PRESIDENCY: 1930 -1936
Pixley Seme was born on 1 October 1881 in Natal, the son of Isaka Sarah (nee Mseleku) Seme. Little is documented of his early life as a primary school pupil and teenager. He obtained his primary school 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.
Seme did his BA degree at Columbia and then went to Oxford University where he completed a degree in Law.
He was called to the bar at the Middle Temple in London before returning to South Africa on the eve of the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910.
More than any of the leading personalities of the time, Seme is considered the founder of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), the precursor of the ANC.
Not only did he conceptualise the form and structure of the movement but he also facilitated the founding of the SANNC in Bloemfontein in 1912.
At the founding Congress Seme delivered the keynote address, an appeal for symbolic and material support for the new formation. And when voting began for the position of president, Seme proposed that John Langalibalele Dube be elected.
In 1913 Seme set up a newspaper, Abantu-Batho. Ambitious though this project proved to be, it was an ingenious way of drawing African people, its target audience, to the political discourse that impacted on their lives.
Early in the 1920s Seme had an opportunity to revive his career. He served as legal counsel for the Swazi Regent in a dispute with the British government. His knowledge of British law, having studied at Oxford, made him the logical choice for the task. However, the outcome of the case was disastrous for Seme – he lost the case on appeal at the Privy Council and returned to South Africa. Relations between Nationalists and Socialist broke down irretrievably during 1929, leading to Gumede being unseated as President General. Seme seems to have recovered significantly from his woes of the previous decade, and in the elective Congress of 1930 he was elected to the position of President General. Seme’s presidency is often associated with the demise of the ANC in the first half of the 1930s.
It is argued that his failure to lead was largely the reason for the ANC’s sagging fortunes. Indeed, during the early 1930s the ANC’s following in urban and rural areas was at its lowest, compared with earlier decades. Seme was becoming increasingly unpopular, with calls for his removal reaching a crescendo after the removal of Makgatho as President of the Transvaal ANC in 1934. In 1937 Seme was replaced by Mahabane, who was ready for a second stint. Seme died in 1951.