Pixley ka Isaka Seme

A strong advocate for justice and a shared identity

Pixley ka Seme, an advocate, a founder of the South African National Native Council (a precursor to the ANC) and a newspaperman, advocated strongly for an African identity in place of ethnic and local identities.

Pixley ka (‘son of’) Isaka Seme was the fourth son of Isaka Sissonka Kuwana, also known as Marsh Isaac, a transport rider who settled at the American Board Mission in the 1850s in the then Natal colony.

He inherited his name from his guardian Reverend S.C. Pixley who raised Seme soon after his parents died. Reverend Pixley was the American Congregational missionary at Inanda.

Seme called himself Isaka instead of Isaac to Africanise his identity. At the age of 14, he moved from Inanda to the Adams Training School for Boys in Amanzimtoti, south of Durban. When he was sixteen he left for the United States to join his cousin John Langalibalele Dube who was 10 years older than him (Saunders, 2012: 117-118).

The eight years he spent in the United States determined what his career would be. When he graduated from Mount Hermon School in rural Massachusetts he went to study at Columbia University in New York and lived in Harlem. As Dube’s protégé he read Booker T. Washington’s work at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. This gave him an understanding, consciousness, and the ability to distinguish between African Americans and Africans, thus affiliating to pan-Africanism (Saunders, 2012: 117-118).

Seme went on to study Law at Jesus College, Oxford and read for the London Bar. He spent four years in England. In the twelve years he spent abroad in the US and UK Seme became an Anglophile with a slight American accent (Saunders, 2012: 119-120).

A lawyer and politician

He returned home towards the end of 1910 when the four republics where merged under the umbrella of the Union of South Africa. In January 1911 he moved to Johannesburg to practise as an attorney. A year later, he would travel to Bloemfontein to help form the SANNC which would later become the ANC and nominated his mentor and cousin John L. Dube in absentia to be the first president of the ANC while he became its Treasurer-General with Alfred Mangena becoming one of the seven deputy presidents (Saunders, 2012: 119-120).

Journalistic Contribution

Seme founded Abantu-Batho in 1912 and this establishment was inspired by the ideal that a new national organisation must have a mouth-piece. A national newspaper or journal “that would help Africans move away from their ethnic and local identities and see themselves as Africans first and foremost and would promote unity among them,” he said. This implied the national newspaper would appear in all the main African languages and English. The first issue ofAbantu-Batho was published in October 1912. By then it had already absorbed Daniel Letanka’s Motsoalle (The Friend) that was later renamed Morumioa. They then absorbed the Isi-Xhosa-English weekly Umlomo wa Bantu (Mouthpiece of the People) edited by Saul Msane and Levi Mvabaza. Articles appeared in English, IsiXhosa, IsiZulu and Sesotho (Saunders, 2012: 121-122).

Contributors of Abantu-Batho were D.D.T. Jabavu, S.E.K. Mqhayi, Z.R. Mahabane, S.M. Bennett Ncwana, Samuel Makama Masabalala. Letanka edited the Sesotho and Setswana editions throughout the existence of the newspaper. C Kunene, who became the first editor, was responsible for IsiXhosa and IsiZulu sections. It had four editors and a managing editor who were also directors of the company. Other editors were T.D. Mwelo Skota, R.V. Selope Thema as well as Jeremiah W. Dunjwa and Saul Msane (Switzer, 1997: 31).

Ikwezi le Afrika only existed between February 1928 and October 1932, was published in Eshowe and was becoming irrelevant. Hence it was absorbed by the ANC organ called the Africa Leader. It was launched in Johannesburg, printed on Abantu-Batho press and only appeared between January 1932 and May 1933.

African Leader was published in English, Umholi we Africa in Zulu, Inkokheli ye Afrika in Xhosa and Moetapele ka Afrika in Sotho. It became the mouthpiece of the ANC soon after succeeding Abantu-Batho. It was edited by Mweli-Skota as well as radical journalist Gilbert Cika who left Bantu World. Numerous ANC figures wrote articles in the English section including Seme, H. Selby Msimang, Sol Plaatje’s son Halley, Joel Ndumo, S.H. Mbulawa as well as others using pseudonyms. It lasted for a year and four months due to “sheer bad business management” (Switzer, 1997: 32).

In February 1929 Seme edited Ikwezi le Africa (African Morning Star) which rivalled Abantu-Batho. However Abantu-Batho in the late 1920s was still recognised as the ANC’s official organ with Josiah Tshangana Gumede, the president of the ANC, buying, managing and editing it. In June 1929 Abantu-Batho under Gumede maintained Seme’s philosophy of “African thinking for himself” without crediting Seme for it in any way. In the beginning of 1931 the newspaper was sold to the African and Indian Trading Association, Limited, of which he was a director (Saunders, 2012: 123-124).

Seme passed away on the 7 June 1951. The famous speech he made at Columbia University in 1906 earned him the Order of Luthuli in Gold a century later (South African History Online).

References

Saunders, C. 2012. Pixley Seme and Abantu-Batho. In Limb, P. The People’s Paper: A Centenary History and Anthology of Abantu-Batho. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, pp.117-127.

South African History Online. Pixley ka Isaka Seme. Available at: www.sahistory.org.za/people/pixley-ka-isaka-seme.

Switzer, L. Ed. 1997. South Africa’s Alternative Press: Voices of Protest and Resistance, 1880-1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p30 and 31.

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