So-called 'Native Question' Solved

2017-01-01 08:21

America has elected the bigoted Donald Trump for president. This will not help race relations in that country, but we in South Africa can feel proud to have solved a perceived racial issue that dogged white South Africans for a century – the so-called ‘native question’. It all started when European colonialists arrived in the southern part of Africa. They believed their culture and race and culture made them superior to the indigenous people, and therefore they had a duty to build a bulwark for European civilisation in Africa. Whites feared a politically empowered black majority would undo their supposedly ‘advanced’ European civilisation. This was the ‘native question’, or ‘native problem’ as it was sometimes called.

But, white South African opinion was not uniform in its response to the ‘native question’. Liberal whites wanted to win Africans over to the merits of European ways through education and social upliftment. White liberals felt Africans should gradually be given political rights, until they absorbed European values and were ready to run the country. Afrikaner nationalists, who gave us apartheid, saw race as an essential indicator of cultural development. In their reckoning, to mix the races would do nothing for the ‘backward’ African races, and would only weaken the ‘advanced’ European races. The Afrikaner nationalists believed that God placed Europeans in Africa to boss the Africans – ‘baaskap’. By contrast communist whites saw the so-called ‘native question’ as an opportunity, and tried to convince Africans that political liberation was a ‘two-stage process’: stage one - overthrow white domination; stage two - overthrow capitalist domination.

The founding of the Union of South Africa, in 1910, merged the two English colonies - the Cape and Natal - with the two formerly independent Boer states - the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. But, in the rush to create a large sovereign state on the southern end of Africa two burning issues remained: 1) the nature of South Africa’s relationship to Britain; 2) political rights for blacks, i.e. the ‘native question’. Jan Smuts was the most influential South African politician in the first half of the 20th century. Smuts had been a fearless Boer guerrilla commander in the Second Anglo-Boer War (now called the South African War to acknowledge the significant role of black South Africans in the conflict). After the war Britain, in a spirit of reconciliation, gave the Boers their two republics back, which moved Smuts to adopt a pro-British stance. He felt South Africa had much to gain from aligning itself to Britain, which at the time was a world superpower. Smuts became a champion of white English-speaking South Africans, but he alienated Afrikaner nationalists, who held no fondness for Britain and believed in a special destiny for the Afrikaner tribe.

As for the second burning issue, blacks did not have voting rights in the Natal colony, or in the old Boer republics, and whites there had no interest in conceding power once Union came about. In the Cape a qualified franchise system gave some Africans and coloureds voting rights, yet not enough to threaten white rule. In a better world the Cape example could have laid the foundations for a gradual transition to a non-racial democracy. Alas, this liberal dream was not to be.

When the Union of South Africa was formed in May 1910, blacks in the Cape kept their voting rights, while blacks in the rest of the country remained disenfranchised. No Africans, coloured or Indians were consulted about this, or about any other matters pertaining to the new country to which they would soon belong, and in which black Africans would constitute a majority. Notwithstanding some reservations within Britain’s ruling Liberal Party, and the pleading of learned Africans and white liberals, Smuts and his fellow unionists got their country. Black leaders complained that Britain had thrown blacks to the mercy of white colonial settlers who, but for a few liberals, viewed blacks either as cheap labour or as unwelcome competition.

When Malan’s apartheid government came to power in 1948 they set about eliminating the little political representation blacks had. By 1951 no blacks had any political rights, or any official representation at the national level whatsoever. The Verwoerdian solution to the ‘native question’ took things a step further, not only denying blacks political rights, but denying them citizenship too; and bundling those Africans surplus to labour requirements off to ‘Bantustans’.

The madness of apartheid ended in 1994 when all citizens were rendered political equals. The South African Constitution, which came into effect in February 1997, was a global victory for liberal humanism. According to the Constitution the state derives its legitimacy from free and equal individuals, regardless of their colour, creed, gender, sexual persuasion, or personal values. Our democratic dispensation, and liberal humanist constitution, has finally answered the ‘native question’. South Africans can now look each other squarely in the eye as free and equally worthy individuals within a liberal humanist democracy.

In a strange twist of history it was a radical black liberation movement, the ANC, who instituted our liberal humanist creed. Finally, South African politics was aligned to modern European values.

Sometimes history provides neat moments of clarity; a few signatures on a document signify a break with the old order. The adoption of our constitution was one such moment, establishing a country in which those in power derive their legitimacy from free and equal individuals. The implications are far-reaching and positive for South Africa: better race relations, more accountable government, more moral authority in the community of nations, and more caring institutions of state. Surely this is what politics is for, not the mean-spirited, populist rantings of a Donald Trump.

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