1912 is a number that ought to be deeply etched in the minds of all Africans. For during 1912 achievement parted ways with pride and embraced selflessness. For the African, it is that year that God gave us Pixley Ka Isaka Seme — and heaven indeed sounded a trumpet, drawing the attention of the world that not only does God love Africa, but that Africa’s time to assert herself had come.

On January 8, 1912, the first black South Africans to qualify and be admitted as attorneys, Alfred Mangena, Seme, George Montsioa and Richard Msimang (elder brother of Selby Msimang), convened a meeting with the black elite of the time to create a special platform that would enable Africans to compete with the best. All four, having studied abroad and having successfully accomplished much within the restricted privileges granted to them by the governing powers, wished to share their vision and accomplishments with their less privileged communities. What they set out to create would not only inspire South Africans as individuals but also collectively as a nation. Indeed it inspired young men like Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo and Anton Lembede, who later took the baton in the relay that finally saw the dawn of freedom in the last decade of the 20th century. 

In 1912 all the African people of South Africa entered into a covenant to become one nation under one political body called the South African Native National Congress. Later, in 1923, the name was changed to the African National Congress. The 1912 philosophy in its simplicity is a statement that Africans are capable, competent and will hold their own when challenged at the highest levels.

Truly amazing is that Edendale played a crucial role in laying the cornerstone for 1912. The term “amazing” can loosely be translated into the Zulu word isimanga. During ancient times African families derived their surnames from the behavioural tendencies of its people. The Msimang surname is derived from the Zulu word isimanga, as this family continually produced amazing people. It is the isimanga or Msimang sons of Edendale who helped Seme form the ANC. 

During 1911, a Presbyterian pastor headed to the valley of Edendale and there approached a young man Selby Henry Msimang, also nicknamed Nkonka we Fusi, the son of the powerful founder of the independent Methodist Church, Joel Msimang. The purpose of the visit was to inform him that Seme, who had recently returned from a spell in Britain where he had won Oxford Brookes University’s most coveted medal for oratory, had set up a legal practice and was in need of a secretary. Selby became Seme’s secretary from 1911 and saw him also, at Seme’s request, become King Dinizulu kaCetshwayo’s secretary and English translator and alos liaise with Mahatma Gandhi on certain legal cases. 

Selby recorded that Seme would often walk up and down in frustration at how, in a period of one hundred years, the descendants of the mighty King Shaka kaSenzangakhona had become domestic servants and gardeners. Seme shared his thoughts with colleagues, Montsioa and Mangena, while Selby would also invite his brother Richard Msimang (from Georgetown, Edendale), who had recently returned from England where he had qualified and been admitted as an attorney. 

Upon Seme’s return he had assessed South Africa’s economic and social status and realised that the disparities along racial lines called for the creation of a national movement. He began a correspondence — the letters were drafted by Selby — and it is in this correspondence that the ANC was conceived and its birthday confirmed as January 8, 1912. So, if Seme was the founder of the ANC, Selby was its first secretary and administrator. Thus, when on January 8 in Mangaung, Seme handed the presidency of the ANC to congress’s first inaugural president John Langalibalele Dube, and Selby Msimang handed the position of secretary to Sol Plaaitjie secretary-general inaugural­. 

Selby and Richard Msimang, sons of George-town, Edendale, were not only instrumental in assisting Seme in bringing his idea of a political party to pass, but served on both committees created by the 1912 conference — the organising committee of the South African Native National Congress and its finance committee. Selby served on every executive of the congress since its inception to the time of Albert Luthuli either as an executive member or as an assistant secretary-general, spanning a total­ of 50 years. At the 1912 conference, at the age of 26, he was the youngest member of the conference and in 1982 was the last of his generation to die. Selby was the scribe for almost all of the ANC presidents during the period and also wrote their speeches.

Selby was also co-founder, with Clement Kadalie­, of the first worker union in South Africa — the Industrial and Commercial workers Union — and one of the founders of the Liberal Party along with Alan Paton and Peter Brown. Luthuli in his autobiography Let My People Go, confirms being reluctant to stand for the Natal ANC presidential position upon hearing that Selby had been nominated for the same position and entreated Selby’s blessing be obtained. 

In 1914, Richard went with the first ANC deputation to the British government to object to the effects of the Native Land Act on Africans. He was not part of the official delegation, but was the author­ of the documents carried by the delegation. He was also the principal author of the first ANC constitution. So astute was his legal mind that his nephew, the late judge president Herbert Qedusizi Msimang, would admit being a failure when compared with Richard. 

It is in Georgetown, Edendale, that Selby, Richard­ and Herbert Qedusizi Msimang were born and have been laid to rest. The silence of their sepulchres is irresistibly loud, reminding us yet once again that Africans, and more specifically Edendale, are capable, competent and will hold their own among the world’s best. 

Edendale has also been a source of inspiration for others. Luthuli notes that it is in Edendale that he “began to wake up and to look about himself”. Edendale was also the home of Harry Gwala, Moses Mabhida, the president of the ANC, Archibald Gumede, and his son Reginald Gumede. 

Edendale, it’s time you stood up to be counted and to occupy your rightful place in South African history and in the ANC on the eve of its centenary. Forgetting Edendale at this time would be equivalent to a graduating student not inviting his or her parents to the ceremony or an art picture disowning its artist or a woman forgetting her first love. 

The ANC is indebted to the Msimang family and more importantly the people of George-town, Edendale. The spirit of 1912 is still alive in Edendale today. In a year in which Edendale lost one of its treasures, Herbert Qedusizi Msimang, usizi luyaphela, our misery is ended when we reflect that a century ago Selby and Richard Msimang assisted Seme in bringing into existence the hope of the nation, the pride of Africa and the liberator of its people. 

• This article was written by Nkululeko 

Msimang, grandson of Selby and Richard 

Msimang, with input from Dlozi Msimang and his father Bootie Msimang. For a more detailed article e-mail lekomsimang@yahoo.com

50 years on the road 

to liberty

Selby Msimang’s 1960 interview in ‘Contact’.

Henry Selby Msimang, who died in Edendale in 1982 aged 95, was a columnist on The Witness. He once said that he was the youngest person present at the Bloemfontein meeting. According to Msimang, the ANC was the brainchild of four young overseas-educated black South African lawyers, three of them from KZN. They were Richard Msimang, his brother, Pixley Ka Isaka Seme of Inanda (nephew of John Langalibalele Dube) and Alfred Mangena from Estcourt. The fourth was George Montsioa, grandson of the Paramount Chief of the BaRolong Tswana of Mafikeng in the North-West Province. It was at a meeting of the four young lawyers in Pretoria in 1911 that the decision was taken to launch a national body representing the political interests of all black South Africans. On the ANC’s 50th anniversary in 1960, Msimang spoke to Liberal Party magazine Contact on how it all started. Below is an extract from that interview.

CONTACT INTERVIEWER: You very kindly said you would tell us some things about the 1913 ANC deputation in England, but let’s go back a bit first. When do you think this idea really started?

MSIMANG: Certainly the Vereeniging Treaty signed at the end of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902 disappointed and flabbergasted the African people. We hoped and prayed for the victory of the British arms over the Republican forces. Its terms made no reference to African interests and it was in fact regarded as a shameless betrayal of the Africans who had done so much to assist in the prosecution of the war against the Republican forces.

C: But was it carried out as you feared?

M: Subsequent events confirmed our fears and even after the grant of self-government in the Transvaal and Orange Free State, there was no manifest change in the treatment of the African people from the practices of the Republican governments, which were sometimes brutal and heartless. 

C: Did you hope for relief when the colonies began to come together. In 1908 wasn’t it?

M: No, it heightened the tension which was getting more and more articulate, born of the fear that a united European power over us would mean, if not open slavery, something like economic strangulation.

C: Then the Act of Union was not so much a shock as a realisation of your fears?

M: We were excluded from participation in any form whatsoever in the democratic institutions of the country, except that the status quo in the Cape Province was mostly left. But a year or two later a young African Oxford graduate, Pixley ka I. Seme arrived from overseas and opened an office in Johannesburg as an attorney. Our general unsettlement prompted him to act at once and he tried to bring all the African tribes into one organisation. He was convinced that the people must rise above tribalism and regard themselves as members of the African nation.

He successfully convened a conference in Bloemfontein in December 1912, and for the first time in the African’s history, leaders of the various tribes and organisations and chiefs met in one spirit and agreed unanimously to establish an organisation which they called South African Native Congress.

C: Were all the provinces involved?

M: They were, and the High Commission territories. Swaziland­ was represented by the late Regent Prince Malunga who was then head of the Swazi nation and uncle to the present Paramount Chief Sobhuza 2, and Basutoland by the late Chief Maama, a direct descendant of King Moshoeshoe. It is a pity, I cannot at the moment remember the names of the chiefs from Bechuanaland.

C: What part did Dr Seme himself play?

M: He was appointed treasurer-general, with the late Dr J. L. Dube of Natal the first president, and secretary-general the late Mr Sol T. Plaatje. A constitution committee was appointed under the chairmanship of the late Mr Richard Msimang