Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK


Bongani Ngqulunga

Penguin Books

It is one of the most enduring questions in South African politics: how is it a faction-driven, diverse and ideologically challenged party such as the ANC has survived for so long?

A starting point to determining an answer is that the ANC stands for the liberation of black South Africans from apartheid. But that is as far as one would get to arrive at a broad explanation for its success as there are myriad views and opinions, with some commentators calling the ANC a "riddle" or an "enigma".

Whatever the case, the ANC is certainly the prime political reality in SA. It has been the governing party for the past 23 years after a chequered history. For 50 years, it functioned as a largely conservative and moderate organisation and then disappeared from the South African scene for about 30 years before emerging as a broadly social-democratic party after 1994.

Now, it typifies itself as an organisation seeking "radical economic transformation" against the backdrop of the visionary "national democratic revolution", reflected in the National Development Plan, President Jacob Zuma’s nine-point plan now augmented by Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s recently revealed 14-point plan.

Looking back at history provides a possible solution to the vexing question of how the ANC has survived despite being an ideological disaster area from early on and now characterised by an old-fashioned dirigiste mind-set.

Bongani Ngqulunga’s biography of Pixley ka Isaka Seme has been published at just the right time. The title, The Man Who Founded the ANC, is a misnomer as Nelson Mandela clearly states in Long Walk to Freedom that Seme was only "one of the founders of the ANC", influential though he may have been as an individual.

Seme’s credentials were certainly there for everyone to see. He was trained at Columbia University in the US, where he delivered his intellectual treatise, The Regeneration of Africa, and later attended Oxford University in the UK, where he pursued some legal studies but did not earn a degree.

Returning to SA in 1910, he found a nation in flux with the formation of the Union of SA, excluding blacks as voters with the partial franchise system in the Cape not being extended to the north. For Ngqulunga, Seme’s seminal moment was when the South African National Native Congress was formed in January 1912, to be renamed the ANC in 1923.

Seme succeeded where others had failed in forming a political organisation that represented all black South Africans, eventually culminating in the ANC becoming the only African liberation movement to achieve power in a negotiated settlement within the framework of a modern, industrialised state with colonial characteristics.

Although Ngqulunga somewhat underplays the role of others, such as John Dube and Walter Rubusana, Seme was clearly an important and influential figure in the creation of the then Native Congress, with his now iconic plea "against the demon of racialism … the cause of all our woes and of all our backwardness and ignorance today".

This is in essence the soul of the ANC. But between 1912 and 1994 lay a vast road of missed opportunities, failed plans and ideological detours that cost the ANC dearly.

Somehow it survived, with Seme’s life a good example of how the progression of the ANC to power was far from a straight line.

Practising as an attorney, Seme was adviser to the Swazi and Zulu royal houses before serving as ANC president from 1930 to 1936. In between, he bought land from white farmers for black settlement and economic advancement.

The ANC has always been strong when transgressing tribal divisions. For this, the party has Seme to thank

In the latter part of Seme’s life, he lived through some momentous times including the removal of the black vote in the Cape in 1936 and the turn to greater confrontational activism by the ANC in the late 1940s.

He died in 1951, technically insolvent after being rehabilitated as an attorney.

Those who think faction-forming, corruption and battles between moderates and radicals are unique to the ANC of today are in for a surprise.

Seme was relieved of his ANC leadership position because of his autocratic tendencies, after he dismissed the entire executive council at one point. And he was struck off the roll of attorneys for misappropriating clients’ money and stealing cattle.

He was viewed as a tragic figure, someone who was guilty of "culpable inertia" during his ANC presidency and whose plans were "wrecked by the extravagance of his own genius", writes Ngqulunga.

Yet Seme’s contribution to the success of the ANC is indisputable, although the paradoxes remained in place.

But Zuma is clearly in a league of his own, being the party’s first uneducated leader, appearing to shun unity for faction-forming and platitudes, which had always been actively opposed by the ANC’s intellectually inclined leadership of reverends, teachers, doctors and attorneys. (Remember a better life for all?)

The ANC has always been strong when transgressing tribal divisions. For this, the party has Seme to thank. The party also owes a great deal to him for its willingness to engage with other groups to find common ground as a broad-based movement.

Both are now under threat from Zuma’s leadership.

How ironic then that Ngqulunga is Zuma’s spokesman. But that does not detract from this insightful and illuminating work.


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