Dr Duncan Dubois

Historian,Political Commentator and Analyst

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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.”

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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