More than anyone else, Pixley ka Isaka Seme (1881-1951) was the founder of the ANC.

It was he who, on his return from long years of study in the United States and Britain, issued the call to Africans to meet in Bloemfontein in January 1912 to form a new national organization.

At the meeting itself, he was the keynote speaker and the main driving force behind the creation of the South African Native National Congress (which changed its name to ANC in 1923) and then of the newspaper that he hoped would be the vehicle of Congress, Abantu-Batho.

And yet Seme is now a largely forgotten figure, though the ANC plans to devote one of its twelve months of celebration of its centenary to him. Why this relative neglect? There are a number of reasons.

Seme did not become the first president-general of the congress. He, instead, put forward his mentor, John Dube, who was not at the meeting in Bloemfontein, to be the organisation's first President. Though Dube's papers were lost on his death, Heather Hughes has recently written a splendid biography of Dube (Jacana, 2011).

Whether or not Seme left any papers, they too have been lost, and no substantial biography has been written. The fullest study of his life remains an article I published twenty years ago in the South African Historical Journal, based largely on a cache of his letters that were found at Howard University in the United States, letters that he had written to an African American academic, Alain Locke, whom Seme had befriended when studying at Oxford.

There are other reasons why Seme has not been held in higher esteem in the ANC. An arrogant personality, he alienated others and after 1912 his career went into steady decline. He had returned to South Africa soon after the creation of the new Union in 1910, the most highly educated African ever.

His reputation was high especially because of the famous speech he had made at Columbia University on the regeneration of Africa, which had circulated widely in South Africa and showed Seme to be someone who could work wonders with words. He returned to South Africa not only with a degree from Columbia, but one from Oxford as well, and he had been called to the bar at the Middle Temple in London. It seemed that the world lay open before him.

But he found it difficult to adjust to life in South Africa after his long absence, and though he soon began practicing as an attorney, and though he became congress's first treasurer-general, he was always in financial difficulties. Various ventures on which he embarked failed, including buying farms in what was then the Transvaal, and he soon lost interest in Abantu-Batho, which struggled on without him.

He did represent the Swazi king at a high profile legal case in London in the 1920s, but that turned out to be another failure when the Privy Council rejected the Swazi claim. Seme now began drinking to excess, and before the decade was over had been involved in a car accident when drunk. He claimed an honorary doctorate from Columbia, though there is no evidence that it was given to him, and he was later struck off the roll of attorneys.

He was, nevertheless, chosen in 1930 to be president-general of the ANC. His tenure of that position was, however, another disaster. It is generally recognized that the ANC sunk to its lowest fortunes in the six years during which he headed the organisation, which became virtually moribund.

The early 1930s were the years of the Great Depression, and Seme cannot be entirely blamed for what happened to the ANC, but he proved a very poor leader who did nothing to reverse the decline in the ANC's fortunes. Instead, he aided that decline through his inaction and difficult personality, as well as his ultra-conservative politics.

His law practice in Johannesburg — for he recovered his license to practice — is now remembered chiefly for the fact that in the early 1940s he employed Anton Lembede, founder of the ANC Youth League, as a clerk, but the new generation that Lembede represented had little time for Seme's conservatism.

By the time he died in Johannesburg in 1951, the ANC's revival was well advanced. Albert Luthuli, who spoke at his funeral, was on the way to becoming one of the ANC's finest and most respected leaders, who in December 1961 was to deliver in Oslo, Norway, a speech as inspirational as that which Seme had given in 1906.

While that speech was remembered, the ANC had good reason not to look back to Seme's presidency, and even his role as the founder of the organisation tended to be downplayed because of the tragic decline of a career of such promise. It is hardly surprising that the ANC's webpage devoted to Seme makes no mention of his career after 1912. In the 1980s it was mainly Mangosuthu Buthelezi of Inkatha, who had known Seme, who drew attention to his legacy.

Then, after 1994 Thabo Mbeki, who became another flawed intellectual president of the ANC, claimed Seme's 1906 speech as a precursor of his own ideas of an African Renaissance.

It was during Mbeki's presidency, in 2006, that Seme was honoured with the Order of Luthuli in Gold, with an accompanying declaration that his life was "a model of the passion for learning, of determination and commitment".

As we have seen, that passion did not, in fact, last. One wonders whether the ANC will remember Seme in all his complexity and ambiguity in this, its centenary year.

Saunders, a retired UCT historian, is a research associate of the Centre for Conflict Resolution.


This week marks the 50th anniversary of Albert Luthuli's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in the Norwegian capital of Oslo in 1961, and the delivery of one of the most eloquent and stirring speeches in the history of the award.

Luthuli was the president of the ANC from 1952 until his death in 1967.

He was the first African to win the award and only the second black man after the African-American scholar-diplomat, Ralph Bunche, who was honoured in 1950.

Aside from Luthuli, three South Africans have won the Nobel Peace Prize, making the country the largest recipient of the prize in Africa. While Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela shared the same Christian education as Luthuli and all three were titans in the anti-apartheid struggle, F.W. De Klerk was in many ways the very anti-thesis of this struggle. De Klerk was instead the embodiment of the apartheid system he helped to destroy in a pragmatic act of politicide.

Coming shortly after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, awarding the Nobel prize to Luthuli was an attempt to highlight apartheid's brutalities. SA's "Black Moses" — who titled his 1962 autobiography Let My People Go — was a traditional chief from rural KwaZulu-Natal who was uniquely able to bridge the divide between Africa's oldest liberation movement's urban and rural masses.

He was involved in the Defiance Campaign of 1952 and led several acts of civil disobedience, and was jailed and banned.

He, however, stuck doggedly to his principles of Gandhian non-violent passive resistance (though he noted that he was not a pacifist), advocated economic sanctions against the apartheid regime and consistently pushed for the inclusion of whites, Indians, and "Coloureds" in the anti-apartheid struggle.

Deeply steeped in Christian religious beliefs, for Luthuli the road to freedom lay through the cross, believing sacrifices and suffering would be required to translate Jesus's love ethic into concrete political achievements. Like Mahatma Gandhi, he believed the point of the struggle was to transform the enemy's hatred through love and human dignity.

Luthuli's Nobel speech in 1961 — "Africa and Freedom" — was one of the most powerful statements ever delivered in this forum. The lyrical text was almost poetic in parts.

Wearing a leopard-skin hat and lion's teeth necklace, the chief gave a dignified and defiant speech that exposed the evil criminality of apartheid.

Luthuli bemoaned the shooting of black protesters, oppressive pass laws, bannings, prohibitions, imprisonment, forced labour, penal whippings, farm prisons, land dispossession, book bannings, and blacklisting. He memorably condemned this dictatorship as representing the "trappings of medieval backwardness and cruelty."

Luthuli further described South Africa as a "museum piece in our time, a hangover from the dark past of mankind, a relic of an age which everywhere is dead or dying."

He was effectively depicting his homeland as a giant Jurassic Park of massive injustice full of political dinosaurs who would ultimately become extinct. He also invoked the memory of the warrior tradition of one of his illustrious Zulu ancestors, Shaka Zulu, paradoxically celebrating a man of war while receiving a prize for peace.

Luthuli decried the "racial vaingloriousness" and entrenched stereotypes of apartheid in which many white children were brought up to regard their race as superior, clever, and industrious; while blacks were "inferior, slothful, stupid, evil, and clumsy."

Observing that a large segment of SA's white population supported the apartheid government, he demonstrated how this personal racism was elevated to state policy, with whites having the "right to own and control," while blacks were reduced to "temporary sojourners in... cities, fit only for menial labour, and unfit to share political power."

He specifically cited the 1950 Group Areas Act under which he noted that blacks were losing even more land to "white greed", even after 87 percent of the best land had already been reserved for whites. Luthuli complained that one million blacks were still arrested, jailed and fined every year for breaching unjust pass laws. He further condemned "Bantu" homelands in which blacks were to be granted a bogus "independence."

But even as he delivered this stinging criticism, Luthuli continued to insist on the ANC's vision of a non-racial democratic SA in which there would be equality of opportunity for all citizens to share in resources and where institutions of learning would be open to all.

While the urbane, well-read and softly-spoken chief referred to the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights to justify his calls for equality, he also noted that South Africans must be their own liberators, as the country's freedom could never be a "gift from abroad."

This was a speech that civil rights leader and fellow Nobel peace laureate in 1964, Martin Luther King Jr., could have delivered about apartheid America.

Both prophets — as disciples of Gandhi — shared an undying belief in non-violent struggle, as well as in the ultimate triumph of the human spirit over oppression. Luthuli's words about the "unconquerable spirit of mankind" could have been uttered by King, as could his view that: "Although methods of struggle may differ from time to time, the universal human strivings for liberty remain unchanged."

The chief's magnanimity towards his oppressors, his continued calls for reconciliation and his building of bridges with progressive white South Africans, was a torch that his fellow ANC chieftain and Nobel laureate, Nelson Mandela, would inherit three decades later in liberating his country.

Luthuli's Nobel speech also represented the cri de coeur of a committed Pan-African prophet linking Africa's independence struggle to that of apartheid SA.

As he noted: "Our goal is a united Africa in which the standards of life and liberty are constantly expanding."

With his renowned moral consistency, the chief also called for a united continent to abandon its oppressive past and build democratic societies based on humane values. As he noted: "This is Africa's age... the moment when she must grapple with destiny.... saying ours was a fight for noble values and worthy ends, and not for lands and the enslavement of man."

Luthuli demonstrated that his Christian faith was the foundation for all his political actions, talking of serving the "Creator," and boldly identifying himself as a "Christian and patriot."

He employed evocative biblical allusions, rather uncritically praised Christian missionaries (who colluded closely in the imperial project), and called for churches across the globe to join the anti-apartheid struggle.

In the spirit of ubuntu, he appealed to his largely Western audience in Oslo to see the world as a common humanity and cited examples from Europe's blood-strewn history to try to win support for Africa's liberation.

He also noted the irony that "the golden age of African independence is also the dark age of South Africa's decline and retrogression."

Today, Luthuli's memory is preserved in his family home in Groutville which has now been transformed into a national museum.

In the reconstructed bedroom and study full of family and political memorabilia, Luthuli's voice booms over a loudspeaker as his Nobel speech is played over and over again.

In the words of one of his favourite poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — quoted in Luthuli's Nobel speech — the ANC stalwart certainly left his "footprints on the sands of time."

Dr. Adekeye Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and author of UN Peacekeeping in Africa (2011).


Fifty years ago this month Chief Albert Luthuli, then-president of the ANC, was told that he was to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

He was not only the first South African to be awarded this prestigious prize; he was the first person from Africa.

Three other South Africans were later to receive the Nobel Peace Prize: Desmond Tutu in 1984, and Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk jointly in 1993. Today there are statues of the four at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town and portraits of them hang in the Cape Town Club in Gardens.

One of the Mother City's streets is to be named after Luthuli on December 10: the 50th anniversary of the day he was awarded the prize in Oslo, Norway.

When he accepted the honour, Luthuli showed the self-deprecating sense of humour often used by Mandela.

He began his acceptance speech by saying that while there were few things on which he agreed with the South African government, one was that he did not deserve the prize.

He nevertheless accepted it "as a recognition of the sacrifice made by many of all races, particularly the African people, who have endured and suffered so much for so long" and "on behalf of all freedom-loving peoples who work day and night to make South Africa what it ought to be".

Luthuli also said he saw the prize as an honour for "Mother Africa", and he linked the award to the struggle against colonialism then carrying most countries of tropical Africa to independence.

No prize had been awarded for 1960, and Luthuli was given it for that year, at the same time that the prize for 1961 was awarded posthumously to UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld, who had died in a plane crash in September.

In his acceptance speech Luthuli paid gracious tribute to the Swede, pointing out that he had died trying to achieve peace in the newly independent Congo.

Luthuli received the prize above all because of his leadership role in the non-violent resistance to apartheid in the 1950s. He had led the ANC since 1952 — the year of the Defiance Campaign — with great dignity.

A man of gravitas and a fine orator, he had, on his visit to Cape Town in 1959, been received with acclaim by a wide spectrum of Capetonians opposed to apartheid.

Soon after his visit to Cape Town, however, Luthuli was again restricted by the apartheid government, and it was as a banned person, restricted to his home town of Groutville in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, that he received the news of the award.

People outside the ANC-led Congress Alliance labelled Luthuli a collaborationist for accepting the prize, and were critical of him for speaking in Oslo about a non-racial future for South Africa, when the multiracial alliance of which he was a part seemed to them to be organised along the racial lines used by apartheid.

However, it was above all for his continued commitment to non-violence that he was criticised, after the Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960, when police killed 69 demonstrators protesting against the pass laws, and the banning of the ANC that followed.

On December 16, 1961, only six days after he received the award, others in the ANC officially launched the armed struggle.

They did not do so as members of the ANC, however; Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) had been established as a separate organisation because many in the ANC, like Luthuli, remained committed to non-violence. Only later did MK become the armed wing of the ANC.

As leader of the ANC, Luthuli had been involved in the discussions, held in the aftermath of the organisation being banned, about adopting an armed struggle, and had made clear his opposition.

He never publicly condemned MK, however. He accepted that others saw no alternative to the use of violence.

He did not know that MK would be launched so soon after his return, and was distressed when it was, for this seemed to challenge the commitment to non-violence he had so eloquently expressed in Oslo.

Until his tragic death in 1967, crossing a railway track near his home, Luthuli continued to believe in fighting apartheid in non-violent ways.

He proposed an international boycott of South African products before he received the Nobel prize, and saw the prize as a way to mobilise globally against apartheid.

In 1964 he issued a joint statement calling for international action against apartheid with Martin Luther King jr (both were disciples of Mahatma Gandhi), who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year for his non-violent civil resistance campaign in the US.

Luthuli's visit to Oslo helped to galvanise the anti-apartheid movement in the Scandinavian countries and beyond.

It was a major boost for the international campaign to expose the evils of apartheid, and to isolate South Africa, though it would be decades before the global anti-apartheid campaign brought significant pressure to bear on the regime.

Though the first major biography, titled Albert Luthuli: Bound by Faith, by the Rev Scott Couper, appeared last year, Luthuli's life and career remain too little studied. There are clear lessons to be learnt in 2011 from this man of principle and moral courage, who believed in moderation and inclusivity.

He should be accorded a prominent place in the ANC's centenary celebrations in January.

It is hoped that his name will not be abused for current political purposes.

Chris Saunders, an emeritus professor at UCT, is a research associate at the Centre for Conflict Resolution.

This article first appeared in the Cape Argus on 10 October 2011 under the headline "We would do well to remember Luthuli's words of wisdom and peace"


Page 1 of 2

© 2018 Centre for Conflict Resolution 

Centre for Conflict Resolution, Coornhoop, 2 Dixton Road, Observatory 7925, Cape Town, South Africa

 Tel: +27 (0)21 689 1005 | Fax: +27 (0)21 689 1003