South Africa: Happy with a broken heart

2010-06-02 00:00

HISTORY never actually repeats itself, but one cannot but be struck by the remarkable similarities between the two big “unifications” in South Africa. In 1910, South Africa was united into a semi-democratic union with rights for the two white communities, while in 1994, democratic privileges were extended to the entire population. Both instances were preceded by grim struggle and bloodshed. On both occasions, the constitutional agreement kindled hope for reconciliation, growth and a better life for voters.

In half of the 50 years before the establishment of the Union in 1910, there were wars, revolts and annexations on a much larger scale than the “people’s war” of the eighties. In the fiercest war, the Anglo-Boer War (1899- 1902), British troops wiped out about two-thirds of the cattle herds on the farms in the old Boer Republics and burnt down between 30 000 and 40 000 houses. One tenth of the Boer population lost their lives.

“A howling wilderness” was how British Minister of Colonies Sir Joseph Chamberlain described the Transvaal and the Orange Free State after a visit with Alfred Milner, high commissioner in South Africa.

Milner was certain that the Afrikaners could not thwart his plan to bring about a union of the four British colonies on British terms. He thought it was an illusion that the Afrikaners cared much for “the great Afrikaner nation”. He was blissfully unaware that his policy of Anglicisation would create the breeding ground for nationalism.

From the sidelines, Jan Smuts, a confidant of Paul Kruger in Pretoria and a Boer general, was keeping an eye on Milner’s attempts, and wrote supportively to Kruger: “Milner dreams of a British South Africa — loyal in broken English and happy with a broken heart.”

Smuts heaved a sigh: “Cannot the bloodstained races reason together and cannot their leaders, in a spirit of mutual forgiveness, try to write the word reconciliation over all our feuds and differences?”

As in the early nineties, the South Africans decided to effect a constitution without foreign help. Smuts and John X. Merriman (who in 1908 became prime minister of the Cape colony) prepared the way in correspondence, but there were still various major obstacles to be overcome in the National Convention which deliberated in 1908-09.

Almost like current-day Germany in the European Union, the Transvaal, with its mines, feared that in the union it would have to dip deep into its own pockets to fund the other colonies.

A federal system would have been much better for the deeply divided nation with its ethnic and class conflicts. Smuts, however, insisted on a unitary form of government to ensure centralised financial control. On the question of voting rights a compromise emerged: the Cape province would make no distinction between voters on grounds of colour. But in the other provinces black and brown people were excluded. There would be only white parliamentarians.

Just as in 1994, the wrong electoral system was chosen for a deeply divided community.

The Alternative Vote, which today is supported by the Liberal Democrats in Britain, would have rewarded moderate candidates who could draw support from both communities. The Westminster system, with its constituencies (and rule that first-past-the-post-gets-everything) lent itself to group mobilisation on an ethnic basis.

As in 1994, there was a wave of euphoria after the first election in 1910. Earl Buxton, the governor-general, called the union the “great adventure” and added: “[A] wave of racial optimism passed over the country. The slate had been wiped clean and the new Constitution, written clear and broad and based on absolute equality, was to obliterate the dread past with its misunderstandings, and its bitter memories, and to bring about a spirit of partnership and goodwill.”

This view actually applied only to the white middle class. The class divide was large: the wages of unskilled workers (Afrikaners, black and brown people) were only 10% to 20% of those of skilled workers (all English-speaking). The majority of (Boer) farmers struggled to survive with unstable prices, drought and a labour shortage.

The leaders, who in 1910 had to convince voters of the worth of the new Constitution, are reminiscent in many ways of the prominent politicians of the transition-period between 1990 and 1996. There are major similarities between Louis Botha and Nelson Mandela, both of whom were described as charismatic conciliators.

Smuts wrote later about Botha: “He was a colossal figure with great personal magnetism. He had a grip and an influence on people that was much greater than any other form of power.”

Smuts (Botha’s close colleague) was like Thabo Mbeki: intelligent, clinical and skilled. He saved the ruling party from thorny situations and soon became the favourite of businessmen who saw him as their best ally in the struggle against the socialist danger.

He was the man who had to ensure the implementation of policy in such a way that voters could perceive a notable change.

Then there was Koos de la Rey, the most outstanding fighter and strategist in the former 10-year war. Party leaders in the Transvaal took him with them to the National Convention because obviously he was the man who (like Chris Hani later) could sell the constitutional settlement to the radical and embittered fighters on the ground.

As in the case of questions relating to affirmative action and black empowerment during the nineties, disillusion surfaced after 1910 over matters which had not been unequivocally spelt out in the negotiations.

There was the question of language rights.

The most dramatic moment at the National Convention session in 1909 was the speech by ex-president Martinus Steyn. As was the custom, he referred to the Boers and British as different “races” and asked the delegates to sweep away “the devil of race hatred” which had plagued the country for so long. The way to do it was to place the two languages on an equal footing — in Parliament, the courts, the schools, the public service, everywhere.

No one quarrelled with this and equality between the two national languages was written into the Constitution. But there was a big misunderstanding. At the convention a proposal by Leander Starr Jameson was also accepted, that there would be no compulsion.

F. W. Engelburgh, editor of a pro-Botha daily newspaper, later wrote that English-speakers had accepted bilingualism only as a matter of courtesy and consequently set themselves against the principle becoming a reality in practice. The scene was set for the decades-long language struggle.

Ninety years later, the major clash was over affirmative action. After 1996, the government stretched the relevant clauses so widely to validate “demographic representivity” that ex-president F. W. de Klerk and P. W. Botha declared they would not have signed the Constitution if they had known that this was the ANC’s plan.

The Constitution of 1909 also said nothing about what South Africa’s obligation would be as a state under the British crown if Britain declared war. With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 the huge boil burst open. The government’s agreement at Britain’s request to invade German South-West Africa led to the Rebellion of 1914.

Just before the 1914-15 rebellion, De la Rey, the famous bitter-ender leader and a highly regarded man in the West Transvaal, declared that the Union had never been intended to deprive people of their rights and freedom. He warned that people would not be satisfied to remain enclosed in a kraal. Whether he actually would have taken part in the 1914-15 Rebellion, we do not know. He was shot dead just before it flared up.

What Hani would have done, if he had survived his bullet, we do not know either, but he was the man to start an uprising against what many black people saw as the sellout of blacks in the settlement of 1992-1996.

In many ways, the roles of Mbeki and Smuts were the same concerning economic policy. They had to persuade their respective followers to make peace with the capitalist system as the only system the West, with its big interests in South Africa’s minerals and metals, would accept.

To return to Smuts: It was a tough call for him. More than half the profits of the mines were sent abroad as dividends. The government levied a tax of only five percent on the value added by the gold mines. On the eve of World War 2, Afrikaner companies controlled only one percent of the mining industry. Many Afrikaner nationalists flirted with socialism until the late thirties.

In a way, Mbeki’s task was easier, because socialism as an alternative to capitalism had received an all but lethal blow with the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was immense international pressure on the ANC to follow orthodox economics, and Mbeki, who studied economics, had a very good grasp of the consequences of the ANC ignoring this pressure. As a result, virtually nothing was heard about the ANC’s National Democratic Revolution — which wanted the revolution of the “black bourgeoisie”, ushered in during the 1992-96 transition — having to be followed by a socialist revolution.

President Jacob Zuma has stated openly that he supports the NDR and has embraced black nationalism. At this stage, business seems willing to discount this as the impulse of a faction that still has to learn the hard facts of capitalism’s global dominance. The blunting of Julius Malema’s calls for nationalism seems to signal the readiness of the Zuma faction to make its peace with capitalism as long as the upper level of the ANC’s bourgeoisie continue to be rewarded through sweet deals.

The one thing the Zuma faction has not yet brought under control is nationalist rhetoric. Continuing loose talk of nationalisation, or forcing farmers to cede 40% of their land, is having an unsettling effect on investors and food production. This perhaps is the function Zuma is least capable of performing — intellectual leadership and stopping loose talk.

In his idle moments he probably envies Botha and Mandela for having had such stern lieutenants. 


• Hermann Giliomee is the author of The Afrikaners: Biography of a People.

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