A century ago…


Last year Business Day editor Peter Bruce noted that several important centenaries had passed us by as a nation in the year ad h expressed the hope that the founding of the Union of South Africa on May 31, 1910, would be marked.

That event, that saw the merging of four previously autonomous but British-controlled colonies of the Cape of Good Hope, Natal, Transvaal and the Orange River, was itself the result of a process that started in the 19th Century and had been punctuated by two Boer wars and several more against independent African kingdoms.

Another consequence of this process – and principally the handling of the black franchise by the whites-only SA Convention that drafted the 1910 national constitution as well as pending land legislation – was the creation of the now-African National Congress (ANC) on January 8, 1912 – now 98 years ago.

By the same token, this year marks the 110th anniversary of a slew of pivotal events during 1900 in the course of the South African War as the Second Boer War is also called. The centenary of the war between 1999 and 2002 was something of a damp squib and it is likely not many will spare a thought – much less commemorate – the events of that year, which includes the lifting of the sieges of Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafikeng; the battles of Magersfontein, Paardeberg, the fall of Bloemfontein and Field Marshal Lord Frederick Roberts’ remarkable advance on Pretoria via Kroonstad and Johannesburg. Particularly little is known today about the Battle of Johannesburg that lasted three days (May 27 to 29) on a series of hills that are now Soweto and the last conventional battle of the war, that around Donkerhoek/Diamond Hill east of Pretoria – over a 40km frontline – in middle June.

That month also saw the outbreak of a guerilla war that was to last two bitter years. The animosity would last a further hundred. Notable opening actions included General Christian de Wet’s raid on Roodewal station in the north Free State on June 7 – even before Diamond Hill/Donkerhoek – an General “Koos” de la Rey’s destruction of Maj Gen RAP Clement’s 12th Infantry Brigade’s camp in the lee of Nooitgedacht mountain, the tallest peak in the Magaliesberg, just west of both Pretoria and Johannesburg, in December.

As a matter of interest, the SA Convention was the result of a call by the then-Transvaal colonial secretary in May 1908 that a national conference be held to find a political solution to trade and tariff disputes between the four colonies. The secretary was General Jan Smuts, a participant in the Nooitgedacht attack. Deliberations began in Durban in October 1908 in under the chairmanship of the the Chief Justice of the Cape, Judge Sir Henry de Villiers, according to the Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa (Ed: Dougie Oakes, Cape Town, 1995.)

Thirty white men would decide the future of our country: 14 Afrikaners and 16 SA English, 12 from the Cape, eight from the Transvaal, five from Natal and five from the Free State. An interesting picture of the participants show De Wet standing next to Dr Leander Starr Jameson who had led a botched raid into the Transvaal over New Year 1896 to support an abortive Uitlander uprising in Johannesburg. The fiasco had helped precipitate the war of 1899-1902.
“By the time the convention sat, John X Merriman, Prime Minister of the Cape and an early proponent of a unitary constitution had already gained the support of Smuts and together they quickly disposed of the long-held-assumptions that unification would follow the American, Australian or Canadian federal models,” the Reader’s Digest history observes. “Natal, seeking looser ties with a united SA, had its own federal proposal quashed in favour of Smuts’ predisposition to the British model [which has since become more federal]. ‘What we want,’ said Smuts, ‘is a supreme national authority to give expression to the national will of SA, and the rest s really subordinate.’
“Thus the convention opted for a sovereign central parliament wit control over the powers of new provincial authorities (the former colonies), but it yielded to Natal’s demand for an upper house – the Senate – with limited powers. The result as a cabinet executive which was accountable to the legislature. …
“The matter of black voting rights was settled relatively easy. Smuts and Merriman were well aware that the Boer delegates of the Transvaal an Orange River Colony, supported by the British from Natal, would no accept any enfranchisement of blacks. The Cape delegates, on the other hand , would not consent to the removal of the existing limited voting rights of their own colony’s black people.
“Smuts and Merriman therefore proposed a compromise: each colony would retain its existing franchise arrangement. After tough debate the issue was referred to a committee under De Villiers. Lord Selbourne [the High Commissioner] told De Villiers that Britain referred that ‘civilised’ men of colour be given the vote, but that, if the convention could not agree, then Britain would accept the Merriman-Smuts proposal. Despite widespread criticism from coloured and African organisations, as well as Cape liberals such as former Prime Minister of the Cape, William Schreiner [brother of author Olive], the convention adopted the Smuts-Merriman compromise proposal.
“The delegates placed more emphasis on the weighting of constituencies than on the question of black rights. In the heated exchange which followed, it was decided that rural seats would have 15% fewer voters than the norm and urban seats 15% more. Thus the additional weight of the rural vote became entrenched in SA’s political system and was able to ensure future Afrikaner domination of national politics.
“A draft constitution was completed in February 1909, debated by the four colonial parliaments, and finally accepted with amendments by the convention. It was then sent to London for approval and enacted by the British parliament without alteration.”

As government and the ANC reportedly again considers the the number and role of the provinces, it behoves us to remember how we got where we are today.
(As an aside, I hope the City of Johannesburg, the British High Commission and/or the National Defence Force will this year mark the Battle of Johannesburg.)