More than anyone else, Pixley ka Isaka Seme (1881-1951) was the founder of the ANC. It was he who, on his return from long years of study in the United States and Britain, issued the call to Africans to meet in Bloemfontein in January 1912 to form a new national organization, At the meeting itself, he was the keynote speaker and the main driving force behind the creation of the South African Native National Congress (which changed its name to ANC in 1923) and then of the newspaper that he hoped would be the vehicle of Congress, Abantu-Batho. And yet Seme is now a largely forgotten figure, though the ANC plans to devote one of its twelve months of celebration of its centenary to him. Why this relative neglect? There are a number of reasons.
Seme did not become the first President-General of Congress. He instead put forward his mentor, John Dube, who was not at the meeting in Bloemfontein, to be the organisation’s first President. Though Dube’s papers were lost on his death, Heather Hughes has recently written a splendid biography of Dube. Whether or not Seme left any papers, they too have been lost, and no substantial biography has been written. The fullest study of his life remains an article I published twenty years ago in the South African Historical Journal, based largely on a cache of his letters that were found at Howard University in the United States, letters that he had written to an African American academic, Alain Locke, whom Seme had befriended when studying at Oxford.
There are other reasons why Seme has not been held in higher esteem in the ANC. An arrogant personality, he alienated others and after 1912 his career went into steady decline. He had returned to South Africa soon after the creation of the new Union in 1910 the most highly educated African ever. His reputation was high especially because of the famous speech he had made at Columbia University on the regeneration of Africa, which had circulated widely in South Africa and showed Seme to be someone who could work wonders with words. He returned to South Africa not only with a degree from Columbia, but one from Oxford as well, and he had been called to the bar at the Middle Temple in London. It seemed that the world lay open before him. But he found it difficult to adjust to life in South Africa after his long absence, and though he soon began practicing as an attorney, and though he became Congress’s first Treasurer-General, he was always in financial difficulties. Various ventures on which he embarked failed, including buying farms in what was then the Transvaal, and he soon lost interest in Abantu-Batho, which struggled on without him. He did represent the Swazi king at a high profile legal case in London in the 1920s, but that turned out another failure when the Swazis lost their appeal to the Privy Council. Seme now began drinking to excess, and before the decade was over had been involved in an automobile accident when drunk. He claimed an honorary doctorate from Columbia though there is no evidence it was granted, and he was later struck off the roll of attorneys.
He was nevertheless chosen in 1930 to be President-General of the ANC. His tenure of that position was however another disaster. It is generally recognized that the ANC sunk to its lowest fortunes in the years when he headed the organization, which became virtually moribund. These were the years of the Great Depression, and Seme cannot be entirely blamed for what happened to the ANC, but he proved a very poor leader, who did nothing to reverse the decline in the ANC’s fortunes. Instead, he aided that decline through his inaction and difficult personality, as well as his ultra-conservative politics.
His law practice in Johannesburg – for he recovered his license to practice – is now remembered chiefly for the fact that in the early 1940s he employed Anton Lembede, founder of the ANC Youth League, as a clerk, but the new generation that Lembede represented had little time for Seme’s conservatism. By the time he died in Johannesburg in 1951, the ANC’s revival was well underway. Albert Luthuli, who spoke at his funeral, was on the way to becoming one of the ANC’s finest and most respected leaders, who in December 1961 was to deliver in Oslo, Norway, a speech as inspirational as that Seme had given in 1906. But the ANC had good reason not to look back to Seme’s presidency, and even his role as the founder of the organisation tended to be downplayed because of the tragic failure thereafter of a man of such promise. It is hardly surprising that the ANC’s webpage devoted to Seme makes no mention of his career after 1912. For long it was Mangosutho Buthelezi of Inkatha, who had known Seme, who drew attention to his legacy, until another flawed intellectual president of the ANC, Thabo Mbeki claimed Seme’s 1906 speech at Columbia as a precursor of his own ideas of an African Renaissance. In Mbeki’s presidency, in 2006, Seme was honoured him with the Order of Luthuli in Gold, with an accompanying declaration that his life was `a model of the passion for learning, of determination and commitment’. Will the ANC remember Seme in all his complexity and ambiguity in this its centenary year?
Chris Saunders is a retired UCT historian and now a research associate of the Centre for Conflict Resolution.