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.

 



Continental institutions are being sidelined in a new 'scramble for Africa', write Mark Paterson and Chris Saunders

When he took office as Africa's first United Nations (UN) Secretary General in 1992, Egyptian scholar-diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali complained that the Western powers, who dominate proceedings at the world body's Security Council, were interested only in tackling "rich men's wars" in the Balkans to the detriment of Africa's "poor men's wars".

Two years later, genocide in Rwanda claimed the lives of 800,000, giving awful substance to Boutros-Ghali's fears. The mass murder came only six months after American blood was spilled in a peacekeeping mission in Somalia — when eighteen US soldiers (as well as about 1,000 Somalis) were killed in October 1993.

While tens of thousands of Africans were being killed in Rwanda and as the UN mission there failed to take action, the administration of American president Bill Clinton, having burnt its fingers in Somalia, issued a directive seeking to curtail US involvement in such peacekeeping operations in Africa due to their cost and danger.

The Rwandan genocide proved a watershed, confirming the need for the international community to protect civilian populations threatened by warring parties that can include their own governments.

However, an "aristocracy of death" has subsequently characterised the military personnel placed in harm's way on such missions, according to Adekeye Adebajo, the author of a new book on the subject, UN Peacekeeping in Africa: From the Suez Crisis to the Sudan Conflicts.

At present, more than 70 per cent of all UN peacekeeping personnel have been deployed in various African missions — with 19,000 uniformed UN personnel in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) alone. The peacekeepers in the firing line are generally African, Asian and from poorer countries rather than from the wealthy West, Adebajo told a recent meeting on the book held by the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) in Cape Town.

The rationale as well as the modus operandi of UN peacekeeping in Africa has often served the interests of the "great powers" — the winners of the Second World War in 1945 (the US, China, Russia, France, and Britain) who occupy the permanent five seats on the UN Security Council and enjoy veto power.

Chairing the recent book launch, Aziz Pahad, the former South African Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, argued that UN instruments are increasingly being co-opted in a new "Scramble for Africa" that seeks to recolonise its resources. In the wake of recent UN-backed interventions in Africa — in Côte d'Ivoire and Libya — that enabled changes of regime, Pahad talked of how the Security Council was now viewed by some critics as an active threat to the very security it seeks to provide.

To counter what Adebajo calls "the games that great powers play", the meeting stressed the importance of more effective African representation on the Security Council, and stronger coordination and promotion of continental interests through the 15-member Peace and Security Council of the AU.

Indeed, the launch of peacekeeping missions depends on a convergence of international, regional, and national demands: the interests of key Security Council members; the willingness of local warring parties to cooperate; and the support of neighbouring powers — particularly hegemons such as South Africa and Nigeria and South Africa — who must be prepared to isolate spoilers unwilling to resolve conflicts.

Given Africa's lack of resources and capacity, Adebajo's book stresses the vital role that UN peacekeeping can play — but as a force for "freezing" conflicts, for preventing their deterioration, rather than for solving their causes, which is a process properly led by African, rather than external, actors.

The importance of a more effective division of labour between the UN, the AU and regional organisations such as the Southern African Development Community and the Economic Community of West African States was discussed at the meeting.

Although the UN Charter gives the world body the primary responsibility for keeping the peace, the UN has no dedicated force of its own and has to draw upon those of its member states. This has often caused problems, the South African Special Representative to the Great Lakes Region, Welile Nhlapo, told the meeting. UN peacekeepers may hail from countries which participate mainly for the revenue that is offered for joining the mission.

Lack of concern for the local population can segue into criminality: in the eastern Congo especially, peacekeepers have reportedly looted, raped and, in rare cases, murdered local people.

In addition, UN "blue helmets" by their very presence can exacerbate the conflicts that they were sent to resolve. Nhlapo described how such external interventions can embarrass the governments which have sought such help, exacerbating the fragility of already fragile states.

The alien and very visible UN peacekeepers in their distinct uniforms and white vans can heighten insecurity, underlining the state of war to the population.

Other "unintended consequences" highlighted by Nhlapo included the threat of inflation, sparked by the spending power of relatively well-paid foreign peacekeepers.

On the other hand, UN peacekeepers have scored some significant successes in Africa — and the form of intervention has a long history on the continent, going back to the Suez crisis of 1956, the UN's first ever armed mission.

Africa also hosted the world body's first attempt to enforce peace, when the UN intervened in the Congo between 1960 and 1964 and kept the country together. A long period followed, during the Cold War, when no further UN peacekeeping missions were sent to Africa. But from 1989, when the world body engaged in Namibia and deployed its first ever multidimensional mission (involving peacekeepers, civilians and police and overseeing military and political transition including elections), there have been many.

Integrated UN peacekeeping mission now often do much more than merely keep the peace: in the DRC, for example, they are about to help supervise the holding of a second election.

In time, Africa may have a standby force that can take the place of UN troops, but that is still a way off. Only in Southern and West Africa is it likely for one to be operational in the near future.

In the meantime, African continental, regional and national bodies continue to wrestle with the issues of power and powerlessness created in the UN Security Council in New York. Most recently, a UN resolution authorising all necessary means to protect civilians in Libya was interpreted by powerful Western countries that supported it as meaning that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation could undertake "regime change".

African frustration at the apparent disregard for African sovereignty and sidelining of African institutions has exacerbated tensions in the continent's continuing fraught relationship with the body that is supposed to secure world peace.

Mark Paterson and Chris Saunders are at the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town

 



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"

 



Fifty years ago this month Chief Albert Luthuli, president-general of the ANC, was informed 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 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 Cape Town Waterfront and portraits of them hang in the Cape Town Club in Gardens. One of Cape Town's streets is to be named after Luthuli on December 10 this year — 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 that he saw the prize as an honour for "Mother Africa", and he linked the award of the prize 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 as the prize for 1961 was awarded posthumously to the UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, who had died in a plane crash in September.

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, 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 have 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 part, seemed to them to be organised along the racial lines used by apartheid.

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 weSizwe (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.

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 that prize as a way of mobilising internationally 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.

Though the first major biography, entitled Albert Luthuli: Bound by Faith, by the Reverend Scott Couper, appeared last year, Luthuli's life and career remain too little studied. There are clear lessons to be learned 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 next year.

Chris Saunders, an emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town, is a research associate at the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR).

CCR is holding a public dialogue on the award of the Nobel Prize to Albert Luthuli at the Centre for the Book at 5.30pm on Tuesday, 18 October 2011.

Two experts on Luthuli, Jabulani Sithole of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Raymond Suttner, visiting professor at Rhodes University, will be speaking at the meeting which will be chaired by Saunders.

 



Fifty years ago next month, Dag Hammarskjold, the secretary-general of the United Nations (UN), died in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia. He is widely recognised as the greatest secretary-general the UN has had. Most of his last year in office was taken up with the recently independent Congo. That he was also involved with SA has tended to be neglected.

Before the Congo crisis broke, he had been tasked by the UN to do what he could to engage with the issue of apartheid SA, which had first come onto the UN Security Council agenda after the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960. Acting for the UN, Hammarskjold visited SA for six days in January 1961 and had six meetings with prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd. Two articles in the July special issue of the African Journal of Conflict Resolution discuss that visit and place it in context.

For the article I wrote, I was sent copies of documents from the Hammarskjold papers in Stockholm, which are very well ordered and easily accessible. They, however, present only a partial view of his visit to SA.

Besides meeting Verwoerd, Hammarskjold travelled from Pretoria and Johannesburg to the Cape and the Transkei, and reports of his activities, and of the controversy over the people he met and did not meet, appeared in our local press at the time.

But when I tried to find material on his visit in the National Archives in Pretoria I hit a brick wall.

We know there was documentation on his visit in the prime minister's files, as well as in the files of what was then the department of external affairs (now the Department of International Relations and Co-operation), but none of this documentation can be found in the archives. My article in the journal was therefore not able to draw upon some potentially important information. A file on Hammarskjold's visit in another collection was subsequently identified for me, but when I visited the archives to consult it, it also could not be found.

In the dying days of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in 1998, allegations surfaced that South Africans had been involved in Hammarskjold's death, and it is remotely possible that at that time all the documents in the archives on him were gathered and removed and not put back where they belonged. Those who know the archives, however, think this highly unlikely, and it would anyway have been gross mismanagement to allow them to disappear.

This particular search of mine was on a matter of relatively minor importance to our national story. Had Hammarskjold returned to SA, as he intended to do, it is unlikely that he would have been able to achieve any modification to Verwoerdian apartheid. But my failure to find anything relevant to his visit in the National Archives is emblematic of a much broader problem. That there is a dire shortage of staff and great disorganisation in the archives is abundantly clear. There is a backlog in processing material of years, if not decades, and no proper system to find what one is looking for.

Historians have raised the crisis in the archives at biennial meetings of the Southern African Historical Society, but have been able to achieve nothing. The Society of South African Archivists seems not to appreciate that the state of the National Archives is a national disgrace. The website of the relevant government department (arts and culture), which lists highlights, achievements and continuing projects of the National Archives and Records Service of SA (Narssa), first mentions that the new building for the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, on which considerable South African money was spent, is almost complete. Only later does it admit that the main building for SA's archives dates from the 1960s and is full, so that Narssa has had to tell government departments to store their records privately. If anything happens to these records, continues the statement, "Narssa will not be in a position to do anything about the matter". In other words, do not blame us if records go missing. What kind of an archives service is this?

The Nelson Mandela Foundation, and Mandela himself in a recorded message, recently stressed the importance of archives and memory in taking the country from its past into its future. The National Archives should be our leading depository of material relating to the past. If things go on as they are, historians and others will struggle to research and write on many aspects of our history.

Saunders is Emeritus Professor of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town

 

13 Feb 2011

Quest for truth

Published in Newspaper Articles

13 February 2011

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