Sig­nif­i­cant lessons from Seme’s life

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The Man Who Founded the ANC: A Biog­ra­phy of Pix­ley ka Isaka Seme by Bon­gani Ngqu­lunga


In the lead-up to the ANC’s cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions in 2012, a plethora of tomes on the his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of the ANC were pub­lished. It was a boon to pub­lish­ers, au­thors and read­ers alike. It would have been op­por­tune, there­fore, if this ma­jes­tic biog­ra­phy of Seme had been part of those fes­tiv­i­ties and the myr­iad book launches, con­fer­ences and sem­i­nars that took place dur­ing the cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions.

That in it­self, how­ever, does not de­tract from the im­mense value this biog­ra­phy of one of the founders of the ANC adds to an il­lus­tri­ous pub­lish­ing mi­lieu around the his­tory of the ANC’s lex­i­con. In fact, it could not have been pub­lished at a more op­por­tune time be­cause, quite strik­ingly, it is an in­ci­sive and per­cep­tive illustration that the chal­lenges fac­ing the ANC to­day are not new and have a his­tor­i­cal point of ref­er­ence, even if us­ing Seme’s life as that point of ref­er­ence.

And for that, Bon­gani Ngqu­lunga’s con­tri­bu­tion should be cel­e­brated.

Given the cur­rent tra­jec­tory of the ANC, it might be dif­fi­cult or rather not com­pelling to hav­ing to read a book about its es­tab­lish­ment or, for that mat­ter, the man who helped found it, es­pe­cially given that his lead­er­ship of the party nearly col­lapsed it – very much like is the case in the con­tem­po­rary pe­riod.

It is very much a case of his­tory re­peat­ing it­self. Be that as it may, this nar­ra­tive that is richly drawn from his­tor­i­cal archives is likely to ap­peal to his­tor­i­cal ar­chiv­ists and re­search his­to­ri­ans, es­pe­cially those spe­cial­is­ing in the lib­er­a­tion move­ment/strug­gle. This ac­count is in­valu­able in record­ing the be­gin­ning of such a glo­ri­ous move­ment for pos­ter­ity, its cur­rent predica­ment notwith­stand­ing.

It is rather dif­fi­cult to read this con­tri­bu­tion with­out draw­ing com­par­isons or par­al­lels with the cur­rent chal­lenges faced by ANC. When one reads about how in­ept Seme’s lead­er­ship of the ANC was in the 1930s and how iso­lated he was from his own ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee, which de­fied him pub­licly, one can­not but find par­al­lels with the com­plex­i­ties of the mod­ern-day ANC.

What one is left to ask, though, is this: What might the ANC of to­day learn from the ANC of Pix­ley ka Isaka Seme? Although the di­vi­sions then were mostly cen­tred on Seme’s lead­er­ship style, very much like to­day, they were be­tween those who called for a rad­i­cal pro­gramme against white mi­nor­ity rule on the one hand and those who pre­ferred a rather ac­com­mo­da­tion­ist ap­proach with the Union and Bri­tish gov­ern­ments on the other. The lat­ter group favoured dep­u­ta­tions to plead the cause of the black pop­u­lace, which was very much what Seme favoured.

Seme was well known for his dic­ta­to­rial ten­den­cies as well as his propen­sity to ex­pel from the ANC those lead­ers who dif­fered with him, as he did with TD Mweli Kota, RV Se­lope Thema, DS Le­tanka and Cleopas S Mabaso, although he even­tu­ally re­neged from the plan af­ter pres­sure.

The Transvaal African Congress at some point de­cided to form a de facto op­po­si­tion party, although this move­ment did not even­tu­ally lead to a break­away as the “rene­gade” pres­i­dent-gen­eral Seme was even­tu­ally reined in be­fore “ex­act­ing max­i­mum dam­age” to the move­ment.

How­ever, in our mod­ern pe­riod, some of these dis­agree­ments among ANC mem­bers have ac­tu­ally re­sulted in ac­tual break­aways of the party, namely the for­ma­tions of the Congress of the Peo­ple in 2008, and the Eco­nomic Free­dom Fighters in 2013.

De­spite the chal­lenges that he had to sur­mount, there is no doubt that Seme was a leader way ahead of his time. When the gov­ern­ment of the Union of South Africa was start­ing to ex­ert pres­sure upon black peo­ple not to own land through acts such as the Na­tive Land Act 0f 1913, Seme founded a com­pany, the Na­tive Farm­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion, to buy land for black set­tle­ments (although it was this ini­tia­tive that led to his dis­bar­ment as an ad­vo­cate).

Whereas the as­so­ci­a­tion was formed with the view to em­power black peo­ple through buy­ing and sell­ing land, he was even­tu­ally ac­cused of ex­ploit­ing black peo­ple since the as­so­ci­a­tion was buy­ing land and sell­ing it to black peo­ple at ex­or­bi­tant prices, thus prof­i­teer­ing from a gen­er­ally des­ti­tute client base.

It was the Waver­ley Township case in Pre­to­ria that brought the ig­nominy of his dis­bar­ment as he was ac­cused of charg­ing the com­mu­nity ex­or­bi­tant fees for a case for which he failed to ap­pear in court. It is per­haps the irony of Seme’s life that the same com­mu­nity for whom he had es­tab­lished his Na­tive Farm­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion, was the one that led to him be­ing struck off the roll of ad­vo­cates. Sadly, Seme had a com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship with money and this had an ad­verse ef­fect on both his per­sonal and pro­fes­sional life.

Sadly, once the Na­tive Farm­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion ran into fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties, it was taken over by a group of white busi­ness­men, leav­ing the found­ing black en­trepreneurs as di­rec­tors, some­thing akin to mod­ern day “fronting” that has be­come so per­va­sive. This fi­nally ren­dered Seme’s dream of hav­ing a black com­pany buy­ing land through­out the coun­try null and void.

How­ever, he suc­ceeded in es­tab­lish­ing a thriv­ing le­gal prac­tice and es­tab­lished a pub­lish­ing en­ter­prise in the form of a news­pa­per, Abantu/Batho. He and his gen­er­a­tion of ANC founders were the epit­ome of the black mid­dle class of the time. He was a tow­er­ing fig­ure that laid the ground­work for Pan-African­ism as he sought to unite black peo­ple gen­er­ally.

To all in­tents and pur­poses, Seme stands head and shoul­ders above the rest as a pi­o­neer of black eco­nomic em­pow­er­ment long be­fore the ini­tia­tive was to be em­braced by a demo­cratic dis­pen­sa­tion al­most a cen­tury later.

As much as he was a colos­sal fig­ure in the black com­mu­nity, it was his pen­chant for the finer things in life and his em­brace of op­u­lence that was to be his down­fall, such that by the time of his death, his li­a­bil­i­ties far ex­ceeded his as­sets.

In the fi­nal anal­y­sis, how­ever, this nar­ra­tive cau­tions us – lest we for­get – that the found­ing fa­thers of the ANC were men of let­ters who achieved im­mensely in the face of ad­ver­sity, their short­com­ings notwith­stand­ing.

It is note­wor­thy that – read­ing a biog­ra­phy of the man who founded the ANC in 1912 and nearly led it to ruin in 1930 – the chal­lenges of unity that the ANC was grap­pling with then are ap­par­ent and wreak­ing the move­ment in 2017, nearly a cen­tury later.

Ngobeni is a book pub­lisher and the 2007 South African fi­nal­ist in the Bri­tish Coun­cil’s In­ter­na­tional Young Pub­lisher of the Year awards pro­gramme

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