19 May 2010

South Africa - 100 years old

With all the excitement of the football World Cup, which begins next month, something that seems to have been overlooked by many is that South Africa, as a country, will be 100 years old on 31 May 2010. It will be a century since four British colonies -- the Cape Colony, Natal, the Orange River Colony and the Transvaal Colony -- united to form the Union of South Africa.

One writer, however, has not forgotten, and wrote BusinessDay - MESHACK MABOGOANE: Salute the bravery and vision of SA’s founders:
Former colonies, republics and kingdoms were forged into a unitary and variegated state, the first — and still the only modern state — founded by natives on a continent whose other states were created outside by foreigners.

The founders — Louis Botha, Barry Hertzog, and Jan Smuts — were war-seasoned generals, who had led a genuine anti-imperialist struggle in a true people’s war. These great men laid the foundations and frameworks that have enabled the evolution of a complex and dynamic country with a thriving economy and vibrant society.

The article is a paean of praise to Botha, Smuts and Hertzog, South Africa's first three prime ministers, and takes some nasty digs at Oliver Tambo, though it does not mentio0n him by name.

Perhaps we should remember, though, that in the negotiations leading up to Union, Botha, Smuts and Hertzog fought to prevent the Cape Colony's non-racial franchise from being extended to the rest of the country, and in 1936 Hertzog and Smuts conspired to abolish it in the Cape Colony as well. By so doing they entrenched racism in South African society and helped to prepare the way for apartheid.

But yes, the formation of the Union of South Africa is something worth remembering, for good or ill. Before 31 May 1910 the term "South Africa" was simply a geographical expression, and referred to a region, like East Africa, West Africa and North Africa. Once "South Africa" became the name of a country, a new name had to be found for the region, and it became known as Southern Africa. That is something worth remembering if you read books published before 1910.

It was in the 1860s that the British government, which ruled the Cape Colony and Natal, came up with the idea of forming a single country in Southern Africa. The confederation of Canada in 1867 was the model, and the Conservative government, led by Disraeli, tried to apply it in South Africa too. Theophilus Shepstone led a band of filibusters from Natal to take over the South African Republic (Transvaal), and a much larger British army invaded the Kingdom of Zululand in 1879. It was initially repulsed at Isandlwana, but later succeeded in taking the capital, Ondini (Ulundi), and King Cetshwayo went into hiding. The Transvaal, led by Paul Kruger and others, then fought back and sought to regain its independence. The Liberal Party came to power in Britain, under Gladstone, and lacking the imperialist ambitions of the Conservatives, ended the First Anglo-Boer War by recognising the Transvaal's independence, and left Zululand to fend for itself, split into 13 principalities that fought among themselves. So the first attempt at union left South (ie Southern) Africa more divided than ever.

Eventually Zululand was incorporated into Natal and in the late 1890s, with a Conservative government back in power in Britain, and the New Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa in full swing, Joseph Chamberlain, the British Colonial Secretary, and Alfred Lord Milner, the British High Comissioner at the Cape, sought a casus belli with the South African Republic, and the Second Anglo-Boer War broke out in October 1899. The war was ended by the Peace of Vereeniging, signed on 31 May 1902. The South African Republic became the Transvaal Colony, and the Orange Free State Republic (Oranje-Vrijstaat) became the Orange River Colony.

In 1906, the Liberal Party came to power in Britain again, and, as previously, sought to mitigate the imperialist policies of the Conservatives. The Transvaal and ORC were given self-government, and the governments that came to power were led by the generals who had fought against the British in the Second Anglo-Boer War, Louis Botha, Jan Smuts and Barry Hertzog. And they became prime ministers of the Union of South Africa as well, so that some historians have called the period of South Africa's history from 1910 to 1948 the Age of the Generals. It was these generals who fought to keep the Cape nonracial franchise from being applied in the rest of South Africa.

The Cape franchise may have been nonracial, but it was sexist and classist. It allowed adult males who owned or occupied property of a certain value to vote in elections. At the time of Union, most of the voters were white, but a growing number of blacks were able to vote. The Cape politicians valued their nonracial franchise, and seeing the threat to it posed by the Generals and others, only consented to join the Union if it was entrenched in the constitution -- it could not be taken away by a simple parliamentary majority, but only by a two-thirds majority of both houses of parliament voting together. In 1936 Hertzog and Smuts united their parties in a fusion government, forming the United Party, and they thus commanded a two-thirds majority, which they used to remove black voters in the Cape from the common roll, and gave them three separate (white) representatives in parliament. In 1960 even those were taken away.

Along the way, there were a few other changes that served to entrench white power. There was agitation for women to be given the vote, and eventually they were -- but only white women. And in the cape, white women were not subject to the same property qualification that male voters had, so the property qualification was removed for white male voters, but not for black voters. Sad to say, feminism helped to consolidate racism.

So no, I don't agree with what Mabogoane says in his article. The Age of the Generals was generally a pretty disastrous one for South Africa, as they assiduously cultivated the racism that led to apartheid. It wasn't an unmitigated disaster, but it was a disaster none the less.

I am old enough to remember the celebrations of 50 years of Union, now 50 years ago (see Tales from Dystopia VI: 1960 was a very bad year | Khanya). A special pennant, with "50" on it was distributed to school children and was as ubiquitous as World Cup logos are now becoming. The actual celebration took place in the middle of the State of Emergency declared after the Sharpeville massacre, and was most appropriately symbolised by a cartoonists drawing of a frightened little man hunkering down in an armoured car, holding the "50" pennant above the rim of the gun turret. That was the path that Botha, Smuts and Hertzog had set us on. It's only 16 years ago that the armoured cars began to disappear from our streets.

We could still laugh about it, though, as Jeremy Taylor did in his song about Hennie von Saracen, who was somewhat unwillingly conscripted into the army:

In my first weeks of training
I nearly went insane
They marched me all around the square
up and back again
They taught me how to kill a man
They said it was no sin
And soon I was the driver
of a five-ton Saracen.

One day, outside Blikkiesdorp
I got out of control
And I ended up in Bree Street
with my tank stuck up a pole.
A traffic cop came up to me
And said, as he scratched his ear,
"Well did you got a licence
to park that blerrie thing here?"

Well I tried to explain
when I got back to the station
that I wasn't cut out to fight against
the Army of Liberation.
The Commandant agreed
and as he put me on the train
said, "You can push off home to Joburg
And don't come back again."


James Higham said...

sought to "mitigate" the imperialist policies of the Conservatives

Or dilute and water down? Depends on one's political angle, really.

The Scylding said...

Unrelated, but you might like this:


Steve Hayes said...


My thesaurus gives lots of synonyms for "mitigate", including allay, alleviate, assuage, attenuate, diminish, ease, extenuate, lessen, lighten, minimize, moderate, mollify, reduce, relieve;
absolve, acquit, cover up, exonerate, extenuate, whitewash;
abate, allay, assuage, moderate, quench, satiate, satisfy.

Take your pick.

Steve Hayes said...


Well, related slightly. I'm busy finishing off an article on "The SB files: memoirs of a surveillance society". Sounds like Nick Clegg's doing what we did in 1994-1996.

But these things have a way of creeping back, especially when people forget what it was like.

I heard that Britain has things called ASBOs, which are similar to the banning orders we had here. Punishment by arbitrary administrative action without trial.

bigbluemeanie said...

It's surely a bit harsh to say that "feminism helped to consolidate racism"? The state's reaction to feminism was to put white women somewhere in the racial hierarchy that entrenched their privilege. Divide and rule if you like.


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