Bongani NGQULUNGA, The Man Who Founded the ANC: A Biography of Pixley ka Isaka Seme (Cape Town: Penguin, 2017)

THE title of this book is a little misleading. The significance of Pixley ka Isaka Seme’s life lies not so much in his political role, but the breadth of his professional involvement and above all the apparent ease with which he straddled several worlds with confidence.

Despite humble beginnings at Inanda he studied at Columbia and Oxford universities, returning home in 1910. His overseas education took place at a propitious time for a pan-Africanist and he was internationally respected, in particular for his speech ‘The regeneration of Africa’. In the context of the recent Act of Union, his vision and well-honed networking ability were major factors in the founding of the South African Native National Congress in 1912, his ‘crowning moment’ in Bongani Ngqulunga’s opinion, although he was soon removed as treasurer.

In 1930 he returned to mainstream politics on an anti-communist ticket as ANC president-general for a two-term, seven-year stint derided by critics as ‘culpable inertia’. Seme lacked an ability to work co-operatively and resorted to authoritarianism, but at the time the ANC was organisationally fractured and inefficient because of provincial fiefdoms that were themselves divided. His proposed answer to this was constitutional change to give him powers to dismiss NEC members. To his credit, Seme’s vision of unity included civil relations with whites and a role for the elders; property rights for blacks; and an economic programme of self-help, all of which held virtue. Seme was a far-sighted moderate who believed in moving cautiously.

Otherwise, he worked as a lawyer, acting as adviser to the Swazi and Zulu royal houses; founded a newspaper, Abantu Batho, which was used to criticise SANNC president John Dube with whom he had a long-standing rivalry; and set up the Native Farmers Association, a black empowerment initiative to transfer white farms to black ownership at a time when whites were inexorably tightening their grip on land. These were considerable achievements and required social dexterity, for example accommodating the disparate worlds of African traditional leaders, urban educated Africans and white rulers. Perhaps this was his greatest accomplishment, but his life begs the question whether he was a unifying pan-Africanist, or a Swazi or Zulu ethnic nationalist. One irony is that this conservative accommodationist should go into legal partnership with Anton Lembede, a founder of the Youth League and leader of the ANC’s radicals in the 1940s.

Ngqulunga argues that Seme’s skills contributed to the eventual survival of Swaziland as an independent state, although the catalogue of legal setbacks listed in this book tends not to support this view. His practice was based at Wakkerstroom and cases involving Swazis in the eastern Transvaal were as unsuccessful as those about the constitutional standing of Swaziland. He was also close to the Zulu royal house, especially Dinuzulu whose daughter he married, and Ngqulunga notes that he played a ‘murky’ role in the succession.

Seme’s skills were of no consequence to the colonial system and its officials treated him with extreme suspicion and at times hostility and obstruction. Institutional racism was compounded by Seme’s personal failings. In a sense he was his own worst enemy – arrogant, impatient, excessively ambitious and not averse to embellishment, but his main weakness (aside from reputed problems with the bottle) was money. He lived far beyond his means, left clients and land purchasers in the lurch and was convicted of theft and sentenced in 1927 to one year of hard labour, reduced to a fine. Finally in 1932 he was struck off the roll for ‘unprofessional and dishonourable conduct’ for overcharging, although 10 years later he was reinstated. His cavalier attitude to money, including other people’s, is described by Ngqulunga as often unethical. He also falsely claimed to have a doctorate and at his death in 1951 he was bankrupt. Richard V. Selope Thema described Seme as clever, but lacking wisdom. It is a not uncommon story.

In this fascinating and very well-written book, Ngqulunga, civil servant and academic, correctly portrays Seme as a significant and highly regarded South African historical figure. But his colonial times and personality defects produced a life that was in some senses tragically wasted.