Seme’s pride in the African people
The speech with the formation of the SANNC is seen as the high point of his life, Bongani Ngqulunga writes
ON December 12 1962, Kwame Nkrumah, the founding president of the Republic of Ghana and an iconic figure in Africa’s struggle for independence from colonial rule, gave the opening address at the First International Congress of Africanists held in Accra, Ghana.
Towards the end, he said he felt it was his “duty to place on record at this first Africanist Congress taking place here in Africa, the oration of Pixley ka Isaka Seme, which although made some 50 years ago, is still relevant to the postulates of our present situation in Africa”. Nkrumah then read a speech that Pixley Seme had given as a student at Columbia University in April 1906: “The Regeneration of Africa”.
It had won him the university’s Curtis Medal and was widely reported in newspapers in the US and abroad. Nkrumah’s quoting of the speech five decades later, underscored its enduring inspiration to successive generations of African nationalists and Pan-Africanists.
By invoking Seme at the first congress of Africanists to be held on the African continent, Nkrumah was linking the Pan-Africanist ideals of his time to the vision Seme had espoused five decades before.
Over a century has passed since Seme gave the speech and still, scores of scholars and politicians pore over it for insight, inspiration, analysis and debate.
What is remarkable about the speech is not only its powerful oratory, but also the depth of its vision for the African continent and its pride in African people. This speech, together with the formation of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in 1912, is regarded as a high point in Seme’s life.
Seme’s speech, “The Regeneration of Africa”, was his contribution to an annual public-speaking competition run by Columbia University. Two Curtis medals, one in gold and another in silver, were awarded for excellence in public speaking.
The competition was open to all junior and senior students at Columbia. In December 1905 a preliminary list of students who had entered for the 1906 competition was announced, which included Seme. The competition was held on a Thursday afternoon in Earl Hall at the university. The Columbia Daily Spectator reported that the event was well attended.
“I am an African, and I set my pride in my race over against a hostile public opinion,” Seme began. He argued that Africa should not be compared to Europe or any other continent. The basis of his plea was not because such a comparison might “bring humiliation upon Africa”, but rather that there was no single standard for comparison.
To support his contention that Africa was as great as any other continent, he listed several achievements, starting with Thebes, the ancient capital of Egypt, aka the city of 100 gates. Of Thebes, Seme said: “The grandeur of its venerable ruins and the gigantic proportions of its architecture reduce to insignificance the boasted monuments of other nations”.
From Thebes he moved to the pyramids, which, he argued, are incomparable. All the glory of the Egyptian monuments, Seme said, belongs to Africa and her people, and they serve as an indestructible memorial to the genius of Africans.
From Egypt he went on to the pyramids of Ethiopia, which, though not as large as those of Egypt, far surpass the latter in architectural beauty. Moved by the brilliance in the beauty of Africa’s creations, Seme uttered words which, more than a century later, have lost none of their inspirational force:
“Oh, for that historian who, with the open pen of truth will bring to Africa’s claim, the strength of written proof. He will tell of a race whose onward tide was often swelled with tears, but in whose heart bondage has not quenched the fire of former years.
“He will write that in these later days when Earth’s noble ones are named, she has a roll of honour too of whom she is not ashamed. The giant is awakening! From the four corners of the Earth, Africa’s sons who have been proved through fire and sword, are marching to the future’s golden door bearing the records of deeds of valour done”.
Seme approached a subject that was perhaps closer to home. He spoke about John C Calhoun, a deceased former vice-president of the US, whom he described as having been the most philosophical of slave-owners in the American south.
Calhoun had said that if he could be shown a black person who understood Greek syntax he would change his mind and consider black people a human race. Seme said he regretted that the moment was lost to prove Calhoun wrong.
He could have shown him many black people with extraordinary accomplishments, of pure African blood who “repeat the Koran in memory, skilled in Latin, Greek and Hebrew – Arabic and Chaldaic”.
He could show him men of African descent who possessed great wisdom and profound knowledge, such as a black professor of philosophy at a celebrated university in Germany. Seme argued that there “are many Africans who have shown marks of genius and high character sufficient to redeem their race from the charges which I am now considering”.
Moving southwards, Seme extolled the bravery of the people of the Congo who “fought like men and died like martyrs”. He praised the system of governance in Bechuanaland (Botswana) that valued the wisdom of ordinary people. But Seme did not focus solely on the past glory of Africa.
He ended by looking towards the continent’s regeneration – the subject of his speech: “The brighter day is rising upon Africa. Already I seem to see her chains dissolved, her desert plains red with harvest, her Abyssinia and her Zululand the seats of science and religion, reflecting the glory of the rising sun from the spires of their churches and universities.
“Her Congo and her Gambia whitened with commerce, her crowded cities sending forth the hum of business and all her sons employed in advancing the victories of peace – greater and more abiding than the spoils of war.
“Yes, the regeneration of Africa belongs to this new and powerful period! By this term regeneration I wish to be understood to mean the entrance into a new life, embracing the diverse phases of a higher, complex existence.
“The basic factor which assures their regeneration resides in the awakened race-consciousness. This gives them a clear perception of their elemental needs and of their undeveloped powers. It therefore must lead them to the attainment of that higher and advanced standard of life…
“The regeneration of Africa means that a new and unique civilization is soon to be added to the world. The African is not a proletarian in the world of science and art. He has precious creations of his own, of ivory, of copper and of gold, fine, plated willow-ware and weapons of superior workmanship…
“The most essential departure of this new civilization is that it shall be thoroughly spiritual and humanistic – indeed a regeneration moral and eternal”.
Seme ended with a flourish, reading a rousing poem in which he extolled the grandeur and virtue of the African continent:
“O Africa! Like some great century plant that shall bloom In ages hence we watch thee; in our dream
See in thy swamps the Prospero of our stream;
Thy doors unlocked, where knowledge in her tomb hath lain innumerable years in gloom.
Then shalt thou, waking that morning gleam, Shine as thy sister lands with equal beam.”
The next day, the Columbia Daily Spectator reported on the outcome of the contest. It stated that the judges did not take long to decide on the winner, and that they “unanimously awarded the first prize, a gold medal, to P ka Isaka Seme”. The report went into some detail about the subject of Seme’s speech, describing Seme as being inspired by his topic.
The news of Seme’s triumph was widely reported innewspapers in the US, from the New York Times on the east coast to the San Francisco Chronicle on the west coast, with both newspapers carrying the story the next day.
The news also reached South Africa and was reported in black newspapers such as Ilanga lase Natal, with its isiZulu edition headline “IZulu Elidumileyo” (“A Famous Zulu”), though the English edition simply stated “A Zulu Wins A Prize”.
A great deal of praise has since been heaped on the speech, which in many respects was a product of its time.
These are extracts of Dr Bongani Nqulunga’s book on Pixley ka Isaka Seme. Published by Penguin Books, Pixley ka Isaka Seme’s biography will be launched on June 9 at the Resolution Circle Towers, corner of Barry Hertzog and Empire roads.
Educated at the University of KwaZuluNatal in South Africa and Brown University in the United States of America where he obtained his doctoral degree, Bongani Ngqulunga is a senior research associate at the University of Johannesburg. He 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.
THE MAN WHO FOUNDED THE ANC: Pixley ka Isaka Seme on completion of law studies at Oxford University. The ‘Regeneration of Africa’ speech won two Curtis medals in gold and silver for excellence in 1906. He said: ‘I am African and I set my pride in my race against a hostile public opinion’.