Leader’s conversion into a Pan-Africanist
IN 1895, at the age of 14, Seme moved to Adams Training School for Boys to further his studies. Adams College, as the school was later renamed, had been established in 1853 by an American missionary, Reverend David Rood, at Amanzimtoti, outside Durban, in honour of Reverend Dr Newton Adams, who had founded the mission in the 1830s when he arrived in Natal.
Seme did not stay long at Adams. He spurned the opportunity to study teaching and opted instead to further his studies abroad. His decision was not surprising. A group of black people, some of whom were his neighbours, had gone overseas, to the US in particular, for study purposes.
One of these was John Langalibalele Dube, whom Seme knew well, although Dube was 10 years his senior.
What is perhaps surprising is that Seme left at a relatively young age, not yet out of his teens.
Seme sailed the 10 000 miles to the US and arrived in Brooklyn, New York, where he stayed with Dube, who was at the time a student at a theological seminary. Four months after his graduation from Columbia University with a BA degree, Seme left for Oxford University.
Interestingly, a few months after arriving at Oxford, on February 12 1907, Seme was admitted to the Middle Temple to train as a lawyer.
He was called to the Bar some three years later, on June 8 1910. In October 1910, Seme sailed back to South Africa.
He had left as a teenaged “Zulu boy” hoping to be educated as a teacher and missionary to the Zulu people.
But he returned as a Pan-Africanist whose deep and broad concerns extended beyond his small community of Inanda and his tribe.
He had become a leader in his own right who was internationally respected for his intellect and vision for the African continent.
He was at the forefront of a global political movement that sought the regeneration of the continent and the affirmation of the humanity of the black race.
His name was mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Henry Sylvester Williams, WEB Du Bois, Theophilus Scholes, Booker T Washington, Alfred Mangena and other Pan-Africanists and black leaders across the globe.
Seme soon became involved in the hurly-burly of politics. Towards the end of October 1911 he issued a broad call to black leaders throughout the country and the neighbouring protectorates to unite and form what he called the South African Native Congress – the Native Union.
Seme pleaded: “It is conclusively urgent that this Congress should meet this year, because a matter which is so vitally important to our progress and welfare should not be unnecessarily postponed by reason of personal differences and selfishness of our leaders”.
In terms that were clearly aimed at stirring the passion and conscience of black people across the land, Seme issued his now iconic plea for black unity: “The demon of racialism, the aberrations of the Xosa-Fingo feud, the animosity that exists between the Zulus and the Tongaas (sic), between the Basutos and every other native must be buried and forgotten; it has shed among us sufficient blood! We are one people. Those divisions, those jealousies are the cause of all our woes and of all our backwardness and ignorance today”. Seme’s call for black unity and for the formation of the South African Native Congress was the culmination of several initiatives since his return.
For instance, on June 17, 1911, he convened the executive committee of the South African Native Convention (SANC) – an organisation formed in 1909 to campaign against the exclusion of black people from negotiations for the establishment of the Union of South Africa. The president of the SANC was Dr Walter Rubusana, with Reverend John Dube serving as vice-president.
Seme convened the executive committee in Joburg to discuss, among other matters, resolutions of the last SANC conference and government responses to those resolutions, as well as the organisation’s constitution.
The June 1911 meeting was to be the beginning of Seme’s vigorous involvement in local political affairs, especially in agitating for the formation of Congress. On August 7, 1911, he convened another meeting at Nancefield Location on the outskirts of Joburg. The meeting was well attended. The next caucus meeting on November 13, 1911, passed four more resolutions: it resolved to hold the inaugural conference of the proposed Congress on January 8, 1912, in Bloemfontein.
The day of the conference was a Monday. With formalities out of the way, Seme stepped up to give the keynote address. He opened with the following declaration: “Chiefs of royal blood and gentlemen of our race, we have gathered here to consider and discuss a scheme which my colleagues and I have decided to place before you. We have discovered that in the land of their birth, Africans are treated as hewers of wood and drawers of water. The white people of this country have formed what is known as the Union of South Africa – a union in which we have no voice in the making of laws and no part in their administration. We have called you, therefore, to this conference, so that we can together devise ways and means of forming our national union for the purpose of creating national unity and defending our rights and privileges”.
This is the edited extract from various chapters of the book, The Man Who Founded The ANC: A Biography of Pixley ka Isaka Seme. Publishers: Pinguin Random House South Africa. Dr Bongani Ngqulunga serves as both the chief of staff and spokesperson to the President of
He left as a Zulu boy hoping to train as a teacher, missionary