Remembering Louis Botha -South Africa's First Prime Minister 

  by Duncan Du Bois

A century ago this week on August 27, 1919, General Louis Botha, South Africa’s first Prime Minister, passed away at the age of 57. In the Preface to his recent biography of Botha, Richard Steyn noted that nowadays memories of such figures are focused “more on apportioning blame for historical injustices than making allowances for the times and circumstances in which [they] lived.”

Born near Greytown, Natal, in 1862, Botha received little formal education. Despite being untrained in military matters, he earned respect and praise as a leader of men during the Anglo-Boer War. As with his fellow Afrikaners, he had to come to terms with the consequences of defeat - the loss of Boer independence, the devastation of Boer farms and communities, the deaths of more than 26,000 Boer women and children in British concentration camps.

Critical to his path as South Africa’s first prime minister was Botha’s role as the conciliator of his own Afrikaner people – healing the breach between – those who had sided with the British and the bittereinders who resented the terms of the Treaty of Vereeniging which ended the war. The founding of Het Volk (The People) by Botha and Jan Smuts served not only as the means to unite the Afrikaner volk and to strive for self-government in the Transvaal. It also became the platform from which they promoted the unification of South Africa.

Despite their fears of Afrikaner domination, Botha proved popular with the Natal delegates at the first meeting of the National Convention on South African union held in Durban in November 1908.  Years later, in recognition of his role as conciliator, Durban became the first city to erect a statue in Botha’s honour.

When it came to choosing South Africa’s first prime minister, Governor-General Gladstone had little hesitation in selecting Louis Botha. Well-liked for his genial nature and moderating influence, Botha enjoyed widespread support, particularly in Natal.

Challenges

The inauguration of the Union of South Africa in 1910 brought in its wake a number of simmering challenges: forging Afrikaner-English unity divided by the recent bitter war; establishing a civil service to combine and administer the four provinces; seeking a balance between Boer agrarian interests and the Rand mining industries; maintaining imperial ties while trying to accommodate strident Afrikaner nationalist elements led by Boer war general JBM Hertzog; race issues concerning Africans and Indians.

Author Richard Steyn notes that Botha “took seriously the promise he had made to bear the interests of South Africa’s ‘native’ population in mind” (p. 172). Thus, it is significant that one of his first acts as Premier reflected his Natal roots: he ordered the release from prison of his old acquaintance, Dinizulu, the Zulu king who was serving a four year sentence imposed by the Natal government after a controversial trial for alleged involvement in the Bhambatha rebellion. Botha saw to it that Dinizulu was given a pension and lived out his years till his death in 1913 on a farm near Middelburg.

Unfortunately, Botha’s favour towards Dinizulu did not find wider expression. Like most white leaders of that time, he believed in racial segregation and the setting aside of land areas for exclusive black occupation. Significantly, what became the 1913 Land Act grew out of the “Native policy” proposals of Lord Milner’s Lagden Commission of 1903-1905.

Paternalistic, Botha regarded the Land Act as reasonable and necessary. But as history has demonstrated, its legacy proved unrealistic and hurtful resulting in the loss of black land, marginalisation of blacks’ security of tenure and their relegation to that of a class of labourers.

Another unfortunate shortcoming was Botha’s failure to appreciate the strength of Afrikaner nationalism. His noble intentions of reconciliation were premature at a time of Afrikaner anxiety over their political, language and cultural future within the anglicised British Empire. The fissure in Botha’s reconciliation policy became an irreparable fracture in 1912 when Hertzog demanded separate cultural development of English and Afrikaans.  His breakaway from Botha’s South African Party to form the National Party (NP) in 1914 put paid to Botha’s reconciliation policy.  In the 1915 election, forty percent of Botha’s Afrikaner support defected to Hertzog’s NP.

The years 1913 and 1914 produced severe challenges to Botha’s government. The first of two strikes by white miners erupted into looting and arson which saw the offices of The Star newspaper burnt down. Without the force of an army to quell the strikers – the Defence Force was not yet mobilised- Botha and Smuts were forced to accept the miners’ demands.

A more difficult challenge which had imperial significance concerned the Indian community. Restrictions on their movement within South Africa, the £3 tax on ex-indentured Indians who refused to return to India and the non-recognition of Hindu and Moslem marriages were long-standing grievances which, it was anticipated, would be settled by the Immigration Act of 1913. Indian dismay at the failure of the Act to remedy their grievances triggered a series of mass protests and marches.  Strikes, some of which were violent, occurred on sugar estates and Northern Natal coal mines. Gandhi was imprisoned for his role in encouraging Indians to strike until the £3 tax was repealed, a charge to which he pleaded guilty.

Alarmed at the turn of events, the Imperial authorities advised Botha to release Gandhi and to negotiate with him. Following the Solomon Commission of enquiry, a Relief Bill was passed in June 1914. Although it abolished the hated £3 tax and recognised traditional Indian marriages, trading and licence restrictions remained along with prohibition from entering the Free State.

For his role in getting the Bill passed despite strong opposition from Natal and the Orange Free State, Gandhi paid tribute to the Prime Minister in a speech in Kimberley: “General Botha has done much for us. He threatened to resign if the Bill was not passed” (The South African Gandhi, Desai and Vahed, p. 265).

Greatest crisis

The outbreak of World War 1 in August 1914 brought about the greatest crisis of Botha’s premiership. Opposition to South Africa’s participation in the war against Germany mutated into armed rebellion by 11,500 Afrikaners. Suppressing the rebellion took five months and cost 322 lives. As biographer Steyn has written: “The Afrikaner rebellion caused Botha more torment than anything else in his life. His upholding of his country’s constitutional commitment to Empire resulted in his last years being a time of stress and grief” (p. xii). That was particularly apparent in the 1915 election when Botha and Smuts were denounced as traitors and Judases for supporting Britain and suppressing the rebellion.

Nonetheless, Botha’s military tactics in the Union Defence Force offensive against German-occupied South West Africa resulted in victory by June 1915. Characteristically, he was magnanimous in victory. Commenting on his settlement terms to the defeated Germans, the London Times described them as “generous to a fault.”

Last years

Politically Botha’s last years were harrowing as he doggedly pursued a path between the imperialism of the Unionist party and the sectionalism of Hertzog’s NP. His task was made more difficult by the absence of Smuts on whose political acumen he relied greatly. (Smuts headed the Defence Force’s protracted campaign against the Germans in East Africa). 

Those burdens caused Botha’s health to deteriorate. By mid-1917 he was suffering from carbuncles, an enlarged liver, swollen legs and having difficulty in getting sleep. His wife, Annie, anxiously suggested that he consider resignation as Prime Minister. He became increasingly despondent in the face of Hertzog’s rancorous attacks on his policies.

Despite poor health, he insisted on joining Smuts at the Paris peace conference which commenced in January 1919. Thus South Africa recorded its first participation on the international stage. More importantly, however, Botha and Smuts succeeded in gaining respect for and recognition of South Africa’s status as an independent entity within the British Empire.

Drawing on his experience of having been a defeated foe, Botha appealed to the delegates at the conference to show clemency towards Germany. “You must not take vengeance on a whole people and punish them so as to make it impossible for them to recover,” he advised. Unfortunately, the Treaty of Versailles did not reflect his wisdom. Nonetheless, statesmanship accrued to Botha’s role and presence.

During his return voyage to South Africa after an absence of eight months, he suffered a heart attack and passed away in Pretoria on August 27, 1919.  He was the first of three prime ministers to die in office. The others were Strijdom and Verwoerd.

Farmer, warrior, statesman, Louis Botha was a man of the people, who, like George Washington, had the formidable task of establishing a unitary state in the wake of a divisive conflict. Significantly, there are similarities in some of the challenges that confront South Africa today. Reconciliation is being poisoned by the anti-white racism of Malema and the BLF. In 1919 it was frustrated by the sectional ideology of Hertzog. The future of minority groups is more uncertain today than in 1919. The land issue was no more settled in 1919 than it is today.

---------------------------------Du Bois is an independent post-doctoral researcher

 

     An address on the occasion of Speech Evening at St Charles College, Pietermaritzburg, 25 October 2007

 

I believe it was the American poet Ezra Pound who once said that “real knowledge is for the few who insist on pursuing it. For the rest, education is mere shepherding.” His words are most helpful in illuminating an affliction that has harmed us before in this country and which is making renewed efforts to do so again.

The affliction to which I refer is political correctness, known more commonly and practically as “spin.” It’s a process which promotes convergent thinking and shepherds it, as Pound would say, into the confines of a large room. There the only distinctions in expression are those of tone and volume. Nonetheless, those differences are hailed as representing variety and diversity when in reality they propagate the same message.

In time political correctness becomes a straitjacket which marginalises and suffocates divergent and alternative thoughts and views. In time political correctness becomes holy writ. Questioning it or daring to criticise it is viewed as heresy punishable by alienation, exile, imprisonment and even death. Tyranny is its ultimate harvest.

It’s a slow, subtle process that embraces guises such as nation-building, transformation and materialism as vehicles of advancement. It preys on the unsuspecting and the uncritical. It may be generous in rewarding compliance and scathing in exposing and opposing those who attempt to evade its designs. In time its work resembles a series of electrified fences erected in the realm of public debate that shepherd thinking in a pre-ordained direction.

In South Africa this process is quite well-established. It progress is facilitated by a willingness to accept that the wrongs of the past must be rectified. BEE-compliant, for example, has become a standard term in the business lexicon. Criticisms of an obscenely affluent nouveaux riche are muted despite the fact that their accumulation of wealth in a decade has eclipsed what figures like Raymond Ackerman took a  lifetime to earn.

Dereliction of duty, corruption and plain incompetence is waived as the learning curve of the previously disadvantaged whilst criticisms are scorned as the work of those who are out of step with the programme of transformation. The privilege of serving in office is confused with the right to rule. The line between state and party interests is blurred as the creed of political correctness substitutes ideological criteria and objectives for those of good governance.

It all begs the question: from what was South Africa liberated? The short answer is – the ideology of baasskap. To unpack that slightly means that South Africa was liberated from a regime in which policy was dictated by a tiny elite. In its place a broad-based, democratic, transparent and accountable system has, ostensibly, been installed. Yet it would seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same. After all, isn’t the SABC as supine and sycophantic in its observation of political correctness as it was before 1994, even though it is supposed to be a public broadcaster?

But, before déjà vu sets in and you feel this is another Witness column[1] allow me to go back in time to 1898 and to consider the role of the media in shepherding opinion against the Transvaal. (Bear with me, a little, those of you who are not students of history).

Kruger’s Republic had become the world’s top gold producer, a fact that did not sit comfortably with the lords of the British Empire. Political control had to be wrested from Kruger. The position of the voteless  uitlanders was to be exploited with a view to creating a crisis that would lead to war. On December 18, 1898, the Commander in Chief of British forces in South Africa, Sir William Butler, sent a despatch to the Colonial Secretary in London stating that the alleged grievances of the uitlanders in the Transvaal were a fraudulent invention. “All political questions and information coming out of Cape Town are being worked by a syndicate for the spread of false information,” he wrote. In a subsequent cable Butler asserted that news concerning the Kruger government was “a prepared business.” This, as the historian Thomas Pakenham has written, would enable Sir Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner in Southern Africa, to justify war against the Transvaal.

Pakenham’s study provides an object lesson of the power of politically correct thinking in shaping and swaying public opinion. As a result of a barrage of inflammatory editorials and news reports, London’s Fleet St press as well as the Cape Times in South Africa succeeded in persuading even senior British decision-makers that war against the Boer Republic was unavoidable. “If Mr Kruger wants war, then war he must have,” declared the Daily Telegraph.

Butler’s lone voice of dissent against the subversion of peace was ignored and he was removed from his post. Based on the manner in which information was manufactured, distorted then sanctioned and promoted, the Anglo-Boer War should never have occurred.

In the 1930s the power of politically correct opinion kept Churchill’s voice in the background as he warned of the dangers of placating the Nazi threat. Even in 1946 when he warned against the communist iron curtain that was descending across Europe, the politically correct voices of the Establishment, on both sides of the Atlantic, spurned his view. Of course, events subsequently vindicated Churchill’s vision. Nonetheless, one can only speculate on how differently history might have turned out had the blanket of political correctness been breached earlier.

How, then does one deal with the enveloping threat of political correctness?

In April this year [2007] I met that very brave and persistent witness to the truth of Zimbabwe’s plight, Cathy Buckle, author of African Tears, and asked her that question. Her response was to draw two columns on a piece of paper – one headed DO’s the other DON’Ts. Under the DO’s column, she wrote: unite, complain, expose, speak out, take legal action, from alliances,, collect funds for legal challenges, be involved in civil society, be continuously proactive.

Under the DON’T’s column she listed: isolation, separation, silence, going into a laager, apathy, allowing rulers to exceed their terms.

A question often asked is whether this country will follow the same path as Zimbabwe. I addressed that in my column in The Witness  on April 27. The answer was a qualified NO premised, inter alia, on the extent to which divergent opinions are tolerated and freely propagated, the maintenance of the independence of the courts and an end to state attempts at interference in civil society through social engineering.

The way in which totalitarians entrenched themselves in power in Russia and Germany in the last century was the result of intimidation of those with contrary views and their eventual silencing. Once the flow of information was controlled, opposition was marginalised and intimidated to the point where it either disbanded or was simply declared illegal and incarcerated or shot.

In this context it is appropriate to recall the words of that brave German, Pastor Niemoller, who spent nine years in Nazi concentration camps and survived:

First they came for the Jews. I was silent. I was not a Jew. Then they came for the communists. I was silent. I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists. I was silent. I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me. There was no one left to speak for me.

The point here, as Cathy Buckle has emphasised, is that unless solidarity is shown with those parts of civil society that are threatened, those bent on aggrandising their power base can do so piecemeal, secure in the knowledge that with a kind of domino theory at work, a landslide takeover is theirs.

This is the case in Zimbabwe where every single organ of civil society, except certain churches, is controlled by Zanu-PF. Hence the expression that everything is “political.” When a single authority has been permitted the wholesale takeover of society, it is obvious that any repercussion or criticism will be seen as constituting political action. Here one recalls an example cited in that column of April 27. A baker in Marondera was instructed by Mugabe’s agents to dismiss six of his workers because they were members of the opposition MDC or face closure  of his bakery. When the baker retorted that he ran a non-political bakery, he was told that employing MDC supporters made his bakery “political.” Totalitarians do not tolerate what they perceive as threats to their power base and therefore resort to violence to enforce their rule.

But it is not enough to content oneself that because opinions critical of the government are aired and publicised, all is well. The process by which the blanket of political correctness is spread is often insidious. The actions of the Judicial Services Commission this past month have given rise to considerable disquiet. Despite the shocking admission by judge John Hlophe that he had been paid by an outside investment company on a monthly basis and that he had used his judicial authority to permit that company to sue one of his junior colleagues, the JSC saw fit to let him off with a mild warning. This, of course, is outrageous. He is not fit to be a judge as eminent legal figures like retired Judge Johan Kriegler have declared. An editorial in the Mercury (October 8) stated: “The JSC has failed the administration of justice, failed the Constitution and failed the people of this country.”

It is not widely known that the president appoints 15 of the 23 members of the JSC – 16, if one includes the minister of justice. That places the objectivity and impartiality of the JSC at risk and leads to the sort of conclusions that the Black Lawyers Association has drawn: given the constitutional status of the JSC, its findings are beyond reproach, regardless of the facts of the Hlophe case.

If political correctness is allowed to seep into the judiciary in this fashion, it is just a matter of time before the same culture infests other structures.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated: “The punishment which the wise suffer who refuse to take part in government is to live under the government of worse men.” Criticism and the health of society are inseparable – the one is the gauge of the other. The more vigorous, penetrating and fearless the criticism a nation can stand, the healthier and stronger it will be. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

A huge responsibility, therefore, rests on you, the younger generation, to be aware of the need to preserve the free flow of information and opinions and to be wary of disinformation. Remember it was Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, a master of his craft, who said the bigger the lie the more chance of it being believed. In our time that means the louder and larger the messages purveyed by the mass media, the more careful we should be in heeding them.

Watch out for spin in every field – not just politics. It’s churning away in all big issues – climate change, the health industry, business, sport.

Watch out too for materialism. It buys off or neutralises dissenters and detractors. “Every man has his price,” noted Cecil Rhodes. Juxtaposed with that is Thomas Jefferson’s warning that “material abundance without character is the surest way to destruction.”

Chase down the truth, as Ezra Pound exhorted. Henry Ford is scorned for having reportedly stated “History is bunk.” But what he actually said was: “History as it is written is bunk.” There’s a world’s difference.

Gather your own source material. I have dated and referenced cuttings on Africa and South Africa going back 30 years. With the internet it’s even easier to access material and to store it.

Read widely. Shopping for books has never been easier using online facilities.

Believe in yourself. Question and interrogate the facts. Develop independent thinking. When I was a second year student at university studying history, we were required to produce written critiques of at least one page in length of the essay under review at a seminar. I made the effort and it has become a habit and a routine in managing information.

Make your own waves and surf them accordingly. Speak out. It is simultaneously your right and responsibility. The opinion not aired or shared influences nobody. The opportunities to do so have never been easier and more effective.

FINALLY, a classic piece of philosophy that demolishes political correctness: the words of Felix Schelling, professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania a century ago: “True education makes for inequality; the inequality of the individual; the inequality of success; the inequality of talent, of genius. For inequality, not mediocrity, not standardisation, is the measure of the progress of the world.”

--------------------------------------Duncan Du Bois, October 2007

 

[1] Between July 1992 and November 2007, I had a fortnightly column in The Witness.

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