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The depoliticised history of the ANC formation

Tracing the non-romantic and authentic history of the formation of the ANC is not an easy thing to do. But it can be painstakingly done by trawling through newspaper clippings of the black newspapers of the time; from ANC archives; an exercise of intellectual joining of historical dots; and through oral recordings. Dissatisfied with what is on offer, Mphuthumi Ntabeni has decided give it a go, starting by trying to make sense of that history from reading newspaper clippings of the era.

The renowned Xhosa poet, S.E.K. Mqhayi, who had been the sub-editor of the founding black newspapers Izwi Labantu (The Voice of the People) in 1914, and of Isolezw’ (The Nation’s Eye) shortly before that, took an exception with Selole Thema, the second ANC Secretary who claimed, erroneously, that the ANC was founded in 1912 by Dr Seme. Obviously Thema’s view became the official view of the ANC, which is today still perpetuated by the recent biography of The Man Who Founded the ANC: A Biography of Pixley ka Isaka Seme by Bongani Ngqulunga, the Spokesperson in the Presidency and Zuma’s spin doctor. But was Mqhayi wrong?

Let’s investigate

The argument between Mqhayi and Thema happened in 1929, when Mqhayi was editing another paper, Umteteleli (The Representative). Some claimed he was getting cantankerous because of old age, but Mqhayi as an editor, a poet and public intellectual was a stickler for detail and authentic history. As progeny we greatly owe him for reminding ‘the young man’, Thema, of the real history of the ANC. Mqhayi then takes us back to 1887 – the year of Thung’ umlomo (Stitch The Mouth: referring to the first all black consumer boycott) – a major association was established in the Cape by the likes of Goda Sishuba. It elected Thomas Mqanda as its chairman and Jonathan Thunyiswa the secretary.

The new association was named The South African Native Congress (Ingqungquthela). Because it wanted to become a national party in 1904 Ingqungquthela convened at Macubeni (Transkei then called Thembuland). The Free State was represented by Rev Xaba and Twayi – there were also representatives from Transvaal, but Mqhayi forgot to note their names (something that opened him to accusation by Thema who claimed the other provinces were not represented here). That gathering was chaired by Rev William Philip because Mr Mqanda was himself absent.

In 1909, the Ingqungquthela reconvened again in Queenstown to discuss the opposition to the Union of the provinces – fearing that the Boers would squeeze the blacks out to the peripheries with malicious intent. The gathering produced a petition to that effect, which was ignored by the white government. When the South African Federation was eventually dissolved the worst fears of Ingqungquthela came true regarding black people.

My family actually found the quire book in my maternal grandfather’s house containing minutes from meetings. Some of the representatives stayed there; my grandfather was some kind of a regional secretary. The register shows the presence of Dr Abdurahman, chief Silas Molema, chief Mehlomakhulu (remember this was still mostly an aristocratic movement), and some more famous an educated black names of the era.

In accordance with the resolutions of that meeting the recruitment drive was out on steroids. As such, in 1910 the likes of A.K. Soga – Tiyo’s son – went touring through the Transvaal to recruit and make the movement national. At that time the Sotho, the Zulus, and the Xhosas had their own separate conventions even as the Cape SANC was still the biggest and most active. Soga, with the help of Jesse Makhothe, who was a Sotho from Rustenburg, was very successful in recruiting in the Transvaal. Dr W.B. Rubusana had gone to the Free State for the same purpose, but was not as successful as Soga.

Parallel leadership

With the assistance of Ramsbottom (a white farmer) the Free State parliament building was booked for a hushed up national congress. Most in the Cape leadership were opposed to these hush-hush arrangements, but Rubusana whose rivalry with Jabavu was now threatening to derail the movement saw the opportunity to outsmart the Jabavu group. Thus, the national meeting was convened that year in Bloemfontein, opened by Rev D.W. Drew – a white person – with the rest of other founding members absent. At that convention SANC was renamed the South African National Native Congress (SANNC). The following were elected to office: W.B. Rubusana – President, A.K. Soga – Secretary, Rev Gabashane – Treasurer.

At the time other leading people within SANNC, like Dr P. Seme, Mangena, Montsioa and Thema, were out of the country on party business. They had also argued against the convening of the convention in their absence, and felt  that the urgency of the convention was created to exclude them.

In the years 1911-12 the people who were not part of the convention, in particular Seme, began creating what in modern parlance we would term a parallel leadership structure. Because they were men of international experience, intellect and knowledge, they concentrated more on community service issues. They wrote, printed and distributed the constitution of the convention and would go on to convene another meeting in 1912 in Bloemfontein that excluded and dissolved Dr Rubusana’s Convention.

The presidency was passed to Rev J.L. Dube who was then the editor of a newspaper in Natal called Ilanga with growing popularity. Dube had the resource help of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) and worked closely with the likes of Gandhi. At this stage it looked more like a battle of newspapers – Rubusana had the backing of Izwi Labantu that was funded by Cecil John Rhodes (more about that later). In the Cape, Dube had the resource help of the Mqhayi through the newspaper called Mteteleli. Jabavu of the more popular Isolezw’ was losing interest in politics and concentrating more on establishing black literature. M.S. Rhadebe who edited the more popular paper in Natal called Iphepha Lohlanga was pro Rubusana group.

In 1914, the SANNC met in Bloemfontein again to raise money for the representatives that were sent to England to petition the British queen and parliament against the Land Act. The meeting was also aimed at amending the constitution. It also changed the name of the organisation to the African National Congress (ANC). It was chaired by I. Seme’s son, P. Seme. Then the WWI broke out in Europe, and the representatives had to come back to South Africa in a hurry.

The Rubusana group still regarded the ANC just a splinter group of the SANNC, as the Jabavu group regarded the SANNC a parallel structure of the SANC. The Rubusana and Jabavu groups recoiled from politics and concentrated on education and literature, which they regarded as more effective and gentlemanly.

Jabavu had already lost his political steam and decided to concentrate his energies on literature. He became part of a formation of publication houses for black literature who wanted to be free of missionary agendas at Lovedale Press. But because publishing is an expensive business with few returns, they soon went bankrupt. The rest is history.

In as much as the origins of what eventually became known as the ANC, Mqhayi was correct in objecting to Thame’s suppression of its earlier history to avoid dealing with the teething problems. But the handling of leadership squabbles at the seed of the ANC planted a culture of factions even this generation is unable to correct. We talk more about this on the next installment of this topic.

Mphuthumi Ntabeni will continue with his investigation next week from the point of view of Jabavu, the original founder of the SANC.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.