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The myth of the “white man's country” - the unification of South Africa, 31 May 1910
The Boer War and the Treaty of Vereeniging
On 31 May 1902 the antagonists in the South African War, or the Boer War as it is perhaps better known, signed the Treaty of Vereeniging, strangely, in Melrose House, Pretoria. The war had been fought as a “white man's war” with the indigenous peoples of South Africa not being consulted, not being much involved except as servants and labourers, by either side. As the war ignored them, so did the peace. And this neglect was to reverberate down the years of subsequent South African history, with sometimes dire consequences.
The treaty was between the British Imperial Government and the two hitherto independent Boer republics, the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) and the Orange Free State. It ended almost four years of bitter and violent conflict and the first use of concentration camps as a method of keeping a population under control. It was a grim fore-telling of a method that would have chilling echoes later in the century.
The Treaty left a very high level of bitterness between the Boers and the English-speaking population of South Africa and some unresolved issues which would have consequences down the years that followed.
It also left the position of the indigenous African population very precarious, to say the least. Clause 8 of the treaty stated, “The question of granting the Franchise to Natives will not be decided until after the introduction of Self-Government (for the Transvaal and the Orange Free State).”
That the precarious position of the “Natives” was not just a theoretical state was chillingly illustrated in the memoirs of an Anglican missionary who worked in the ZAR, Canon Farmer, who wrote privately on 29 March 1901: “Of all who have suffered by the war, those who have endured the most & will receive least sympathy, are the Natives in the country places of the Transvaal.”
Canon Farmer wrote how these Natives had welcomed the British troops and assisted them, only to be punished for doing so by the Boers when the British moved on. He tells of the example of Modderfontein, where he had a successful mission among the blacks of the area, where 200 British troops had been garrisoned. He continues the story: “The Natives, all of whom I knew, were there in their village: the Boers under (General Jan) Smuts, captured this post last month & when afterwards a column visited the place they found the bodies of all the Kaffirs (sic) murdered and unburied. I should be sorry to say anything that is unfair about the Boers. They look upon the Kaffirs as dogs & the killing of them as hardly a crime...”
Historian Thomas Pakenham, in his magisterial history The Boer War (Jonathan Ball, 1979), comments: “If this was how Jan Smuts, as high-minded as any of the commando leaders, treated the hundred-odd Africans of Modderfontein, the fate of others can be imagined.”
Blacks and the war
The biggest losers as a result of the Boer War were the blacks, thousands of whom had fought and worked (whether willingly or unwillingly) on both sides of the conflict. About 107000 were herded into concentration camps by the Boer forces where their conditions were appalling. As many as 12000 of these are believed to have died.
Neither side bothered to keep records of the deaths of blacks and so no proper accounting has ever been done. What is known is that those blacks who applied for compensation for their losses caused by the War were paid at a far lower rate than that which the Boers received from the British government.
Many blacks supported the British side against the Boers, in the hope that Britain would be more favourable to their political and social aspirations, a hope not fully realised after the war.
While thousands of blacks died anonymous deaths, and others lost what little property they owned, especially in the former Boer republics, the death of one black did become known because of the peculiarly brutal way in which he was killed.
This man was Abraham Esau, who in 1901 died a frightful death at the hands of a Free State commando under Commandant Charles Niewoudt, leading to Esau becoming known as the “Calvinia Martyr” - Calvinia was a small town in the Karoo where Esau had, since May 1900, been organising the coloured community into a militia to provide intelligence over a large part of the Northern Cape. His network was highly successful in providing useful intelligence to the British forces.
When Niewoudt and his commando rode into Calvinia in the early hours of 10 January 1901 Esau's militia, although unarmed, resisted with sticks and stones. The Boers lashed them and shot several before putting the rest, including Esau, into the town jail.
Niewoudt proclaimed himself magistrate of the town et about oppressing the blacks by forbidding them to speak English, enforcing a curfew, and prohibiting the singing of British patriotic songs.
Esau and others were brought before the new self-proclaimed “magistrate and found “guilty” of “having spoken against the Boers and for having attempted to arm the natives.”
He was sentenced to 25 lashes, which Niewoudt administered himself. Esau was tied to a tree while being lashed and when he was untied he collapsed, whereupon the Boers kicked him mercilessly.
This treatment continued for a full two weeks, with Esau even being stoned at one stage by the members of Niewoudt's commando.
On 5 February 1901 Esau was put in leg irons, dragged behind two horses to a place about one kilometre out of town, and shot.
A contemporary report in a British newspaper said of this incident and Esau's fate: “...he has suffered cruel martyrdom for no worse crime than loyalty to the British.”
Blacks and the Closer Union Movement
“When I consider the political future of the natives in South Africa … I look into shadows and darkness.” - from a letter from General Jan Smuts to John X. Merriman, 13 March 1906.
After the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed in Pretoria that fateful Saturday in May, 1902, the British had four instead of two South African colonies to rule, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State were now added to the Cape and Natal.
Even before the end of the Boer War there had been voices raised in favour of bringing the four entities in South Africa together, but the end of the war gave great impetus to the movement towards closer union.
In the Transvaal Colony (the former ZAR) the leading pro-union politicians were the two Afrikaner heroes of the war, Generals Louis Botha and Jan Smuts. They became the most influential politicians in the newly evolving unity in South Africa.
At the time of the Treaty of Vereeniging the four colonies had differing “native policies” and this was, indeed, a further prod on the part of the local whites for union.
From the British side union was seen as a cost-saving exercise. The British Government had spent far more in prosecuting the war than had been envisaged at the start of it, and the British Cabinet was under considerable pressure not to spend more on South Africa – they wanted to get rid of the colonies as quickly as possible.
In the Cape blacks had enjoyed a limited vote for some years under a qualified franchise system. In the other colonies blacks were explicitly excluded from political participation through the vote. This was to cause considerable trouble for the closer union movement as more progressive politicians in the Cape wanted to extend its system to the other colonies, something the other colonies vehemently opposed.
Needless to say the black majority in the country watched these events, mostly with disquiet.
Black opposition movements were greatly hampered by their divisions which made it difficult, on the one hand, for any black leader to speak with authority as representing a majority view, and on the other hand made organising and mobilising opposition far more difficult.
Among blacks, particularly in the Cape, the divisions were symbolised by two powerful leaders, John Tengo Jabavu and the Reverend Alan Soga. Jabavu was interested in working with the more progressive whites while Soga was less conciliatory in his approach.
The Lagden Commission
The Lagden Commission, set up by British High Commissioner to the colonies Alfred Lord Milner to investigate and propose a single “native policy” in any foreseeable union of the colonies.
The proposals of the Commission were ominous indeed and formed the basis of much of the inferior position forced on blacks for the next 90 years.
The Commission, mindful of the need to provide cheap labour in order to attract settlers and capital, stated that the pass laws should be vigorously applied, “natives” restricted to land reserved for them, and that “idle” or “surplus” natives should be sent back to the reserves.
In support of this policy, Lagden said, “A man cannot go with his wife and children and goods … on to the labour market. He must have a dumping ground. Every rabbit must have a warren where he can live and burrow and breed, and every native must have a warren too.”
The Commission also proposed that education for natives should be aimed to “fit (the African) for his position in life.” Compulsory education for blacks was also ruled out on the grounds of cost.
As for political rights, these should be granted in a limited way “without conferring on them (the Africans) political power in any aggressive sense, or weakening in any way the unchallenged supremacy and power of the ruling race...”
Thus were the seeds of apartheid planted.
The franchise question
As blacks were disenfranchised in three of the four colonies they had no real voice in the movement towards closer union. They were, however, keenly aware of the dangers inherent in the movement.
Soga called a conference of black leaders to be held in the Eastern Cape town of Queenstown towards the end of November 1907 to discuss a unified black response to the report of the Lagden Commission on native policy which had been issued earlier in the year. Jabavu refused to attend, calling the conference a “pantomime.”
The conference adopted a resolution to be forwarded to the Cape and Imperial governments which called for the adoption of the relatively inclusive Cape franchise as the basis for the franchise in a unified South Africa.
As calls for union grew stronger in South Africa blacks felt more and more excluded. By the time the National Convention, called to draft an Act of Union, got going it was clear that the future union would exclude blacks from the franchise. Some whites were prophetically aware of the problems this could cause.
Even before the Convention began its deliberations, famous South African author Olive Schreiner (author of Story of an African Farm, 1883) wrote on the question of the franchise: "I am of opinion that where the Federal franchise is concerned, no distinction of race or colour should be made between South Africans. All persons born in the country or permanently resident here should be one in the eye of the State."
She went on, "The idea that a man born in this country, possibly endowed with many gifts and highly cultured, should in this, his native land, be refused any form of civic or political right on the ground that he is descended from a race with a civilisation, it may be, much older than our own, is one which must be abhorrent to every liberalised mind. I believe that an attempt to base our national life on distinctions of race and colour, as such, will, after the lapse of many years, prove fatal to us."
Schreiner's older brother, Theophilus, a member of the Cape Parliament, was also actively trying to get the Convention to take a more liberal line. He drafted a petition to be submitted to the Convention. One of the "irrevocable guarantees" demanded in the draft read, "The right os the civilised (sic) Native, whether in the Reserves or elsewhere, to genuine and adequate parliamentary representation based upon a civilisation franchse."
Schreiner saw it as a a duty of the imperial government, "... either to continue its control over these Reserves or to obtain these guarantees; but to hand these Natives over to a federated and unified European South Africa without doing so will be a base betrayal of the King's loyal Native Subjects that will prove evil for them, evil for South Africa as a whole, and evil for the Empire."
The National Convention
On 12 October 1908 33 delegates representing the four colonies and Rhodesia came together in Durban to begin the process of devising a process for the unification of the colonies, to culminate in a draft constitution. The Chief Justice of the Cape Colony, Sir Henry de Villiers, was elected President of the Convention at the start.
Notably absent from he deliberations of the Convention were any representatives of blacks in the country. And of course, no black people were there in person either. The Prime Ministers of the four colonies were, as well as members of the four colonial parliaments.
In spite of the absence of blacks or even representatives of blacks in the Convention, the question of the franchise came up almost immediately, indicating that it could be a major stumbling block to unity.
On 19 October the Cape Prime Minister John X. Merriman proposed that the franchise laws existing in the colonies should remain as they were. He further proposed that any changes to existing franchises should be subject to special and stringent conditions.
Another Cape delegate, Colonel W.E.M. Stanford made the counter-proposal that the colour bar be abolished in all four colonies. He stated, in the debate which followed, that blacks should be granted citizenship with all the rights and privileges that citizenship implied. He said that the franchise provided a safety valve which allowed the expression of grievances and that the great progress shown by blacks in the Cape was due to their having the vote, though severely limited.
The famous author of Jock of the Bushveld, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, representing the opposition party in the Transvaal, spoke in favour of a "civilisation test" administered by a permanent tribunal which would determine whether a black person was "qualified" to vote. No whites, of course, would be subject to such a test.
As the deliberations continued it became clear that the Transvaal, Orange Free State and Natal delegates were committed to the colour bar and that no agreement on a new constitution was likely with a less restrictive franchise.
A delegate from the Orange Free State, C.R. de Wet made the position of the three colonies clear: "Providence has drawn the line between black and white and we must make that clear to the natives, not instill into their minds false ideas of equality." Dr H.F. Verwoerd, the "architect of apartheid", used almost identical words when introducing so-called Bantu Education almost 50 years later.
To deal with the franchise question a Franchise Committee was set up to formulate a proposal. This committee presented its report early in November. The proposals of the committee were accepted with little discussion and few changes.
The franchises in the four colonies would remain as they were, and blacks would be excluded from membership of the Union Parliament.
This is pretty much how the franchise clauses looked in the draft South Africa Bill which went to the British Houses of Parliament for ratification in late 1909.
Representations on behalf of blacks to the National Convention
Several representations were made to the National Convention on behalf of blacks in the various provinces. On the first day of the Convention a telegram from Mr W.P. Schreiner (brother of Olive and Theophilus, and former Prime Minister of the Cape Colony) urging the Convention to "advance the true welfare and union of all South Africa and its people" (Odendaal, p137).
The next day a person who had wide experience of "native affairs" in all four colonies, Mr Joseph Millard Orpen, approached the Convention in his private capacity to plead for representation for blacks in the proposed constitution: "Representation is no discovery of an advanced civilisation. It has always existed even in the most rudimentary forms of government. It is a fundamental necessity in any good government, the very root and existence for such a government."
The first representation on behalf of blacks to be heard by the Convention was a letter from a member of the Natal Native Congress, Mr Charles Daniel, which was presented to the Convention in translation (it had been written in isiZulu). In the ltter Mr Daniel pleaded for representation for blacks in the proposed constitution.
A substantial petition was put to the Convention by the Transvaal National Natives Union (TNNU) in which the organisation stated: "We desire to reming the Convention that the natives in this Colony have hitherto been totally unrepresented in the local Parliament, notwithstanding the fact that they contribute largely in direct taxation to the Treaury, in addition to bearing a full share of the indirect taxation through Pass-Fees, the Railways and Customs Tariff."
The Natal Native Congress drew up an address intended for presentation to the Convention but it was, for whatever reason, not presented. This address stated, inter alia, "We humbly beg, with regard to our future government, for some degree of representation in the Legislature."
The African Political Organisation (APO) also petitioned the Convention that the principle of "equal rights for all civilised persons in South Africa" should be enshrined in the new constitution.
Odendaal comments: "It is clear that the direct representations made by Africans to the National Convention had no effect whatsoever on the deliberations of the delegates who, gathered in secret discourse, and unknown to the country at large, had already reached finality on the matter of the franchise for Africans." (p 143).
The South Africa Act and Union
The draft South Africa Act was published in February 1909. While whites in the four colonies generally had no problems with it, blacks were very disturbed, and with good reason.
In the Cape there was some opposition to the colour bar provisions in the draft Act. This opposition coalesced around and was led by W.P. Schreiner, who called the draft "narrow, illiberal and short-sighted in conception."
The black press was vocal against and hostile to the draft. The famous Imvo Zabantsundu, started by John Tengo Jabavu, said the draft "stereotyped vicious, flagitious (sic) and immoral colour distinctions among the King's subjects" and made the franchise for blacks "illusory."
In Izwi Labantu A.K. Soga wrote: "This is treachery! It is worse. It is successful betrayal, for the Act has virtually disenfranchised the black man already even before the meeting of the Union Parliament, which will complete the crime by the solemn vote of the two Assemblies." Prophetic words indeed, for that is exactly what happened.
Ilanga lase Natal, the paper of John L. Dube, said, "It was naïve to believe that millions of people would willingly be made into mere political chattels to suit the whims and avarice of a privileged few."
A convention of blacks was organised which met in Bloemfontein in March 1909. It brought together for the first time the black political organisations from the four colonies.
The opening address to this Convention was by the editor of the Bloemfontein newspaper The Friend, who was also a member of the Legislature of the Orange Free State representing black interests. His address urged caution on the delegates, who instead passed a resolution calling for the addition of a clause in the proposed constitution providing all people in the union to have "full and equal rights and privileges, subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law and applicable alike to all citizens without distinction of class, colour or creed."
By the middle of 1909 it was clear that the draft Bill would be sent to the British Parliament for ratification as it stood. Plans were already being made to send a delegation of blacks to the United Kingdom to agitate against the draft.
One of the leading figures in this planning was again W.P. Schreiner who organised a group to go to Britain to petition the British Parliament to either amend or reject the draft Act and to ensure that Unification did not lead to the disenfranchisement of blacks.
By 17 July a total of 28 Southern Africans were in London to either expedite the Act through the Parliament or to hinder its progress and to try and achieve some changes in favour of b the black franchise.
The government delegation, representing the four colonial governments, numbered 19, and the rest were representatives of the organisations opposing the Act.
Schreiner himself had arrived in Britain on 3 July and had issued a statement to the national press explaining the reasons for his and his delegation's visit, stating his purpose as "...to try to get the blots removed from the Act, which makes it no Act of Union, but rather an Act of Separation between the minority and the majority of the people of South Africa."
This was a prophetic and disturbing statement which, unfortunately, had little impact.
The Act received the Royal Assent on 20 September and the date for the coming into being of the Union of South Africa was set for 31 May 1910, eight years to the day after the end of the Boer War. It symbolised the reconciliation of Afrikaner and English-speaking South Africans, and the exclusion of blacks from the decision-making processes of their own land.
The population of the Union at its birth consisted of 1.1 million whites and 4 million blacks. But the constitution of the new nation confirmed the myth of the "white man's country" - a myth developed and consolidated over the years that followed.
The final nail in the coffin of black rights was the 1913 Land Act of the Union Parliament which reserved 13% of the land area of South Africa for the 4 million blacks and the balance of the land, 87%, for the 1.1 million whites. The worst fears of blacks about the effects of their disenfranchisement in the land of their birth were realised.
It went pretty much downhill politically for blacks in South Africa from then until 1994.
Cameron, Trewhella (1986) : An Illustrated History of South Africa. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball
Denoon, Donald (1977): Southern Africa Since 1800. London: Longmans.
Odendaal, Andre (1984) Vukani Bantu!. Cape Town: David Philip
Pakenham, Thomas (1979): The Boer War. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball.
Spies, J.J. et al (1973): The Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa. Cape Town: Nasou.
The text on this page is by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010