‘Renaissance of the race’

2012-01-07 10:16

On 8 January 1912 between 60 and 100 ‘chiefs and gentlemen’ met in Waaihoek, Bloemfontein, for four days of formal proceedings.

They represented virtually every African political association and large polity in the country, from the Cape peninsula to the far northern Transvaal, from the protectorates to major towns and cities.

Pixley ka Isaka Seme delivered a keynote address in which he made a direct connection between Africans’ exclusion from decision-making in South Africa and the need for them, in consequence, to find more effective ways to defend and promote their interests, both political and economic.

Like Dube (and many others) before him, he used the language of racial awakening to inspire and unite: ‘Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto God’.

At the end of his speech, he moved that the conference establish the South African Native National Congress.

Several delegates, including many chiefs, rose to support the motion, which was carried unanimously amid jubilant cheering.

The meeting agreed that the purpose of Congress was to promote unity and co-operation between African people and the Union government, to promote Africans’ social, economic and political development, and to incorporate chiefs more fully into the political affairs of the nation.

A committee was then appointed to draw up a constitution.

Then came the all-important business of electing office bearers.

A special committee had been tasked with putting forward nominations for the Presidency; its suggestions were John Dube, Edward Tsewu and Sefako Makgatho.?

Of the three, Dube was easily the best-known nationally, with almost matchless experience.

He was elected by a large majority. He was not there, however, to witness this moment of history, nor to receive the congratulations of the house.

He claimed to have been unavoidably detained at home by ‘pressing educational and editorial calls’?.

There was every reason to elect Dube as first President.

He was held in high regard for keeping Ilanga going under very difficult circumstances; two of its sister papers, Koranta ea Becoana and Izwi Labantu, had folded in the years immediately preceding.

He was also admired for fundraising tirelessly to keep Ohlange open, for this was an institution of which they were all immensely proud.

Everyone knew how difficult it was to achieve anything in the febrile climate of Natal, and many would have sympathised with his dilemma in dealing with those white politician ‘friends’ who pressured him to choose between roles.

Given the strong desire to bring chiefs into Congress, his well-known closeness to Dinuzulu would have been another important factor: ever since the prince’s trial, there had been a story about him almost every week in Ilanga.

There was also Dube’s special link to a man widely regarded as an inspiration, Booker Washington (see sidebar).

The assembled delegates clearly considered that what he stood for politically was in step with the values of their new Congress, and his commanding oratorical performance would be necessary to articulate these in fitting style.

It should also not be forgotten that although this was an exclusively male gathering, [his wife] Nokutela Dube’s talents were well known and respected in these circles: her tireless fundraising for Ohlange, [and her] significant contribution to music education and public speaking in the cause of African progress.

The Dubes’ songbook had just been published, and she had recently taken a leading role in the 75th anniversary celebrations of the American Zulu Mission.

She thus provided a most admirable role model of African womanhood. Finally, Seme, as Congress catalyst, owed Dube an enormous debt for the support he had received through his education abroad, especially in America.

The remaining executive positions were filled by nominations from the floor.

Dube’s new executive consisted of Seme as Treasurer, Solomon Plaatje as General Secretary, George Montsioa as Recording Secretary, and Thomas Mapikela as Speaker.

There were seven Vice-Presidents, including Sefako Makgatho, Simeon Kambule and Alfred Mangena. In recognition of the role he had played in preparing the ground for the formation of Congress, Walter Rubusana was made an Honorary President.

A number of chiefs, including Dinuzulu, were appointed to an ‘Upper House’ of Congress; their role was to advise the Congress ‘Commons’.

The Rev. Mqoboli of the Wesleyan Church became Chaplain, with Henry Ngcayiya, President of the Ethiopian Church, as Assistant Chaplain.

The rest of the conference was spent deliberating on papers on a variety of topics of close interest to the members, from obstacles to land ownership and the meaning of segregation to the problems deriving from liquor and the state of family life.

There were also resolutions to be drafted, approved and published; Rubusana was put in charge of a committee to see to this.

The conference closed in upbeat mood, with the chair exhorting the delegates to return home to spread the word that they were ‘now trees of one and the same forest’.

Dube issued an acceptance letter at the beginning of February, thanking his colleagues for their confidence, ‘all unexpected and undeserved’.

He described the inauguration of Congress as the ‘renaissance of the race’: although it could claim ancient rights to the continent, yet as citizens of a new world it was ‘young and inexperienced’.

He foresaw many difficulties in reaching the goals of Congress and counselled that its watchwords should be ‘festina lente – hasten slowly’ – to be ‘up and doing’, but to do so cautiously, ‘making progress prudently’...

He said he was choosing Booker Washington as his ‘patron saint’ as the most famous living example of what his race could achieve and one who had similarly toiled for its educational progress.

But he went further, noting that ‘political emancipation and rights’ were even greater needs.

Finally, he declared his deep respect for the country’s rulers and his faith in the righteousness of Congress’s cause.

As he pointed out, “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.”

Once Dube had accepted the presidency, he threw himself into the position with considerable energy. He inspired enormous enthusiasm for the new organisation and led a concerted national campaign against government policy.

In both these ventures, he oversaw Congress’s first real attempts to connect with ordinary Africans in towns, on farms and in the reserves. His responsibilities would take him all over South Africa as well as abroad again.

All through the year [1912], Dube had travelled up and down Natal, explaining to people why Congress had been formed.

Then in November came a high point: he crossed the Thukela, where only his ‘izinduna’ had spoken before, to convene a meeting on behalf of Congress at the court house in Eshowe, the administrative centre of Zululand.

A number of prominent chiefs attended, not least among them a member of the royal house, Mtonga Zulu, son of Mpande.

As the District Commissioner drily commented, ‘well-known supporters of the uSuthu cause, who are not in the habit of attending at the promulgation of Government laws or notices, or at the visit of any of the Ministers or high officials, were noticed amongst those assembled.’

The 300-strong crowd was made up mostly of outside people, with a sprinkling of Christians; a few white missionaries and officials were also present.

Dube began by noting how much it meant to him to be in Zululand, ‘our “England”’.

He explained the system of parliamentary repr

esentation that Congress was urging for Africans and why the current arrangement of seeking redress through magistrates was wholly inadequate.

To achieve anything at all, he stressed, they would have to be united and not feel afraid.

Dube asked those who accepted his message to raise their hands.

 Some doubted the practicality of his message: as one chiefly representative put it, ‘Can a rat speak to a fish?’ – a reference to Africans, who were land-lovers, and whites, who had come from across the sea.

Yet to Dube’s immense satisfaction, Mtonga Zulu was so enthused that he raised both arms, which prompted another listener to comment, ‘[that] made me feel like putting up both my legs’.

There was much laughter and applause, and shouts of ‘It is the voice of the people!’

» Hughes was born and raised in Johannesburg and taught African Studies at the (then) University of Natal. She was active in the UDF and was a researcher for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She now teaches at the University of Lincoln, UK.

First President is published by Jacana.

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