It was partly to avoid exacerbating problems in India that a hostile boycott would have been most unwelcome during the [Royal Tour], for just as the Natal papers gave front-page coverage to the warm reception the King received at Currie's Fountain, a small headline elsewhere on the same page recorded that the Viceroy Designate, Lord Mountbatten, and Lady Mountbatten had arrived in New Delhi.
While royal speeches during the tour hinted at a reshaped, more multiracial Commonwealth, it was also hoped that a successful, trouble-free tour would be reflected in the orderly transformation of India and Burma into Dominions. Even the Washington-based World Review commented: 'There is hope that continuing loyalty in South Africa will be impressive to India and Burma. Indeed the King might even strengthen the Government's hand in maintaining order.'
No wonder, then, that the King looked pleased by the crowds who had gathered to cheer him, as they had in Ladysmith, Pietermaritzburg, Stanger and other towns with sizeable Indian populations.
Yet the South African government and its supportive newspapers had equally good reason to be thankful for the collapse of the Indian boycott. It appeared, temporarily at least, to confound India's opinion of South Africa. Towards the end of the previous year, Smuts had been thwarted when he had gone to the UN to press for the inclusion of South West Africa into the Union. This was another attempt to fulfil his long-held vision of South Africa's geopolitical destiny by expanding northward into Africa. It actually had the support of the Labour government in Britain. It did not, however, have the support of Tshekedi Khama, the Regent of Bechuanaland, or AB Xuma, President-General of the ANC, who were in contact.
Smuts, aware of Khama's opposition, had urged the Labour government to muzzle him and prevent his going to the United Nations. This was achieved. Nevertheless, Khama continued to lobby from his dusty territory against the annexation on the grounds of South Africa's racial policies; he must also have feared for the sovereignty of his own country and the other two Protectorates should South West Africa be successfully incorporated into the Union. The King and Baring [The Hon Sir Evelyn Baring, the British High Commissioner for Southern Africa] (in absentia due to tick-bite fever) appear to have reassured him on this issue when the White Train stopped on Bechuanaland soil in April 1947 […]
The Royal Family arrives for the Ngoma Nkosi at Eshowe during the Royal Tour of 1947. (Photo: Transnet Heritage Library Photo Collection)
The annexation was turned down, the British government finding itself embarrassingly isolated on this issue in the General Assembly. It was again seen to be out of step with the spirit of the post-war world, where international opinion was hardening against the idea of colonial rule in general.
There was, however, something fundamentally more to it than that. What had happened at the UN had also shown that this reformist spirit could be expressed by non-colonial powers acting within the Assembly. This extended into the directorate itself. It was something the Soviet Union could and would now exploit for their own ideological-political ends, as indeed would America, at least in areas she regarded as not strategically essential.
It was a blow for the man who had hoped to bank credit for South Africa's war effort and secure the country's post-war position as the guarantor of Western interests in Africa. Worse, however, was to come just a few weeks later.
Khama had been successfully kept away from the United Nations. Who was making his way there now, much to Smuts's chagrin, was AB Xuma. The President-General of the ANC led a delegation across the Atlantic comprising HA Naidoo and Sorabjee Rustomjee of the Indian Congresses; they were joined there, to their surprise, by Senator Hyman Basner, the most radical of the four white senators appointed to represent the Indians and Africans in the South African Parliament. He despised Smuts and had hitherto had little time for Xuma and the rest.
Currie's Fountain: Over half of Durban's Indian population greeted the Royal Family here. Al Kajee, chairman of the Reception Committee, who had defied a planned boycott, is to the left of the King. (Photo: Transnet Heritage Library Photo Collection)
But he was taking no chances of their missing the opportunity to beard Smuts internationally in his role as philosopher-statesman and humanitarian. Smuts himself had always refused to meet Xuma on home ground. Now there was no escaping it. And there would be no muzzling of the delegation in America, where they were much fêted by radical bodies and African Americans.
The multiracial South African delegation – fairly remarkable in its composition for the day – met up in New York in late October. This was well timed, for not long afterwards, South Africa's racial policies again surfaced at the United Nations, this time with far more adverse publicity. This was the result of the handiwork of the delegation from not-quite independent India. It was a deprecatory motion, put forward in early December, by Mrs Pandit, Nehru's very determined sister, concerning South African policies towards its Indian community. To Smuts's surprise and discomfort, the motion was passed with a two-thirds majority and the support of the United States.
Mrs Pandit's 'ambush', as Saul Dubow neatly describes it, was the culmination of years of argument about the status of Indians in South Africa. But her principal target was the 1946 Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act – known as the 'Ghetto Act' – itself following on the heels of the Pegging Act of 1943, which sought to restrict the rights of Indians to purchase land except in certain areas, in return for a modicum of political representation. This would involve whites elected by Indians to represent them in Parliament and for Indians to represent themselves in the Natal Provincial Council.
Though it was a step in the right direction, it had proved to be a messy piece of legislation, satisfying neither the Indians nor the whites in South Africa. It was now proved to have been a remarkably ill-timed piece of legislation, too.
Jawaharlal Nehru, installed at the head of the interim Indian government in the run-up to independence, had long advocated that Indian nationalists develop an internationalist consciousness, free of the inevitability of the British connection, and of Eurocentrism in general. Reacting to the news of the Ghetto Act, the Natal Indian Congress had urged the Indian government to raise the issue at the UN. This gave Mrs Pandit (in reality, Nehru, by extension) an extraordinary opportunity to prove her country's mettle in the international spotlight. She had taken it with both hands.
Jean Lawrence, who saw her in action at the UN six months later, described her in her diary as 'rabid' and 'vitriolic' and a first-class actress, able to 'squeeze a tear for any cause'. Such was the view of a moderately liberal-minded, white South African Cabinet minister's wife then. Others like her, watching events unfold in the Assembly, might have felt she had a point; the majority, however, supported Mrs Pandit, squeezed tears and all. Smuts's argument, that the social separation of the races in South Africa violated no human rights under the Charter and avoided the bloodshed witnessed in India and elsewhere, simply fell on deaf ears.
Again, it was a portent of things to come. Only five years earlier, after the signing of the Atlantic Charter, Churchill had insisted in the House of Commons that Whitehall would decide on the pace of a colony's journey to self-government. India had here, however, simply bypassed Whitehall, where Smuts and South Africa had good standing, and against accepted Commonwealth practice, taken their much-publicised case directly to a new, alternative international forum: the UN General Assembly.
Receiving Indian civic dignitaries on the dais at Currie's Fountain. (Photo: Transnet Heritage Library Photo Collection)
India thus emerged as the first successful challenger of the doctrine of the European right to rule, and highlighted what would surely be the coming new order in the post-colonial world. This promised to be an uncomfortable one for white South Africa; the policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of its members […] had been rubbished. If Smuts was dismayed, Malan and his successors were not. And now they offered the affronted, conservative white electorate in South Africa the old Boer alternative: they could turn their backs on all this, retreat into the laager, and occupy a world of their own devising.
Smuts's world was rapidly falling apart. Typically, Gandhi had told Mrs Pandit before she left India that it was important that, whatever the outcome of events at the UN, she must come back as a friend of Field- Marshal Smuts. It says much for the respect that Gandhi and Smuts had for one another, despite their political differences, that he should have said such a thing. It had not been possible.
Mrs Pandit's attack on South Africa in general and Smuts personally had been virulent and unequivocal. It was met with loud applause from many of the delegates. Smuts had been publicly humiliated in a forum where he expected reverence. At home, his enemies on both sides of the political equation gloated at his discomfort.
Flushed with success, but mindful that, in having won her case, she had failed conspicuously to live up to the high ideals of the Mahatma, Mrs Pandit had made her way over the floor of the Assembly to Smuts to ask his forgiveness. Smuts, seeing all too clearly now the bitter harvest that her actions would cause him to reap shortly, together with his party, his country and indeed, even the South African Indians she sought to help, turned to her and said: 'You have won a hollow victory. This vote will put me out of power in our next elections, but you will have gained nothing.'
* This extract was taken from The Last Hurrah. South Africa and the Royal Tour of 1947 by Graham Viney, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.