COMMENT

A history more complicated

Martin Plaut writes on where Mavuso Msimang's account of the founding of the Union of SA goes wrong

Mavuso Msimang’s article in Daily Maverick opens with what he describes as a “teeny bit of history.” Unfortunately he gets his history wrong.

The article begins with a brief discussion of why, when the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910, London did not insist that all its people – irrespective of colour – were given the vote. “Having won the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) Britain, through its Parliament, passed the South Africa Act 1909 which established the Union of South Africa in 1910. A not-often-told fact is that Britain stipulated that South Africa should be governed by people of European descent,” he writes.

The problem with this is that Msimang gets his agency wrong. It was not Britain that sought to deprive Africans of the vote – it was white South Africans.

When the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith finally pushed the Bill through the British Parliament, against the opposition of the Labour Party and senior members of his own Liberal Party, he made clear his regret that race had been inserted as a criterion for voting and standing for Parliament:

“It is not to be understood – it would be a totally false impression if it were suggested – that as regards all the provisions of the Bill there is unanimity of opinion in the House. In particular, as regards some of the clauses which deal with the treatment of natives and the access of native Members to the Legislature, there is, as everybody who has followed these Debates will have seen, not only no difference of opinion in this House, but absolute unanimity of opinion in the way of regret that particular provisions of the Bill have been inserted.” [Hansard 19 August 1909, Vol. 9 Column 1656]

These were more than mere words. They accurately reflected the British position. The problem with Msimang’s position comes from his belief that London had “won” the Anglo-Boer war by inflicting a “defeat” on the Afrikaners. The reality was far less clear cut.

Although Britain threw more than half a million troops from across the Empire into the war, it had been unable to break the Boers. When the Treaty of Vereeniging was negotiated it was a peace treaty – not the unconditional surrender the British had sought. The Afrikaners still had thousands of troops in the field and were willing to continue fighting.

Rather, it was Britain that was desperate for peace, since the war was driving the country into an economic crisis. On 24 January 1902 the British commander, Lord Kitchener wrote: ‘The Boers are being continually told that if they keep the war going a little longer, England will be financially ruined and have to stop. This was not far from the truth – the war had cost over £200 million, or the equivalent of £20 billion in today’s money.

That was why, when Jan Smuts met Kitchener en route to Vereeniging, he was able to extract from him an assurance that all black people would be disarmed and that the franchise would not be granted to them until after the Boer republics had regained their self-government. This formulation would be enshrined in the Treaty of Vereeniging, and Britain was well aware of what it had done. As the senior official in the Colonial Office concluded with regret: ‘the native franchise … is the only point worth hesitating about. As clause 9 stands the native will never have the franchise.’

The failure to inflict a complete defeat on the Afrikaners was one reason why the British were unable to insist that black South Africans got the vote. Two other factors need to be borne in mind.

The first was that the 1910 Union Constitution was in fact a compromise. It had been thrashed out in detailed correspondence between the Cape Prime Minister, John X. Merriman and Smuts. The Cape constitution had, since the 1850’s allowed all men of property and wealth to vote – irrespective of their race. In 1906 Merriman argued that this had done the Cape no harm and should be extended to all of South Africa when the Union came about. Smuts resisted, pointing out that this would mean depriving some 10,000 poor whites of the vote, since at that time all white men in the Transvaal and Orange Free State had the franchise, irrespective of their financial position. It was – Smuts argued – impossible for him to support.

Merriman settled for less than he wanted, but believed that even this was a real achievement. All men in the Cape would retain the vote, irrespective of race, if they had sufficient income. In the rest of the country the franchise would only be granted to white men, without reference to their wealth.

The Constitution was endorsed by a National Convention, at which only whites were present. It was sent to London in 1909, supported by the political leadership of the four colonies, who were given strict instructions that nothing of substance was to be altered. Also sailing to Britain was a delegation led by the former Cape Prime Minister, W. P. Schreiner. He took with him some of the finest Africans and coloured leaders of their generation – including the men who would found the ANC in 1912, and Dr Abdullah Abdurahman who led the major coloured party – the APO.

The Schreiner delegation was politely received and got a hearing in public, in the press and in the British Parliament. But they made next to no progress. The reason was two-fold. Firstly, the British felt bound by the terms of the Treaty of Vereeniging that they had signed in 1902.

Secondly, Britain was fully aware that it was about to be involved in an existential conflict with Germany. It is frequently forgotten that while the question of the South African constitution took less than two days to sort out in discussions, it was followed by an Imperial Defence Conference that was far more significant in British eyes. It brought together senior politicians from Australia, Canada, Newfoundland (still a separate territory), New Zealand and the four South African self-governing colonies and was held from 29 July until 19 August.

Rather unwillingly, the South Africans finally agreed to play a significant part in British military planning, once Union was achieved. It was a pledge they were to keep – Botha led South Africa into the First World War in support of Britain, despite facing a rebellion from many Afrikaners. But there was a price to pay for this support: the white politicians demanded that they alone should settle their country’s domestic issues. ‘I understand the Dutch [Afrikaner] leaders have been impressing upon politicians in this country the wish of South Africa to be left alone to work out its own salvation,’ reported The Graphic on 21 August 1909.

This is the story behind the Union Constitution of 1910. Britain’s weakness – financial and military – was the real reason why London was unable to insist that the vote be extended to people of all races. It was a tragic failure, which was to cost South Africa dear. As the century unfolded the country lurched ever further to the right, leading to the victory of the National Party and the policy of apartheid.