BOOK EXTRACT: The Man Who Founded The ANC

2017-06-04 06:02

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Bongani Ngqulunga

A fascinating new book on Pixley ka Isaka Seme offers a biographical journey of the man who, at the age of 30, in 1912, formed a political organisation which represented all black South Africans. And yet, when became president general of the ANC in the 1930s, he brought it to its knees.  The book traces his triumphs and challenges, beginning with his humble formative years at Inanda Mission to his death in 1951 

A Biography of Pixley ka Isaka Seme by Bongani Ngqulunga

Penguin Random House, 328 pages, Price: R280

Seme’s re-entry into active politics in the ANC after almost two decades of absence was dramatic. The occasion was the ANC’s elective conference, which started on Monday 21 April 1930, in Bloemfontein. 

It was exceptionally well attended by between 350 and 400 delegates from all over South Africa and the protectorates. The delegates were divided into two main camps, with radicals sitting on the left side of the hall and moderates on the right. Leading the moderate wing was the old guard of the ANC, which had turned out in numbers. All three ex-presidents – Reverend John Dube, Reverend Zaccheus Mahabane and Sefako Makgatho – were present. So too were founding fathers of the organisation, such as R.V. Selope Thema, Thomas Mtobi Mapikela, H. Selby Msimang and Pixley Seme. Leading the radical wing were Cape communists Bransby Ndobe and Elliot Tonjeni, S. Malkenson from Bloemfontein, and Allison W.G. Champion from Natal (who, though not a communist, joined the radical camp at the conference). The battle lines had been drawn well before the conference, and each group was itching for a fight. Both sides got what they wished for – and more. 

Right from the start, the conference descended into chaos and disorder over the presidential address delivered by Josiah T. Gumede, president of the ANC at the time. In a fiery speech he charged that the laws General Hertzog’s government were spearheading in Parliament were tantamount to a declaration of war against black people. Gumede urged the ANC to adopt a new strategy. Rather than continuing to send deputations to the government and to England, black people should rely on their ‘own strength, [and] on the strength of the revolutionary masses of white workers the world over with whom we must join forces’. The object of their struggle should be to ‘demand our equal economic, social and political rights’. Those rights could only be attained through a ‘South African Native Republic, with equal rights for all, but free from all foreign and local domination’. 

Moving to the international front, Gumede expressed his support for Soviet Russia and exhorted delegates to support peasant workers in their battle against what he called the ‘onslaught of the enemies of the oppressed peoples of the world’. He then urged the conference and the ANC in general to adopt the slogan ‘Defend the Soviet’. Gumede’s proposal for a South African Native Republic and his plea for support of the Soviet Union confirmed the moderates’ belief that he was trying to turn the ANC into a political front for the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). The moderates fiercely protested that Gumede’s speech did not reflect ANC policy and that the executive committee had not been consulted when it was drafted. The radicals in turn shouted down the moderates. Thomas Mtobi Mapikela, a veteran leader from the Free State and speaker of the ANC, could not control the conference from the chair. At one point William G. Ballinger, advisor to the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU), was requested to quieten down the radical section of the conference, but he too failed. Pixley Seme’s moment arrived when a president general had to be elected. Together with Reverend Mahabane and Gumede, Seme was nominated for the position. 

Before the voting began, Mahabane withdrew from the contest, ostensibly to prevent a split of the moderate vote between himself and Seme. That left Gumede and Seme as candidates. Ballot papers were issued to the delegates, but when they were returned the speaker, Mapikela, declared that they exceeded the number originally issued. He called for the vote to be declared null and void and for a revote to take place. This drew loud protests from the radicals, who called Mapikela’s decision unconstitutional. They called for Mapikela to step down as the chair, chanting ‘Chuck him out, chuck him out’. It was only after Gumede’s intervention that they quietened down and a fresh vote was taken. The results of the election were clear and decisive: thirty-nine votes for Seme and only fourteen for Gumede. Pixley ka Isaka Seme had returned from the political wilderness to lead the organisation he had founded in 1912. If anyone expected that the decisive result in favour of Seme would settle the conflict between the moderates and radicals, they were mistaken. 

The next point of contention was the appointment of persons to serve on the executive committee under the leadership of President General Seme. Gumede had amended the constitution to allow the president to appoint members of the national executive, instead of their being elected at an elective conference. Accordingly, Seme appointed T.D. Mweli Skota (secretary general), S.M. Makgatho (treasurer general), Dr A.B. Xuma (assistant treasurer and chairman of the Committee of Health), Reverend J.L. Dube (chairman of the Education Committee), H. Selby Msimang (chairman of the Commerce and Labour Committee), Reverend Z.R. Mahabane (senior chaplain and parliamentary reporter), Chief Stephen Mini (organiser of chiefs), R.V. Selope Thema (chief organiser of Congress and corresponding secretary), T.M. Mapikela (speaker and assistant treasurer), D.S. Letanka (organiser of chiefs), S.P. Matseke (deputy speaker and organiser), A.Z.D. Mazingi (clerk and chief organiser for the Cape Province), and Mrs Matambo and Mrs Mahabane (chairperson of the Women’s Auxiliary of the ANC).There was not a single communist in the executive. 

The exclusion of Gumede, whom the radicals had supported, provoked them into a chorus of protests. They threw down the gauntlet to Seme’s executive and vowed to organise against it. Seme took up the challenge, declaring that the ANC would not serve as a refuge for communists and that his executive would introduce measures to root them out. While making the statement, Seme was heckled and booed. On that dramatic note Seme’s improbable ascendance was complete – improbable partly because he had been absent from the ANC for almost two decades. However, his election as president general was a sign of the depth of the crisis that the ANC faced under Gumede.

Later on, the question of Seme’s return would become a major debating point, but for now the founder of the ANC was seen as its saviour. For his part, Seme later contended that an ANC resolution had unanimously been passed, inviting him to ‘come back to re-organise the African National Congress and to lead them as their President General’. However his return would later be explained, Seme had been brought back primarily to unite and guide the organisation after the deep divisions of Gumede’s presidency.

There is a second reason why Seme’s ascendance was improbable. A few months before his election, Seme had written to Allison Champion, acting general secretary of the ICU at the time, suggesting that the two of them work together to ‘organise The African Union and swallow up the defunct Congress [i.e. the ANC] in course of time’. So committed was Seme to establishing a political party that would compete with the ANC that he was ready to enter into a discussion about the ‘term and the constitution of such a body as I propose herein’. He outlined the approach that needed to be followed in dealing with the ANC by proposing that the African Union ‘may be started not as in opposition to the existing Congress but as an independent party within Congress but bidding openly for the reformation of the Congress along certain definite lines’. What those lines were Seme did not explain, though it appears that one area of complaint was that the ANC had become too provincialised and its organisational machinery too cumbersome.

Nothing came from Seme’s overtures to Champion – instead, their relationship deteriorated during Seme’s presidency. Moreover, his initiative to form a political party to replace the ANC probably petered out because of his election as ANC president. But the divisions so dramatically displayed at the conference that elected him were to dog him for his entire presidency. The seeds of those divisions had, however, been planted in the years when he was in the political wilderness, especially in the 1920s.

*Bongani Ngqulunga is a senior research associate at the University of Johannesburg and has previously worked at the Policy Unit in the Presidency of the Republic of South Africa. He currently serves as both the chief of staff and spokesperson to the President of South Africa.

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2019-05-22 20:27

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