What would the father of the ANC say about Africa today?

2011-09-30 00:00

IN 1906, at Columbia University in the United States, a law student from Zululand delivered an award-winning speech about his vision for the regeneration of Africa.

Among the many things he said was: “The African already recognises his anomalous position and desires a change. The brighter day is rising upon Africa. Already I seem to see her chains dissolved, her desert plains red with harvest, her Abyssinia [Ethiopia] and her Zululand the seats of science and religion, reflecting the glory of the rising sun from the spires of their churches and universities.”

Six years later, on January 8, 1912, the same lawyer stood up to address a gathering of African leaders and kings in a packed hall in Mangaung, Bloemfontein. In his address he said: “The demon of racialism, the aberrations of the Xhosa-Fingo, the animosity that exists between the Zulus and the Tongas, between the Basothos and every native, must be buried and forgotten; it has shed among us enough blood. We are one people. These divisions, these jealousies are the cause of all our woes and all our backwardness and ignorance today.”

At the end of his speech, he proposed to the delegates that they form a congress that would unite all the people of southern Africa. The motion was adopted and the delegates stood up, clapped and Tiyo Soga’s hymn Lizalisi Idinga Lakho Nkulunkulu Weqiniso (Fulfil your Promise God of Truth) was sung. The South African Native National Congress was formed, changing its name in 1924 to the African National Congress. This day Seme saw his dream of launching an organisation that would facilitate the liberation of his people. But who was he?

Pixley ka Isaka Seme was born on October 1, 1881, at Inanda Mission Reserve outside Durban. He was the son of Kuwana Isaac (Isaka) and Sarah (née Mseleku) Seme, devout members of the American Zulu Mission. Kuwana owned a transport business and was an interpreter for the Reverend Stephen C. Pixley. Both parents died while he was still young, leaving him in the care of his siblings. Seme’s real name is not known even by his closest family members. He used his father’s name, Isaac or Isaka in Zulu and Reverend Pixley’s surname, becoming known as Pixley ka Isaka Seme.

He obtained his primary education at the local mission school and then in 1895 he went to Adams College, where he studied and also helped by looking after Reverend Pixley’s cattle. Determined to get a better education for himself, in 1898 at the age of 16, he raised money and travelled alone to New York, Brooklyn, in the United States. It was here that he met J. L. Dube, his wife Nokutela and the Reverend C. S. Pixley. They helped him to settle in the U.S. and organised finances for his tuition.

He registered at Mount Hermon School, Massachusetts, where he did his theological studies. He supported himself by working in hotels and on trains to raise the required fees for upkeep and tuition. After finishing his studies in 1902, he proceeded to Columbia University where he graduated with a bachelor of arts in April 1906. The culmination of his time at Columbia University was when he won the prestigious oratorical honour, the George William Curtis medal, for his speech “The Regeneration of Africa”, in which he shared his dream for the regeneration of the African continent. Later in the same year he went to Oxford University where he registered for a bachelor of civil law. He obtained his bachelor of civil law in 1909 and was in the same year admitted to the bar in London. He came back to South Africa in 1910 and settled in Johannesburg.

In Johannesburg, Seme joined Advocate Alfred Mangena who helped him to be admitted as an attorney of the Supreme Court of South Africa. Then he opened his law firm at number 54/5 Rosenberg Arcade at the corner of Rissik and Marshall streets. Mangena and Seme were the first Africans to qualify as lawyers. His offices soon served as the founding base of the ANC.

He married Princess Phikisinkosi Zulu, the eldest daughter of King Dinuzulu. He bought a beautiful house in Sophiatown at 111 Bertha Street where he settled with his family. Seme and Phikisinkosi had three children, two boys and a girl. He also got married by traditional rites to a Swazi princess named Lozinja Dlamini.

In 1911, Seme sent letters to all the leaders of the tribes of South Africa and leaders of the regional congresses, inviting them to a meeting in Bloemfontein in 1912 where the formation of the nation-wide congress would be discussed. Over 60 delegates comprising kings, political leaders, religious leaders and chiefs, attended the meeting. It was at this meeting that he delivered a powerful speech calling his listeners to agree to the formation of the congress. When the congress was formed, John Dube was elected to the position of president. Seme became the treasurer. In 1928, Columbia University conferred on him an honorary degree of doctor of laws. He also became adviser to King Dinuzulu and the royal house.

He died in Johannesburg on June 11, 1951, at the age of 70. He was buried at the Croesus Cemetery at a funeral that was conducted by Bishop Ambrose Reeves.

Seme’s speech at Columbia University is held to be the foundation and manifesto of the African renaissance. He held the view that “regional and tribal differences among Africans had to be overcome by promoting a spirit of African nationalism.

I think that today he would be very concerned with the ethnic and xenophobic wars in Africa. I also think that he would not be amused by the divisions on the continent based on race. He embraced Africans as those people who shared a vision for the development of the continent in their minds and hearts.

Another contribution that Seme made was to see the connection between politics, law and economic empowerment. This was demonstrated when he formed the Native Farmers Association of Africa Limited, through which he mobilised marginalised black people, who were cramped and abused on farms, and encouraged them to pull their resources together to buy fertile land, get title deeds, build their own settlements and practise commercial farming. This scheme ensured that African people could build up communities run by themselves. A case in hand is the Daggakraal and Wakkerstroom settlements in Mpumalanga. The company raised the eyebrows of white farmers who soon realised that if not stopped, black people would end up buying most of the fertile land in South Africa and this would ensure their freedom and independence. This resulted in the enactment of the Native Land Act of 1913.

Another contribution that Seme made was the role he played as adviser to the British protectorates of Lesotho and Swaziland, helping them to negotiate their concessions, the return of their land from white settlers and, finally, their independence. He brought together the traditional leaders of the South African tribes and the ANC. Therefore, it is not surprising that when he needed funds to establish the ANC newspaper Abantu/Batho, he spoke to the queen regent of Swaziland, Labotsibeni Nxumalo, who donated an amount of £3 000. Seme used the paper to highlight the plight of black people so that they could receive sympathy from those who could help. I see this as a continuation of his dream of the regeneration of the African continent.

The difference between Seme’s time and ours is that Africa’s oppressors today are African leaders themselves. Now in Africa you have leaders who are richer than their countries. I wonder what Seme would say.

It is appropriate that as we move towards the centenary celebrations of the ANC we also remember the founding father of the vision for the regeneration of Africa and the African National Congress.



• Dr Simanga R. Kumalo works in the Ministry, Education and Governance Programme at the School of Theology and Religion, University of KwaZulu-Natal, PMB.


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