Bongani Ngqulunga discusses his book, The Man Who Founded the ANC, shortlisted for the 2018 Alan Paton Award
Published in the Sunday Times
Bongani Ngqulunga is a fellow at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where he earned three degrees. He also holds a PhD from Brown University in the US.
What sparked your interest in Pixley ka Isaka Seme?
It always puzzled me that no substantial biography had been written about Seme even though he had made major contributions to the life and politics of South Africa. Not only was he the founder of the ANC at 30 years old, he started a company that bought land for black settlement in the eastern Transvaal (Mpumalanga today). He was the second black South African to be admitted to practice as an attorney. He established a national newspaper and did many other things. And yet when he became the president-general of the ANC from 1930 to 1937 he brought it to its knees. I found the paradox of the founder of the ANC nearly killing it when he became leader interesting.
Why this book, and why now?
The book tells a fascinating story not only about the life of a man, Seme, but also about the history of this country and the hurdles we have overcome to get to where we are today. Sometimes when we look at the political problems we face today we tend to glorify the past and present it as if everything was perfect. The story of Seme demonstrates that our past is as complex as our present. And herein perhaps lies the significance of the book: it cautions us against accepting oversimplified versions of our history. The person who reads this book will be struck by the similarities between what went on in the ANC 80 years ago and what is going on now. The book cautions against what the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the danger of a single story.
What does the past of the ANC tell us about its present and the future?
The most important lesson, I suppose, is that the ANC has done well when it has put ordinary people at the centre of its political mission. The disasters that it faced in the 1930s were largely caused by a political leadership that was inward looking and self-serving. While the ANC leaders were caught in squabbles among themselves, they forgot about ordinary people who faced mass unemployment, landlessness and poverty. It was only when the ANC changed its strategy and focused on mobilising masses of ordinary South Africans in the 1940s and 1950s that it regained its purpose and attracted support.
What drove Seme?
Seme had extraordinary vision and intellect with insatiable ambition and energy. He cared deeply about the unity of black people and their liberation. His predilection for the finer things in life and an autocratic style of leadership were the cause of his political downfall.
Why did he become authoritarian and autocratic?
He had great faith in his intellect and political vision. He thought he alone knew what was good for the ANC and the people it led. That, largely, was the cause of his political downfall. And because he attracted so much criticism from his colleagues in the leadership of the ANC, he was alienated from them and made mistakes that could have been avoided had his leadership style been more inclusive.
How did you research his life?
Unfortunately Seme did not leave behind an archive of personal papers when he died in 1951. That in turn made researching his life challenging. Researching and writing the book while working full time complicated matters a bit. But I spent considerable time trawling through archives and reading old newspapers, some as old as 100 years! I also received assistance from archivists and librarians in South Africa, Swaziland, the US and England, countries in which Seme lived at one point or the other.
What surprised or disturbed you about Seme that you found while researching?
I did not know that he did not have a doctorate. I found it strange that a man of his accomplishments would feel the need to claim a degree he did not possess. I was also disappointed by several instances when he took advantage of desperate black people who came to him for help as their political leader and a renowned lawyer.
Was there any hindrance from others about the revelations about Seme?
No, there was no hindrance at all. Some Seme family members were unhappy about the revelations concerning the doctorate, which is understandable. But nobody tried to stop or hinder me from writing the book.
- The Man Who Founded the ANC: A Biography of Pixley Ka Isaka Seme by Bongani Ngqulunga
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