What if there had been no South Africa? (II)

RW Johnson wonders what would have happened if there had been no Union in 1910

Re-thinking Union (Part II)

The first article in this series - "Our 'July Days' and their reckoning" - can be read here.

What would have happened if there had been no South Africa, if Union had never occurred, if the Cape and Natal colonies, the OFS and the Transvaal had remained separate countries? Hypothetical history is difficult but that is the exercise we have set ourselves.

Union occurred largely because Jan Smuts, heading the Transvaal delegation to the National Convention, had taken care to square John X. Merriman, prime minister of the Cape, well in advance. With the two biggest provinces thus working as a bloc and with the OFS tending to see the Transvaal as its big brother this meant that Union was a foregone conclusion.

The only province left out of the deal was Natal and this was reflected both in the fact that the new executive was to be placed in Pretoria, the supreme judiciary in Bloemfontein and parliament in Cape Town – so Natal got nothing; and by the way the Natal delegation hovered on the edge of secession throughout the Convention. The idea of Natal secession (“the Natal stand”) was to remain a live issue until the 1960s and the idea of Cape secession had a shorter boomlet in the 1950s-1960s.

Smuts left nothing to chance and had drilled the Transvaal delegation thoroughly to vote as a bloc. He had also handily drafted a constitution for the Union and had this in his pocket. With only a few amendments it became the South African constitution.


The oddity of the deal was that the two coastal colonies, Natal and the Cape, had been on the winning side in the Anglo-Boer war but they now agreed to a Union which the Transvaal, thanks to its larger white population and greater wealth, was bound to dominate. And thus it was. Louis Botha, prime minister of the Transvaal, became the Union’s first premier and thereafter the only premiers or presidents not to come from the Transvaal were J.B.M. Hertzog (OFS), D.F. Malan and P.W. Botha (both Cape).

Just as Prussia’s leading role in German unification resulted in the “Prussification” of imperial Germany between 1870 and 1914, so South Africa was subject to a similar process of “Transvaalization”. This was particularly so under apartheid. There were few Indians or Coloureds in the Transvaal so racial policy there was conceived very much as a Black-and-white matter. This was something of a problem when Transvaalers like J.G. Strijdom or H.F. Verwoerd were in power for it meant the enforcement of policies conceived of as for Africans being applied to Coloureds in the Cape and Indians in Natal.

Racial segregation in the Transvaal was relatively easy but in these latter cases it involved mass evictions and the agonies of the Group Areas Act. Similarly, the idea of black homelands occurred easily enough in the Transvaal (home to six of the ten homelands) but less easily elsewhere. And, of course, the country’s franchise had to be aligned with that of the Transvaal, which meant that Coloureds had to be deprived of the vote in the Cape, creating a protracted political and constitutional crisis.

So, imagining what would have happened if the four constituent territories of the Union had remained independent is partly a matter of removing or at least greatly weakening this “Transvaalization” effect, though the Transvaal’s wealth and strength would still have given it some influence. But the very fact of separate independence would also have enabled the different territories to grow apart.

Thus the Cape and Natal would doubtless have remained Commonwealth members (probably under Governors-General as heads of state) while the OFS and Transvaal would not. Doubtless Botha and Smuts would have been able to get the Transvaal to join the Allied side in the First World War, though the OFS would have stayed neutral.

In the Second World War the Cape and Natal would have again joined the Allied side but neither the OFS nor the Transvaal would have, maintaining instead a somewhat pro-German neutrality. From the Allied point of view this wouldn’t have been fatal – the key for them was to preserve the Cape sea route to Asia, Australasia and the East African route up to Suez, and the two coastal territories would have done that.

This in turn would have meant that the Cape and Natal would have been foundation members of the UN (whose membership was originally restricted to those states which had declared war on the Axis powers) while the OFS and Transvaal would have had to join later. It is not impossible, though, that Indian anger over the treatment of Indians in Natal and unease over their racial policies in general might have prevented the two Boer republics was joining. The OFS and Transvaal would doubtless have maintained their neutrality during the Korean War, while the Cape and Natal would have sent a small contingent to help the UN forces.

There would have doubtless been many other smaller changes so that the Cape and Natal diverged increasingly from the patterns set by the Boer republics. Afrikaans, for example, would doubtless have become the principal language of the Boer republics. There would have been enough English-speakers in the Transvaal to guarantee dual medium education there – but probably not in the OFS. Similarly, there would have been dual medium education in the Cape but probably not in Natal.  

The Cape

John X. Merriman was a proud proponent of the Cape liberal tradition and in particular its non-racial franchise. He had supported the British side in the Anglo-Boer War largely because he found the colour bar in the Boer republics so obnoxious and his main aim at the Convention was to get the whole of South Africa to accept a qualified, non-racial franchise. He was deeply disappointed when all three of the other territories sided firmly against him on this, though he was able to guarantee that the Cape would preserve its non-racial franchise. (Ironically, for all his liberal principles he was an opponent of women’s suffrage.)

The point is, however, that there seems no doubt that had the Cape continued as an independent entity it would have preserved and probably strengthened its liberal traditions. The really big question is not that but what would have happened to the Coloured Labour Preference Policy which effectively kept the African population of the Cape at a very low level. Because the Cape was part of South Africa it was unable to prevent a huge wave of African settlement happening in the 1970s and 1980s which effectively doomed that policy but it is possible that an independent Cape would have attempted to police its borders more vigorously. This would, however, be an enormous task: the Cape Colony was huge, more than half the total area of South Africa.

There is no denying that such a restrictive policy would have been popular with at least some elements of both white and Coloured society. It is, though, probably sensible to assume that nobody could have stopped this human tide entirely so at the least one may assume that the Cape’s African population would have markedly increased. And, in any case, the measures required to hold that tide back would have sat very uncomfortably with the Cape’s liberal tradition. One should not forget that we are talking of the Cape Colony continuing with the borders it had in 1910 – which included a large chunk of what is today the Eastern Cape – the main source of migration to the Western Cape.

It is certain, of course, that all four independent territories would have come under the same international pressures to move towards majority rule that a united South Africa did. And because each unit was individually weaker and smaller than the sum of the parts probably that change would have occurred earlier than 1994.

Almost certainly, the always-more-liberal Cape would have led the way, perhaps moving to majority rule by the 1960s. After all, its electorate would by then have included large numbers of Coloureds and, if the qualified franchise had been retained, including a smaller number of Africans would not have seemed too radical a step. At one bound the Cape would then have freed itself from sanctions and controversy, helping it to attract immigrants and investment.


Natal is a very different case. At the National Convention Natal was just as emphatic as the two Boer republics in resisting a non-racial franchise, though at that stage Natal whites were not much concerned with the notion of Africans voting since that seemed a very distant prospect. Their main concern was with the Indians who had rapidly emancipated themselves from labour in the sugar fields and were becoming urban workers and merchants. From the earliest days Natal whites realised that the Indians were formidable competitors and were determined to keep them voteless.

Moreover, the Indian population already outnumbered the whites and was growing very rapidly and Gandhi was campaigning for more Indian immigration to be allowed. This was, indeed, the fatal flaw in Gandhi’s case. On the one hand he led endless campaigns emphasising the need to alleviate the plight of the Indian community but on the other hand he had to admit, at least by implication, that the situation of Indians in Natal was already better than it had been in India, which was why more Indians wished to emigrate from India to Natal.

In the end this contradiction sank Gandhi. The Indian community realised that it was unlikely to get the vote but was conscious that it was anyway getting better off with every passing year. So it lost interest in protest politics which were only likely to stir up antagonism. Gandhi realised that he was losing support amongst Natal’s Indian community and departed for India.

Although Natal separatism remained a lively force throughout Union it never really achieved critical mass. The reason for this was that the Black:white ratio was higher in Natal than in any of the other three territories and by common consent the Zulus were seen as the most formidable African group in southern Africa. The Bambatha rebellion of 1906 was freshly in mind and ultimately Natal whites felt more secure knowing that if necessary they would be backed up by their neighbours’ armed force.

If, however, Natal had retained its independence there were only two ways to assuage that worry over security. One was to go all out to encourage white immigration to Natal. It was always a burning grievance in Natal that the National Party government, determined as it was to preserve Afrikaner hegemony, actually discouraged such immigration, particularly if it came from Catholic countries. Without doubt an independent Natal would have worked ceaselessly to increase the territory’s white population, without regard to such factors.

Secondly, of course, the leaders of the white community could have sought some sort of pact with the Zulu leadership elite – something that whites had attempted ever since the days of Gert Maritz, Piet Retief and Dingaan. And indeed, that was very much what was attempted in the 1980s. With South Africa then apparently drifting headlong towards violent racial confrontation the Buthelezi Commission (1980-82) suggested that Natal, at least, could find its way out of this crisis by adopting a consociational form of multi-racial government, a suggestion enthusiastically taken up by the KwaNatal Indaba.

Both the National Party and the ANC/UDF refused to have anything to do with this initiative, which meant that it was essentially an elite pact between Zulu chiefs on the one hand and the Natal business community on the other.

Ultimately, of course, the Indaba was overtaken by De Klerk’s key speech of 2 February 1990 and the subsequent Codesa negotiations. However, if Natal had remained independent it is probable that some such pact would have been negotiated far earlier. After all, in Chief Albert Luthuli and Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi the whites were lucky enough to be dealing with moderate Zulu leaders in the Christian liberal tradition. Inevitably, as was the case with the Indaba, this would have involved the abandonment of all apartheid or segregationist practices and laws but in other respects such a settlement would have allowed a considerable degree of continuity and thus stability.

Effectively the guiding philosophy of the Indaba was that nothing would work effectively in Natal unless there was co-operation between Zulus, whites and Indians. Any settlement which excluded any one of these communities would ultimately fail. Experience with the actual settlement ultimately reached, effectively on ANC terms, excluding the whites and Indians, suggests that this Indaba insight was not invalid.

If an Indaba-style settlement had been reached in, say, the 1960s or 1970s the Zulu chiefly elite would still have been strong enough to guarantee it but it is hard to believe that this would have remained intact. The rise of the trade unions and African urban politics would have to have been accommodated and this would probably have altered the terms of the deal.

How durable it then proved would doubtless have depended on how successful an environment this settlement created for economic growth. In the 1960s Natal was the fastest growing part of the South African economy – the province is fecund, has plenty of rainfall, everything grows there, it has the two biggest ports, a large tourist industry and a considerable industrial base.

What really brought that period of Natal’s growth to an end was the internecine warfare between Inkatha and the UDF/ANC in the 1980s and 1990s. Had that been avoided and if Natal’s headlong economic growth had continued, enabling it to satisfy the demands of its growing urban population, it is conceivable that an independent Natal might have been a major African success story.

The OFS and Transvaal

As for the OFS and Transvaal, had they remained independent they would doubtless have remained firmly under Afrikaner nationalist rule until the 1980s, with apartheid and homelands policy fully in force. But after that there would have been a battle royal between that movement’s verligte and verkrampte elements. One has to remember that in South Africa virtually all of the Conservative Party’s seats lay in these two provinces and by 1989 the NP in South Africa was supported by only 46% of the Afrikaner electorate. This would have guaranteed very strong resistance to De Klerk’s reforms and, indeed, might well have made them impossible.

One has to remember that De Klerk began by promising a power-sharing government but in the course of negotiations shifted his stance towards acceptance of simple majority rule. It seems unlikely that an independent OFS and Transvaal would have accepted this, in which case they would have staged a bittereinder resistance to black rule just as they had put up a bittereinder refusal to accept a British victory in the Anglo-Boer war. Indeed, there would be many echoes of Kruger’s republic in the situation, which would have provided a symbolic historical vindication in the eyes of many Afrikaners.

This would have placed the two coastal territories in a difficult position because in the event of such a refusal to change there would doubtless have been a ratcheting up of international sanctions and other pressures against the OFS and Transvaal. Since virtually all the international trade of both these territories flows through either the Cape or Natal the two coastal states would have been in an impossible position. If they refused to apply sanctions they might have found themselves the object of sanctions, but if they did apply them they would lose the bulk of their trade.

The Rhodesian example suggests that one way or another the Boer republics would have found a way of supplying themselves. It is quite plausible that they might have prolonged the era of white supremacy by another ten or twenty years, though in the end, of course, the ever steeper demographic arithmetic would have made a transition to majority rule inevitable. This prolongation of white rule might well have produced a deeply scarring process of racial violence.

In the final, third part of this article I shall attempt to draw some conclusions from this survey.

R.W. Johnson