Profile of Pixley Seme
Pixley Isaka Ka Seme was born in October 1881 in the then colony of Natal. He was initially educated at a local mission school, and then went to the United States of America on a missionary scholarship for further education, including university studies at the Ivy League Columbia University in New York.
Seme was a gifted orator and at Columbia won the university's highest award for oratory after he spoke on the subject of 'The Regeneration of Africa'.
He was clearly a young man with a passion for education. After Columbia, he proceeded to yet another prestigious institution, this time in Britain, to attend Jesus College at Oxford University, where he read for a degree in Law. His legal studies would later be of great assistance in his fight against injustice in the newly established Union of South Africa. He entered the Bar at Middle Temple after Oxford and wrote his bar exams. While still in England, he met members of the African delegation who had travelled to London to monitor the drafting of the South Africa Act through the British Parliament in 1909. He returned to South Africa in 1910 and set up a legal practice in Johannesburg where there was a dearth of African lawyers. Seme believed that the denial of basic human rights to black South Africans – an everyday occurrence – could to some extent be remedied by recourse to the law, and his practice thrived on taking up matters of the poor and dispossessed. He would later also represent King Sobhuza II, the Swazi monarch, before the Privy Council in London, in a land dispute between Swaziland and the Union of
But more than in the use of courts and the legal process, which he recognised as limited, he believed in the necessity of the oppressed organising themselves. Thus, in 1912, Seme together with African lawyers Alfred Mangena, Richard Msimang and George Montsio, called for a convention of Africans to discuss their situation in the new Union of South Africa and to look for peaceful means to change the status quo in the country. This call would turn out to be a major turning point in modern African history.
The outcome, of course, was the formation of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), later renamed the African National Congress (ANC).
Seme, the young, highly educated lawyer and polished orator, was the keynote speaker at the inaugural meeting of the SANNC and he was elected its first treasurer-general. He also launched the organisation's newspaper Abantu Batho ('People') because he believed that a regular channel of communication had to be created to maintain contact between the new organisation and its members. The paper was multilingual, carrying articles in English, Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho and Tswana. In the following year, Seme formed the South African Native Farmers Association. At the 1930 annual congress of the ANC, he was elected president-general of the organisation, a position he held until 1937.
He was of cautious disposition and therefore emphasised economic self-reliance in the work of the ANC rather than active mobilisation against the myriad of policies directed to keep Africans subjugated. His cautious approach resulted in a number of contentious struggles within the organisation during his term of office. Nevertheless, his brilliance was universally recognised and in 1928 he was awarded an honorary doctorate (LLD) from his alma mater, Columbia University.
Pixley Isaka Ka Seme's life is an outstanding example of a search for academic excellence running parallel with a commitment to a struggle for justice. His intellectual energy was honed to the service of the struggle for the majority of the people. His life is a model of the passion for learning, of determination and commitment.
Seme died in Johannesburg in 1951. He was married to a daughter of King Dinuzulu of Zululand, and the couple had five children.