Pixley ka Isaka Seme, 5th President of the ANC
1 Early Years
2 Back in South Africa
3 Political Career
4 Later Years
Pixley Seme was born on 1 October 1881 at the Inanda Mission in Natal, the son of Isaka Sarah (nee Mseleku) Seme. He attended primary school at the local mission school where the American Congregationalist missionary, Reverend S. C. Pixley, took an interest in him and arranged for him to go to the Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts in the USA.
Pixley Seme, on completion of his Law studies in Oxford, EnglandSeme did his BA degree at Columbia, where in 1906 he delivered his now famous speech at Columbia University in 1906 on “The Regeneration of Africa”. The speech won him the University’s highest oratorical honour, the George William Curtis medal and was circulated widely in South Africa at the time. The vision he expressed in this memorable speech lives on in the minds of African leaders and underpins the philosophy of various political movements on the African continent today.
From Columbia he went to Oxford University where he completed a degree in Law. He was called to the bar at the Middle Temple in London before returning to South Africa on the eve of the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910.
Back in South Africa
Seme returned to his country of birth in 1910 where he became actively involved in black politics. In 1912 he set up a newspaper, Abantu-Batho. Ambitious though this project proved to be, it was an ingenious way of drawing African people, its target audience, to the political discourse that impacted on their lives.
Early in the 1920s Seme served as legal counsel for the Swazi Regent in a dispute with the British government. His knowledge of British law, having studied at Oxford, made him the logical choice for the task. However, the outcome of the case was disastrous for Seme – he lost the case on appeal at the Privy Council and returned to South Africa.
Seme is considered the founder of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), the precursor of the ANC. He conceptualised the form and structure of the movement and facilitated the founding of the SANNC in Bloemfontein in 1912. At the founding Congress Seme delivered the keynote address, an appeal for symbolic and material support for the new formation. When voting began for the position of president, Seme proposed that John Langalibalele Dube be elected.
ANC Congress, Bloemfontein, 1930, with Pixley Seme seated on the far right. Photograph courtesy of the University of the Witwatersrand LibraryAfter some years in active politics he returned to his legal career in 1920, only to make a comeback to active politics in 1930. In the elective SANNC Congress of 1930 he was elected to the position of President General, a position he held until 1936. Seme’s presidency is often associated with the demise of the ANC in the first half of the 1930s. Seme became President General in the midst of the Great Depression, a period that threw up challenges that would have overwhelmed even the most capable of leaders. In spite of these challenges he tried to restructure the ANC in a bid to make it more responsive to the prevailing political circumstances.
Seme proposed organisational restructuring of the ANC at regional level, dissolving provincial congresses and subdividing the national body into 11 regional congresses in place of the four provincial congresses. These proposals incensed the relatively powerful Transvaal ANC. A faction of the Executive Committee of the Transvaal ANC, led by Kgatla chiefs, accused Seme of attempting to undermine them to establish an Nguni hegemony within the organisation.
Seme was becoming increasingly unpopular, with calls for his removal reaching a crescendo after the removal of Makgatho as President of the Transvaal ANC in 1934. In 1937 Seme was replaced by Mahabane, who was ready for a second term of office.
Seme’s replacement by Mahabane as President of the ANC marked the end of his political career and at the age of 56 he returned to his law practice. For much of the 1940s he worked as an attorney with offices in downtown Johannesburg, and during this time he became Anton Lembede’s mentor. Seme died in 1951 at the age of 70.
Seme’s memorable speech at Columbia University in 1906 earned him the Order of Luthuli in Gold posthumously in 2006, conferred by then president Thabo Mbeki.
• From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa 1882-1964. Part One – Africans United under the Threat of Disenfranchisement. 1935.
• Saunders, C., The Founder: An Ambiguous Figure [Online] Available at: www.sahistory.org.za/