Empire and Poverty
Pages from South African History
A corner stone in the British Empire is the Dominion of South Africa, the Prime Minister of which. General Smuts was made a Field-Marshal of the British Army on his 71st birthday two years ago. The approval accorded to him in the British Press contrasts rather forcibly with the rather nasty epithets bestowed upon the politicians of other countries who have accepted office under their conquerors, during the past year or so.
While still in his twenties Smuts became State Attorney of the Transvaal Republic under Kruger, whose administration (according to most British accounts) was one of the most corrupt on earth. After the war of 1899—1902 the Boer politicians were out of the limelight, their territory being annexed and administered by a High Commissioner of the Crown. The grant of responsible government a few years later, however, gave them their chance once more. General Louis Botha (who had succeeded Joubert as commander during the war) formed Het Volk and secured a majority in the first elections 1907. From that time onwards Smuts was in close association with Botha, until the latter’s death in 1919, occupying ministerial positions under him and eventually succeeding him as Premier of the Union. He held this office till 1924, when he gave way to General Hertzog and the National Party, triumphant at the polls with the aid of the Labourites. Some eight or nine years later, however, when the economic blizzard had affected the popularity of Hertzog’s ministry, we find Smuts again in office as Minister of Justice in a Coalition with his late rival. Since then Smuts has reaped the reward of his pertinacity and occupied the supremacy so dear to him.
Smuts cannot be accused of neglecting his opportunities, a fact which can be appreciated best against the background of history.
His countrymen fought the war of 1899-1902 in the desperate attempt to preserve their political independence. This had been in a precarious state ever since the British occupied the Cape; and some three-quarters of a century earlier the Boers in large numbers had trekked northwards to avoid British control. Their primitive mode of life was gradually complicated by the discovery of minerals and the arrival in the country of prospectors and their hangers-on, and this led to a clamour for annexation. One attempt in 1877 lasted over three years. The Boers tolerated the position while the British were engaged in their struggles with the natives (chiefly the Zulus) and then revolted successfully, resuming’ the status of a Republic in 1881. A few years later the discovery of gold on the Rand laid the foundations of the economic “fifth column,” which led to its final downfall.
A description of some of the gentry the Boers were expected to tolerate is contained in a small volume, “South Africa” by J. I. A. Agar-Hamilton, lecturer in modern history at Pretoria University. (“South Africa” Modern States Series: Arrowsmith.)
Pioneers are always pleasanter in retrospect than in close proximity in the flesh, and many of the earliest inhabitants of Barberton and Johannesburg were drunken rowdies and ne’er-do-wells, who were a pest to any law-abiding citizen. In the second wave came international crooks, swindlers and bullies, criminals of every sort who needed a respite from the attentions of the European police. (P. 36.)
More formidable were the large financiers such as Rhodes, who became Prime Minister of Cape Colony in 1890 with the support of Hofmeyr, the leader of the Cape Dutch. The Rand magnates backed the demand for the enfranchisement of the alien element in the Transvaal. .The answer of the Kruger Government was to raise the residential qualification to fourteen years (1890), and any prospect of a more moderate attitude was killed by Dr. Jameson (Rhodes’ friend and Administrator of Rhodesia), who “invaded” the Transvaal in 1895 in the vain hope of bringing to a head a much talked of rising on the Rand. The Boers rounded him up with his 500 men and handed the captives over to the British High Commissioner. This magnanimity, however, did not indicate any weakening of their purpose. In October, 1899, the Transvaal and Orange Free State, making common cause, demanded the withdrawal of British troops and the war was on. The Boers could not maintain their initial success. In June, 1900, their capital, Pretoria, was in British hands and Kruger was in flight. None the less, the conflict dragged on, guerrilla fashion, for another two years. To bring it to a conclusion. Kitchener had to evacuate the rural population; concentrate them in camps, and supply them with rations.
The farmhouses were then systematically destroyed and blockhouses and barbed wire sought to restrict the movement of the commandos. (“South Africa,” p. 44.)
So great a havoc was wrought that no indemnity from the vanquished was possible. On the contrary, the victors had to advance considerable sums to restore agricultural production.
Although the Boers could hardly be suspected of aiming at world domination, the workers in Britain were fed the customary pap about their “enemies” being skulking cowards who hid behind rocks to snipe the manly British Tommy, who, as often as not, had to beg his bread in British streets when the war was over. The bioscope shows of the day depicted the ruthless Dutch farmers attacking the hospitals (plainly marked with red crosses) and molesting the helpless and attractive nurses. A large percentage of the wounds were supposed to be due to “dum-dum” bullets. Then of course the Boers were brutal to the niggers; but this did not prevent them being allowed to retain their rifles, when peace was signed, “for their protection” against these same niggers, and they were “secured against a native franchise.” (South Africa, p. 44.)
From the Orange to the Limpopo the countryside lay waste, without house or inhabitant, and its simplest agricultural needs were imported from elsewhere— Swiss milk, Australian butter and Irish eggs. The whole rural population had to be repatriated, the economic machinery of the country must be set going once more, and a new civil service and administration recreated. (p. 48.)
Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that Botha and Smuts felt their dependence on their conquerors, and that their policy of conciliation received the support of the majority of their countrymen for a period of several years. In the Orange River Colony which had no large English-speaking population like the mining towns in the Transvaal, this policy was by no means so popular. Nevertheless the Union of the two ex-republics with the British colonies of the Cape and Natal was eventually effected in 1910.
Botha became the first premier. He expanded Het Volk into the South African National Party aiming to include British as well as Boer supporters. The mining interests of the Transvaal, however, combined with British elements in the Cape to form the Unionist Party, which retained its independent existence for ten years. The Labour Party, though strong in the Transvaal towns, was naturally weak in an agricultural country run on unenfranchised native labour, and “direct action” has, on more than one occasion, led to considerable violence on the Rand.
It was not long before the Government found itself in conflict with this element of the working-class. In July, 1913, a miners’ strike brought out the whole Imperial garrison to restore order. Six months later an attempt at a general strike, including the State railwaymen, “was countered by the Proclamation of Martial Law. . . . Nine trade union leaders were summarily deported without trial” (South Africa, p. 58.)
A few months earlier, Hertzog (one of Botha’s ministers who was dropped on account of his open hostility to the British elements) formed a new National Party. When the European War broke out in 1914, he advocated neutrality. The Botha Government, however, proceeded to send an expedition to invade German South-West Africa. A ‘rebellion led, among others, by De Wet, gave them some trouble, but the leaders of the Nationalist Party had little confidence in its success and Botha kept control of the situation; his party lost ground, however, as the followers of Hertzog increased in number. Smuts held a place in the Imperial War Cabinet in 1917 along with Lord Milner, the High Commissioner of Boer War days.
Botha died “execrated among his own people” but “the hero of the Imperialists” (South Africa, pp. 62-3) and ” Smuts inherited a peck of troubles. The elections (1920) returned the Nationalists as the biggest single party, while the Unionists lost heavily to the advantage of Labour in the towns” (p. 65). Smuts had only one course in order to retain office. He secured support from the Unionists who sank their identity in his party and allowed three of their members to join the Cabinet. Botha’s dream of conciliation was realised—a Dominion of the British Empire in South Africa had been established.
March, 1922, saw a revival of the Rand trouble. Strikers drilled openly on the Reef, the defence commandos were called out and aeroplanes and field artillery were finally required to quell the rising.
At the next election in 1924 the Labour Party formed a pact with the party of Hertzog to avoid splitting the anti-Government vote. As a piece of tactics it was an immediate success. The Nationalist-cum-Labour coalition had a substantial majority and two Labour leaders entered the Ministry.
In order to secure the support of the Labour Party the Nationalists dropped the Republican clause from their constitution. Nevertheless General Hertzog spent some years trying to clarify the status of the Union. He wanted the right to secede recognised and it took two Imperial Conferences to satisfy him. In economic matters his government pursued a policy of Protection coupled with Factories Acts, Wages Boards and Industrial Conciliation.
In native affairs Hertzog stood for white supremacy and repressive legislation (such as the Colour Bar Bill, 1926, which limited natives in mines to unskilled labour, the Riotous Assemblies Act, 1930, and the Native Service Contract Act, 1932) found its way on to the Statute Book. As Mr. Agar Hamilton points out, he “could always rely on the support of ultra-British Natal for the more repressive side of his policy” (South Africa, p. 122). And, we may add, that of the more short-sighted white members of the working-class who fail to realise the necessity for organising irrespective of race or colour.
In 1929 the Labour Party split over the Question of continuing their pact with Hertzog. In the elections of that year the Coalition lost ground but the Government retained its majority. The following year the world depression made itself felt throughout the Union where the number of mortgaged farms is abnormally high. “Long established landowners were ruined and those small farmers and “bywoners” who normally lived dose to the poverty line suffered appalling privations” (South Africa, p. 80),
The diamond mines were closed as the price of their product collapsed and thousands of diggers in the Western Transvaal found themselves destitute. Relief works became the order of the day.
After a vain struggle to remain on the gold standard the Government finally abandoned it in December, 1932. During the following year negotiations were opened between the Nationalists and the South African Parties. The two Labour Ministers were dropped while Smuts and five of his supporters joined the Government. “Parliament was dissolved, but an adroit system of parcelling out the seats ensured the return of the two big parties very nearly as before ” (South Africa, P. 84).
Thus the intrigues and trickery with which we are familiar in the case of the Mother of Parliaments, are very closely reflected in her youngest daughter. Those workers who believe that the British Empire is democratic in principle might reflect on these facts; and, further, ask themselves what is the lot of the workers in the latest addition to the Commonwealth of Nations. According to Mr. Agar Hamilton, “two major problems commonly exercise the minds of the people of South Africa, the Poor White and the Native” (p. 105).
The Carnegie Commission reckoned that in 1929-30, before the effects of the depression were felt, 17.5 per cent, of the white population were “very poor.” After 1930 the position became more serious, i.e., 20 per cent. Poverty among white workers in Africa has its peculiar features due to local conditions yet Professor Macmillan says: “The poor whites are little more than the ‘reservoir’ of unemployed to be found wherever Western industrialism has dislocated the old agrarian system.” (Complex South Africa, p. 16.)
The native population of five and a half million may be divided broadly into three groups. First some two and a half million have their homes in “Reserves,” i.e., “the last vestiges of the land once occupied by independent tribes” (South Africa, p. 111). They are little more than a breeding ground; for the majority of the able-bodied males are away working in the mines or on farms for the greater part of the year. The Reserves are not capable of feeding their inhabitants and the shortage of production has to be made good by imports paid for largely by remittance from the absent wage-earners.
The second group of two million (the so-called “squatters”) reside on the farms of the white invaders who annexed and divided up the land. They pay for the accommodation either in labour or produce according to the requirements of the owners. The remaining group work in the towns.
All alike suffer poverty. In the words of Professor Macmillan: “There is little room left for doubt that the natives of the Union as a whole are a community dragging along at the very lowest level of bare subsistence.” (Complete South Africa, p. 221.)
From all of which it would appear that the Commonwealth of Nations is not incompatible with the poverty of its people.