Pixley ka Isaka Seme
(October 1, 1881 - 1951)
Political Activist, Lawyer and Journalist
This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission.
Pixley Seme was born on 1 October 1881 in Natal. He was the son of Isaka Seme and his wife, Sarah (nee Mseleku). He obtained his primary education at the local mission school where the American Congregationalist missionary, Reverend S. C. Pixley, took an interest in him and arranged for him to go the Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts in the USA. He then attended Colombia University in New York and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree (B.A) in April 1906. At the same time he won the University's highest oratorical honour, the George William Curtis medal. His topic was “The Regeneration of Africa”. With financial assistance from missionaries, he entered Jesus College, Oxford in England, where he read law in September 1906. In June 1909 he gained a Bachelor's degree in Civil Law and passed his first bar examinations. The following year he was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple, London. While in Britain, Seme and Alfred Mangena, met at the South African Native Convention that had come there to monitor the progress of the draft South Africa Act through the British parliament in 1909. Seme later claimed to be a nephew of Umqawe, one of the most powerful chiefs of Zululand, but a conflicting opinion seemed to suggest that he came from a humble Tonga family.
Back in South Africa in 1910, Seme set up private practice in Johannesburg, later going into partnership with Mangena. On 8 January 1912 Seme, Mangena and two other foreign-educated lawyers, Richard Msimang and George Montsio, called for a convention of Africans to form the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), which was renamed the African National Congress (ANC) in 1923, in Bloemfontein. One hundred delegates attended its inaugural meeting, where Seme was the keynote speaker. At Seme's suggestion the new organization was patterned after the United States Congress. Reverend John Langalibalele Dube was elected as its first president (in absentia), and Seme became the Treasurer-General.
With financial assistance from the Queen regent of Swaziland, Seme launch the SANNC newspapers, Abantu Batho, which was to be published for the next 20 years. The paper had a nation-wide circulation and was printed in Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and English. In 1913 Seme established the South African Native Farmers Association, which bought the Daggakraal and Driefontein farms in the Wakkerstroom district in Transvaal. They would have bought more farms but were impeded by the Natives Land Act of 1913 which made it illegal for Africans to buy farms in the Transvaal.
Seme, like Mangena, had many distinguished Africans among his clients, including the royal family of Swaziland. In 1926 he travelled with the Swazi Monarch, Sobhuza II, to England to appeal a land dispute against South Africa where Seme represented the King before the Privy Council.
In 1928 his prestige was further enhanced when Colombia University, his alma mater, awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Law (LLD). In the late 1920s Josiah Gumede, then the ANC President-General, attempted to steer the organisation towards an alliance with Communist Party of Africa (today the South African Communist Party). This alarmed Seme and other conservatives in the organization.
Seme was subsequently elected President-General at the 1930 annual ANC congress, ousting Gumede by a vote of 39 to 14. Seme's attempts to transform the ANC into an organization of economic self-help proved fruitless, as did his attempt to revive the defunct House of Chiefs in the ANC. Both his enemies and supporters accused him of ‘culpable inertia' in 1932 and criticized his autocratic and cautious leadership style. Reverend R. Mahabane replaced him as President-General in 1937. At about the same time his newspaper, Abantu Batho, declined in popularity and closed down. By 1935 Pixley Seme and other members of the ANC had become aware of the need to coordinate the African opposition to the Hertzog Bills. Seme joined Professor D.D.T. Jabavu in convening the first meeting of the All African Convention (AAC) in Bloemfontein in 1935. He later turned against the AAC, but maintained ties with the ANC, serving as 'secretary for the chiefs' in A.B. Xuma 's first national executive committee during the early 1940s. Seme also served as a member of the African Claims Committee of 1943.
Anton M. Lembede, the first president of the Congress Youth League (CYL), was articled to him as a law clerk in 1943, and in 1946 they became partners. Seme was married to Harriet, a daughter of King Dinuzulu of Zululand. They had four sons and one daughter. He died in Johannesburg in 1951.
Sonderling, N. E. (1999). The new dictionary of South Africa biography Volume 2, Vista University, Pretoria, pp.205 – 206.