College of College of Graduate Studies

The passionate call of an African prophet

Before Kwame Nkrumah could talk of African unity, Seme was there.
Before WEB DuBois could talk of Pan Africanism extensively, Seme was there.
Before Thabo Mbeki coined the African Renaissance, Seme was there.

With these stirring words, Dr Somadoda Fikeni, Director of the Vice-Chancellor's Projects and Advisor to the Principal, programme director for the evening, introduced the first Pixely ka Isaka Seme Memorial Lecture, hosted by Unisa’s Institute for African Renaissance Studies (IARS) on 6 June 2019.

Prof Simphiwe Sesanti (IARS) and Dr Bongani Ngqulunga (Deputy Director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, University of Johannesburg) with members of the Seme family

Bringing a much needed interrogation of Seme’s contribution to Pan-Africanism and the African Renaissance was Dr Bongani Ngqulunga, Deputy Director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS), University of Johannesburg, and winner of the 2018 Alan Paton Award for non-fiction for his book The man who founded the ANC: A biography of Pixley ka Isaka Seme.

Dr Bongani Ngqulunga (Deputy Director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, University of Johannesburg) delivered the first Unisa Pixely ka Isaka Seme Memorial Lecture.

Delivering The call of an African prophet: The redemptive vision and politics of Pixley ka Isaka Seme, Ngqulunga said that if one looked closely at the totality of Seme’s political vision, one could not but conclude that he was no ordinary politician; "He was an African prophet whose political vision and mission in life was the redemption of the black race and its emancipation from oppression."

Ngqulunga chose to focus his lecture on three major contributions made by Seme.

I am an African and I set my pride in my race

The first was Seme’s idea of black emancipation. "Central to his conception was his strong belief that negative colonial and racist stereotypes about black people and the African continent had to be challenged." In this regard, Ngqulunga stressed, one of Seme’s major endeavours was to present a positive and uplifting image of Africans: their history, culture, and their contribution to science and human civilisation as a whole.

Seme’s redemptive and prophetic vision of the African continent and its peoples was first articulated in the speech he delivered at Columbia University in April 1906, entitled The regeneration of Africa, as a contribution to the university’s public speaking competition.

"I am an African and I set my pride in my race over against a hostile public opinion", were the powerful opening words of this speech. What followed this introduction was a spirited defence of the African people and their contributions to human civilisation, science, arts, culture and other areas of human existence that was to be the hallmark of his later voicings of this belief.

In the years that followed, this same passionate "positive portrayal of Africa and Africans" by Seme would influence successive generations of black intellectuals in the African continent and the diaspora, Ngqulunga maintained. In South Africa alone, he pointed out, Seme’s uplifting and prophetic vision "influenced leading New Africans such as Selope Thema, Zakes Matthews, AP Mda, Anton Lembede, the young Nelson Mandela, and, later on, the much younger generation such as Thabo Mbeki, whose speech 'I am an African' echoed Seme’s speech a century earlier".

An architect of black people

Vezi Maxwell Seme (Founder and CEO of the Dr Pixely ka Isaka Seme Foundation Trust and grandson of Pixley ka Isaka Seme) deplored the fact that his grandfather had been relegated to the periphery. He praised Unisa and IARS for starting a new chapter: "For the first time, we are going forward."

Seme’s second major contribution was his attempt to forge unity among black people in South Africa. As he argued in 1912, when he founded the ANC, as long as black people were divided, they would not enjoy the fruits of human civilisation and progress.

Ngqulunga believes that Seme’s extraordinary role in organising for the founding of the ANC and in agitating for black political unity has not been fully appreciated. While acknowledging that there were several initiatives at forming a national organisation before Seme’s effort, and that he was not alone in organising for a national organisation, Ngqulunga asserted that Seme was the "moving spirit and the leading organiser" of the initiative. "He organised all the planning meetings leading up to the inaugural conference, wrote the first constitution of the organisation, and his leadership role was demonstrated by him giving the keynote opening address at the founding conference on 8 January 1912," emphasised Ngqulunga.

Indeed, at the time of his death in June 1951, the overwhelming unanimous sentiment was to recognise him for founding the ANC. Ngqulunga disclosed that at Seme’s funeral, no less a figure than Dr Albert Xuma, the sixth president of the ANC, acknowledged his seminal role in the founding of the ANC by calling him "an architect" of black people, who gave them "the inspiration of being a nation, he himself having the foundation of our freedom".

No dignity without land and homeownership

The third major contribution by Seme was on the issue of land. Ngqulunga said that Seme was passionate about the ownership of land by black people, believing that human existence without land ownership was living a life without dignity.

When in early 1912, just after founding the ANC, Seme and his associates established the Native Farmers’ Association of South Africa, it was the boldest of steps. Ngqulunga declared that the significance of this land purchase scheme rivalled Seme’s founding of the ANC. "As the ANC has lived for over 100 years, the farms that Seme bought in Daggakraal in 1912 for black people are still owned by black people even today. Several attempts by numerous apartheid governments to destroy Seme’s dream of a community of black people owning their land failed. Daggakraal lives and is an enduring testament of Seme’s bold vision."

Ngqulunga concluded the memorial lecture by stating that Pixley ka Isaka Seme lived a long, complex and sometimes controversial life. "Like all of us, he made mistakes and sometimes fell along the way. What cannot be disputed is that he stands as one of the greatest thinkers and leaders of the 20th century."

Mpumi Seme, great granddaughter of Pixley ka Isaka Seme, delivered the vote of thanks.

* By Sharon Farrell, Editor: Internal Communication, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2019-06-11 00:00:00.0