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

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE -

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’.

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