When ANC founder, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, was elected President General at the organisation’s 1930 elective conference, the party was in crisis, deeply divided with confrontational factions vying for power. In the lead-up to the ANC’s elective conference in December this year, Dr Bongani Ngqulunga’s recently-published biography of Seme not only offers fascinating insights into the complex, controversial and colourful life of this South African pioneer but also the ANC and the political contestation that has always bedevilled the party. By MARIANNE THAMM.
Describing Seme’s re-entry into active politics in 1930 after an absence of almost two decades, Ngqulunga transports the reader into the conference venue in Bloemfontein where between 350 and 400 delegates from across South Africa and the protectorates had gathered that overcast Monday, 21 April.
The numbers – compared to the total of 4500 at the ANC elective conference in Manguang in 2012 for example – meant that the 1930 conference was “exceptionally well attended”, writes Ngqulunga.
“The delegates were divided into two main camps, with the radicals sitting on the left side of the hall and moderates on the right. Leading the moderate wing was the old guard of the ANC, which had turned out in numbers. All three ex-presidents – Reverend John Dube, Reverend Zaccheus Mahabane and Sefako Makgato – were present. So too were the founding fathers of the organisation, R.V Selope Thema, Thomas Ntobi Mapikela, H. Selby Msimang and Pixley Seme. Leading the radical wing were the Cape communists Bransby Ndobe and Elliot Tojeni, S Malkenson from Bloemfontein, and Allison WG Champion from Natal (although not a communist, joined the radical camp at the conference). The battle lines had been drawn well before the conference, and each group was itching for a fight. Both sides got what they wished for – and more.”
There can be no doubt that the ANC in 2017 as a governing party is facing the biggest crisis in its remarkable history. It has never quite had to deal with the extent of the erosion of the party’s status and standing as it has under the leadership of Jacob Zuma, a president who faces numerous criminal charges, who has been found to have violated the country’s Constitution and who is also implicated as the key enabler of the extensive capture of a liberated and democratic South African state by his close friends the Gupta family and their proxies.
It is ironic also that Ngqulunga is currently deployed as President Zuma’s chief of staff and spokesperson, an unenviable job considering the across-the-board resistance to his principal’s continued leadership of the country and the party.
All this aside however, Nggulunga – who joined the Presidency in 2006 as a senior policy analyst – has written an engaging and enlightening biography of a complex man who has, until now, been a somewhat “isolated political figure who was spoken of in the past tense”.
He reminds readers that nothing better captures Seme’s fall from grace than the epithet on his “modest tombstone” (Seme died in 1951) that bedecks his grave in Newclare Cemetery in Johannesburg.
The simple inscription reads “In loving memory of Dr P ka I Seme, BA LLD” underscored by “This stone has been erected by his family and Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesiswe” and “Founder of the African National Congress in 1912”.
“Although politics is full of surprises, it is nevertheless astounding that the tombstone of the founder of the African National Congress was erected by Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesizwe, a rival political organisation whose vision many would consider antithetical to that embraced by Seme throughout his adult life,” writes Ngqulunga.
Seme, the author reminds us, by the time he died, had become a discredited public figure with a record of scandal and controversy.
“His presidency of the ANC from 1930 to 1937 had caused untold damage to his reputation and public standing. His leadership style was often described as authoritarian, undemocratic and arrogant.”
By the time he was voted out of office in December 1937 “the ANC had almost collapsed and his reputation lay in tatters”.
“Though a pioneering lawyer with a reputation for successful litigation on behalf of black people, Seme was on more than one occasion found to have breached the law and the protocols of his profession.”
Ngqulunga, in his introduction, writes that he has sought to provide a more comprehensive account of Seme, a man who “lived an unusual and interesting life long before the formation of the ANC and an even more storied and controversial life afterwards”.
Ngqulunga’s is an impeccably researched and highly engaging account of a man, a deeply flawed individual who deserves acknowledgement as one of the driving/guiding spirits in the politicisation of the country’s black majority in the face of growing dispossession and oppression.
The author says while he began as an “enthusiast” about his subject “the complexity and ambiguity of Seme’s life and legacy have served as a check against polishing or glossing over his rough edges. At the same time, I have tried not to fall into another temptation which is to emphasise his failures at the expense of his many achievements”.
The biography, while it focuses on Seme, is also an excavation of historical currents of the time and a window into black intellectual, political, religious, cultural and social life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
There has been much debate about the lack of ideological, political and historical education and understanding of the ANC as an organisation by many who have formed part of the recent tsunami of new members who have joined and who now determine who will lead. There have been growing calls for more political education among members of the ANC as well as South Africans at large of the roots and DNA of historical political movements across the spectrum.
For years, much of this history was consigned to the margins as the white Afrikaans, Nationalist government sought to place itself at the centre of the country’s history.
The Man Who Founded the ANC – A biography of Pixley ka Isaka Seme (Published by Penguin) is, in that sense, an extremely important addition to the growing and necessary body of recovering the past without the sheen and the gloss of the hagiographer.
Perhaps instead of leather jackets, golf shirts, caps and scarves the ANC could set up a stall selling literature at the December conference, which is bound to also go down in history as one of the most crucial. DM