Meshach Pelem was born in Mxumbu near King William's Town in 1859 and studied at Healdtown, where he qualified as a primary school teacher. After teaching in the Cape for several years, he went to the Griqualand West diamond fields and in 1884-1885 accompanied the expeditionary force that annexed Bechuanaland as a British protectorate. Returning to the Cape, he opened a boarding house in Queenstown, an enterprise which, with other business ventures in Queenstown and King William's Town, eventually made him one of the wealthiest Africans in the Cape, rivaling such men as John Tengo Jabavu and Walter Rubusana for influence among educated Africans. He was one of the four vice-presidents of the African National Congress at its founding, and a prominent public figure in the eastern Cape over many years. Although he identified himself with the ANC at the time of its founding in 1912, the African National Congress(ANC) did not have a notable impact in the eastern Cape for some years, and in 1919 Pelem founded the Bantu Union, an organisation aimed at filling the political vacuum in the area and at prompting unity between Xhosas and Fingoes. The Bantu Union was an elite organisation, primarily concerned with the interests of African voters in the eastern Cape. Until his death in 1936 Pelem remained a representative of essentially conservative opinion, believing that the best political course for Africans lay in coming to terms with white power in a spirit of co-operation rather than militant protest.

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