Pixley kaIsaka Seme (1881-1951) is an often-overlooked South African. Born in Inanda in Natal, 25km from Durban, and educated at the Congregational Christian mission there – headed by American C. S. Pixley – Seme went to America in 1898, improved his English, and studied at Mount Hermon school for boys into 1902 when, failing to be accepted at Yale, he commenced studies at Columbia University in New York. Uncertain if he wanted to be a doctor, a missionary or a lawyer, he won the university’s highest oratorical honour, the George William Curtis medal. His subject was ‘The Regeneration of Africa”. He also lectured on “Life in Zululand”. In the autumn of 1906 he was accepted by Jesus College, Oxford, to read law.
In 1909 he gained the degree of Bachelor of Civil Law, and went to London to eventually be called to the Bar at Middle Temple. In 1910 he returned to South Africa. He became influential in African politics and established the South African Native National Congress (later named the African National Congress or A.N.C.). Seme’s years in Britain led him into close links to other black students. Alain Locke (the first African American Rhodes Scholar – see this website’s pages 004 and 127), and a Gambian law student named A. E. Maxwell Gibson who had Sierra Leone and other West African connections (his father worked in the Gambia; he had been educated at Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone and after graduating in law at Wadham College, Oxford in 1897, had married in Nigeria). They founded the African Unity Society, a sparsely documented if almost invisible group in Edwardian Oxford. We might guess that law student (at Keble) Alexander Hutton Mills of Ghana (at that time known as the Gold Coast) was another associate.
There are about thirty letters from Seme to Locke in the Locke Papers at Howard University in Washington DC. One recommended Locke to meet, in London, the Jamaican author Dr T. E. S. Scholes (letter, Brussels, 28 August 1907; Scholes’s response to Locke, London, 28 October 1907, is reproduced in Jeffrey Green, Black Edwardians (1998) p 150).
On the letterhead of the Middle Temple Seme wrote to Locke on 30 September 1909:
“Say I fixed the old gentlemen the other day – Really they must be thick headed and foolish- You know Dr [William Awuner] Renner [1856-1917] and Dr Scholes [c 1858-c 1940] wished to be introduced to each other – I offered most gladly to perform the ceremony and festive [?] suggested that I should escort Dr Renner to the mighty columns of the British museum and there and then seek the presence of the learned colleague and author. Then of course we three immortals should march to the Trocadero [a London restaurant opened in 1896] and take lunch – Well as you suppose both of them jumped to accept these generous suggestion [sic] – and to my surprise they brought mighty appetites with them to the expensive and attractive table – I thought they came to lunch but they sat for dinner – Well, I followed suit. [The waiter brought menus and the wine list]. Imagine the chill down my back when I had only a borrowed 7s 6d [an eighth of one pound] in my pocket”. Seme eventually went to the toilet, tipped the waiter 6d and told him to present the bill to Renner. “Dr Scholes could scarcely move for for [sic] he had eaten so much dinner”. Seme went to his lodgings with 7s – “Just fancy my paying for them! Locke I really think their ‘horse sense’ is simply impossibly ———“.
Seme was a leading – perhaps the leading – black lawyer in South Africa from 1910, in partnership with the Taunton, Somerset- educated Richard Msimang (1884-1933). A brief biography is subtitled Founder of the ANC (Rive and Couzens, 1993). Seme successfully challenged the ANC’s links with the Communist Party of South Africa by 1930 but his leadership was poor so he was replaced in 1937.
Seme was not the first South African to study in the U.S.A., nor was he the first African undergraduate at Oxford. His life abroad should be contrasted to Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu, (1885-1959) who studied in Colwyn Bay, North Wales then qualified at London University and as a teacher at Britain’s Birmingham University. He then visited America in 1912. Jabavu was an active and respected educationalist in South Africa for decades. His daughter Noni Jabavu studied in England in the 1930s and wrote two widely admired books.
Seme was part of the Swazi delegation in England in 1923.
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