdom under kings Shaka and Dingane to a somewhat precarious settler politics of the colony of Natal in the early 1840s. Her account of these events are quite important because it was this unstable politics that provided space to James Dube and the Qadi rulers to reimagine their lives anew in the colony of Natal. James Dube provided a firm foundation for his son not only in material terms such as ensuring that he received education but also by anchoring John in the history and current events of the time. James Dube's naming of his son Langalibalele, after a well-known leader of the Hlubi people, was to be of seminal importance to John's firm belief in pragmatic politics in the twentieth century. Such an approach to politics also saw John Dube drawing from what remained of the strength of the Zulu royal house.
Chapter 4 takes the reader to the activities of John and Nokutela in the United States of America. It was during their travels to various towns and cities that the young Dube family consolidated its vision of what they wanted to initiate once they return home. While John Dube's public speaking skills were key to them raising money for the institutions they established in South Africa, Hughes suggests that Nokutela's music talent and skills were definitive. Chapters 7, 8 and 9 deal...