Significant lessons from Seme’s life
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