[Bunting was the top Jewish Communist in South Africa for a long time. He saw the parallels between South Africa and NAZI Germany and he wrote a whole book about it. This is the first chapter. But many more are coming. We will revisit this in detail. Jan]
The Birth of the Nationalist Party
Afrikaners generally trace the birth of their nation back to 1652, when the Dutch East India Company sent Jan van Riebeeck with a party of its servants to establish an outpost at the Cape.
The purpose of the expedition was to establish not a permanent settlement or colony, but merely a refreshment station, which could victual the ships passing on the long voyage to and from India, and it was not until five years after van Riebeeck landed that permission was first given to some of the company’s servants to set up as independent colonists.
Right from the outset the development of the colony was marked by two characteristics. The first was the hostility between the Dutch and the indigenous inhabitants, particularly the Khoi-Khoin, or Hottentots, to use the derisory term applied to them by the Whites. The second was the conflict between the colonists and the company, both competing for trade with the passing ships. By the very nature of their position the colonists felt themselves threatened on two sides – by authority in the shape of the company, which seized the lion’s share of the shipping trade and insisted on a monopoly of trade with the Khoi-Khoin, and by the Khoi-Khoin, who resisted the intrusion of the Whites into their traditional grazing grounds and fought back when attempts were made to filch their cattle wealth. Later the importation of slaves from the East and from other territories in Africa was to complete a pattern of race relations which has persisted right up to the present day.
Slowly the colony expanded. The power of the Khoi-Khoin was broken, and their economy subordinated to that of the Whites. The colonists, their numbers augmented by natural increase and by immigration, spread out over the Cape Flats and crossed the Hottentots’ Holland mountains into the interior. The conquest of southern Africa had commenced.
For 100 years after the landing of van Riebeeck, the colonists evolved their way of life in isolation. Often living on the level of bare subsistence, little different from that of the indigenous inhabitants, they developed powers of self-sufficiency and an independence of outlook which was contradicted only by their status as slave-owners. Their lives were on the whole a grim, unending struggle to survive in the face of a multitude of human and natural obstacles. The Bible was the fountain of their faith.
An occasional visit to Cape Town, an occasional quarrel with authority, were the only diversions in an otherwise bleak existence.
Then there erupted into their experience two factors which were to shatter the basis of their whole society. The first was their meeting with the Bantu-speaking peoples of the Eastern Cape in the neighbourhood of the Fish River, about the middle of the eighteenth century. The second was the annexation of the Cape by the British in 1795 as a by-product of the Napoleonic wars. Conflict with the African peoples and with the British has been the core of Afrikaner consciousness ever since.
The resentment and resistance which the Dutch colonist had always displayed towards the ‘interference’ of the company in the old days was reinforced when the British all at once became the masters. For the British did not merely bring a foreign presence, they also brought with them foreign ideas – about government, about relations with the Africans, about the treatment of servants and slaves, about the independence of the magistracy, about language rights. The famous Great Trek of the 1830S had many causes, but not the least of them was Dutch hatred of British rule and racial policies.
The Dutch desire to be rid of British rule was not merely the manifestation of a spirit of national independence. It was also prompted by the wish to continue to own slaves, to be able to discriminate between White and non-White, to re-establish the patriarchal relationship between master and servant which had existed from the time of van Riebeeck and which now looked like being destroyed for ever. The new republics which were set up in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal enabled the Dutch to refashion for themselves their old way of life. A similar attempt in Natal was crushed by the British, who wanted to retain control of the port of Durban and the hinterland.
The Boer republics were seldom free of British harassment and intervention. From the time of their establishment to the end of the nineteenth century there were constant clashes, culminating in the outright annexation of the Transvaal in 1877 and what Afrikaners today call the First War of Independence in 1880, which resulted in the restoration of the territory to Boer control.
But the respite was short-lived. The discovery of diamonds at Kimberley in 1867 and of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886 transformed the imperialist attitude towards the South African interior. From being something of a liability and a burden, South Africa now became a land of opportunity and profit.
Capital, adventurers, and entrepreneurs poured into the country from abroad and made their way to the diamond diggings and the goldfields. The railway line snaked north. Britain strengthened her military and political position on the flanks of the republics, and Rhodes began his machinations which culminated in the Jameson Raid of 1895.
War was now inevitable. Boer independence was incompatible with imperialist ambitions in Africa. The overt cause was the status and rights of the uitlanders – the foreigners – in the Transvaal to whom Kruger steadfastly refused to give the franchise.
But no matter what concessions Kruger might have offered, the British were by this time determined on a show-down. The open clash broke out in 1899, and the peoples of South Africa were swept into the maelstrom.
For the Boers the war was the climax to ‘a century of wrong’, a century of British expansion, oppression, and meddling which had finally goaded them beyond the limits of endurance. There rose up before them as they fought the memory of the past, of the colony which had been annexed, of the slaves which had been freed, of the Slachter’s Nek rebellion and its martyrs, of the battle of Majuba, of the thousand and one defeats and humiliations to which they had been subjected ever since the British presence established itself in South Africa. For a while they had been able to escape from British rule into the security of their own two republics, but now these too were threatened with destruction. Everything for which they had lived and struggled was endangered – their freedom, their language, their possessions, their racial supremacy, their very existence as an independent people with their God-given right to manage their affairs and their chattels as they pleased. The people of the two republics felt that the cup of their bitterness was too full to be borne. They threw themselves into the struggle feeling themselves ready to die rather than submit.
Imperialism had committed many atrocities in Africa before 1899, but the Boer War was widely considered throughout the civilized world to be amongst the worst – perhaps because the victims of aggression had white skins, not black; perhaps because, for once, the cause of the victims could be widely propagated abroad by their sympathizers and supporters; perhaps because of the blatant disparity in the relative strength of the two protagonists. It was never a fair fight. Against the might of the greatest imperial power in the world the Boers could pit no formal military apparatus whatsoever. They had no regular standing army. Their forces consisted of some thousands of volunteers hastily rounded up, poorly organized and equipped, and lacking discipline. After a few initial successes, the main Boer forces were crushingly defeated by British troops within a few months of the outbreak of war. Thereafter the Boer remnants carried on activity as guerrillas under the leadership of Smuts, Botha, and Hertzog for a further two years before they were compelled to acknowledge defeat at the Peace of Vereeniging.
The British won the war, but it was an expensive victory, as later history was to prove. In Britain itself it contributed towards the defeat of the Government and the advent of the Liberals to power. In South Africa the Boer War left an indelible scar. The Boer has since exacted his revenge, but he has still neither forgiven nor forgotten what was perpetrated against his people by the British during those years.
The occupation of the Free State and the Transvaal was completed only at the cost of the almost total destruction of the Boer communities which had formerly inhabited them. A scorched earth policy was adopted to flush out the elusive commandos; farms and homesteads were fired, crops and cattle impounded.
To house the thousands of dispossessed women and children, the British resorted to the now notorious device of concentration camps. At the end of the Boer War these camps housed 200,000 people, 120,000 Boers and (in separate encampments, naturally) 80,000 Africans. When the camps were first opened, conditions were primitive in the extreme, and the inmates were prey to the slightest infection. It is calculated that as many as 26,000 Boer women and children died in these camps – compared with a total of 6,000 Boers and 22,000 Britons killed on the battlefield. (A further 32,000 Boer soldiers were scattered in prisoner-of-war camps in the Cape and as far afield as the Bermudas, St Helena, and Ceylon.) It was the camps which constituted the greatest outrage of the war.
Ramsay Macdonald wrote at the time:
I simply state the facts that hundreds of women fled before our columns for months and months, preferring the hardship of the veldt to the mercy of the camps…. We have to face this fact, which no one who knows the country dare dispute – that the camps were a profound mistake; that families on the veldt or in the caves fared better and suffered a lower mortality rate than those in the camps; that the appalling mortality of the camps lies at our door (one of the saddest things I have ever seen in my life was a camp graveyard with its tiny crowded crosses: it looked like a nursery of crosses); that the camps have created a fierce bitterness among the women and the young generation; that when every other memory of the war will have faded away, the nightmare shadows of the camps will still remain.
The British insisted that the disaster of the camps was accidental, due to factors beyond their control; that in fact their intention was humane – to provide for those who had been rendered homeless and destitute by the war. But it is not surprising that their enemies believed the mass deaths in the camps to have been deliberate, tantamount to planned genocide; that the British imperialists were trying by means of the camps to destroy the Afrikaner people. The British were accused of having poisoned the water supplies and having inserted fish-hooks and powdered glass into the food. It had all been part of the great anti-Afrikaner conspiracy.
It is easy to feel sympathy for the Boers in their gallant struggle to maintain their cherished independence. But one should not lose sight of the facts, and chief amongst these was that the Boer republics constituted an anachronism to the twentieth century. Their mode of government was incapable of adaptation to the requirements of the machine age, their code of conduct incompatible with the liberal philosophy of modern capitalism. In the Transvaal constitution it was written that there could be no equality between Black and White in Church or State. One of the most persuasive factors in Boer resistance was the desire to retain this bar in the face of cosmopolitan pressures from the rootless uitlander, who dominated the world of mining and finance and in whose interest the British ultimately resorted to force of arms.
One can feel sympathy with the Boer victim General Hertzog, for instance, whose own wife was one of the inmates of the camps for the duration of the war. But can one feel the same sympathy for the Boer leader General Hertzog, who made it a matter of policy to have British African levies shot whenever they were captured, apparently in the belief that it was a cardinal sin for a black man to take up arms against a white? After the war the Afrikaner nation, bruised and bleeding, rallied its strength to meet the danger which still faced it – that its language and culture would be submerged by those of the conqueror. Milner assiduously pushed his policy of Anglicization, and many an Afrikaner can still remember today how he was punished or humiliated at that time for speaking in his native language, Dutch. The Treaty of Vereeniging read: ‘Both the English and the Dutch languages shall be taught in the public schools of the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony if the parents of the children demand it.’ But, writes Hertzog’s biographer C.S. van den Heever, the Afrikaners discovered ‘that "parents’ choice" was a dangerous principle, for ignorant parents were often influenced to take decisions which were not in the interests of their children’. Just as a large proportion of Afrikaners in the Cape had learnt during the nineteenth century to despise their own language and to absorb the culture of the Englishman, even to the point of having English spoken in their own church, so many Afrikaners after the Boer War decided to make their peace with the English, and allowed their children to be contaminated in their schools.
To the true Afrikaner nationalist, however, accommodation with Milnerism was impossible. The weaker ones among them might seek security in a spiritual surrender, but the majority were never reconciled. How could the camps and the devastation be forgotten? How could the memory of the lost republics be allowed to fade? How could the present policies of the British ever be accepted?’ The language of the conqueror in the mouth of the conquered is the language of slaves,’ President Steyn of the Free State had said. Both in the Transvaal and in the Cape the Afrikaners established their own schools so that their children could be brought up in the ways of their fathers.
This division in the ranks of the Afrikaners had first revealed itself at Vereeniging, where Smuts and Botha had been keen, but Hertzog reluctant, to sign the peace treaty. Afterwards Smuts and Botha had taken the lead in seeking an accommodation with the British, while Hertzog remained resentful and suspicious.
Nor was Hertzog an isolated individual. He stood for the majority of his people, as later events were to show.
C. M. van den Heever noted: ‘The Afrikaner’s feasts, his religious outlook, his family life clashed with this other civilization, and he retired into his shell at the ridicule that was poured upon him. He felt a stranger in his own land, and hatred and a sense of frustration welled within him.’ It was not just a question of culture. There was a fundamental difference over the treatment of the non-Whites. The British since 1854 had had a constitution overtly without colour bar in the Cape, and their attitudes were projected northwards immediately after the war. Hertzog ‘was never to forget the scene in the Bloemfontein post office, where he saw his own people struggling with a strange language among coloured persons and natives’ (my italics). Perhaps the greatest humiliation of their conquest for the Afrikaners was their enforced helplessness while attempts were made to break down the colour bar. True the attempts were not very vigorous. The British did nothing to extend political rights to the non-Whites after the war, and the extension of passes, the colour-bar franchise, job reservation on the mines, and anti-Indian legislation were features of their rule just as they were features of the Afrikaner’s. Nevertheless, the tendency towards a fusion of cultures in an integrated society was something that the Hertzogites could not stomach.
Smuts was a more adaptable animal. He told Lord de Villiers on one occasion:
We who love South Africa as a whole, who have our ideals for it, who set a united South Africa in the place of the lost independence, who see in breadth of horizon and in wider and more inclusive statesmanship the healing of many of our wounds and the only escape from our sorry trivialities and our troublesome past, we are prepared to sacrifice much for South Africa.
Smuts and Botha, with their supporters, having accepted the offer of the conqueror, turned their back on the republics and looked forward to the creation of a larger unity in South Africa, a comity in which both Boer and Briton would find an equal and honoured place. But for Hertzog the outlook was very different. ‘He knew that a great nation could co-operate with a smaller without any sense of danger, but that the smaller could preserve itself only by vigilance, care, and if necessary, by isolation’ (Van den Heever).
‘If necessary, by isolation.’ In this phrase lies the key to much of the subsequent history of the Afrikaner nationalist. Afraid of domination at first by the British, later by the African, the Afrikaner nationalist has tended always to seek safety in isolation. Seventy years earlier he could escape from his conflicts by embarking on the Great Trek. In the period following the Boer War, he could only retire into himself and wait for his opportunity. He sought comfort from his church. He founded organizations in which he felt the ‘soul’ of the Afrikaner nation could best find expression. In 1905 came the founding of the Afrikaanse Taalvereniging (Afrikaans Language Association) in Cape Town, the Afrikaanse Taalgenootskap in Pretoria, and similar organizations in Potchefstroom and Bloemfontein. The S.A. Akademie voor Taal, Letterre en Kuns (S.A. Academy for Language, Literature, and Culture) was founded in 1909 to maintain and further both forms of the language – Dutch and Afrikaans – and to draw up spelling rules for Afrikaans. In this way the Second Language Movement which developed at this time can be considered a direct consequence of the Boer War, a form of compensation for defeat.
The bitter-enders among the Afrikaners never accepted the finality of defeat and looked forward to the time when, through internal schism or external intervention, they would be able to re-establish the Boer republics. A German journalist who interviewed Hertzog for the Tagliche Rundschau wrote: ‘Hertzog believes that the fruit of the three-year struggle by the Boers is that their freedom, in the form of a general South African Republic, will fall into their laps as soon as England is involved in a war with a Continental power.’ This provides a clue to Afrikaner nationalist thinking and action during both the First and Second World Wars.
The grant of responsible government to the Free State and Transvaal did much to persuade a section of the Afrikaner people that some sort of future could be worked out through co-operation with the British. And so the ground was carefully prepared for union, which came about at last in 1910. But it was a union without unity. Neither the die-hard north nor the relatively liberal south could be persuaded to drop their respective points of view on the colour question. The compromise which was eventually effected – a suffrage restricted to Whites in the Orange Free State and Transvaal, with the entrenchment of a qualified non-racial franchise in the Cape and, at least on paper, in Natal – has proved a source of friction and disagreement to this very day. The constitution accorded equal rights to the Dutch and English languages.
After union the Afrikaners found their political home in Die Nasionale Suid-Afrikaanse Party (S.A.P.) led by General Louis Botha – an amalgamation of Het Volk in the Transvaal, Die Afrikanerbond (Suid-Afrikaanse Party) in the Cape, the Orangia-unie in the Orange Free State, and the Volksvereniging with a section of the English in Natal. This party was formally established in November 1911 after it had ruled for some time and had won the first election in 1910 with sixty-six seats, to thirty-seven for the Unionists (British jingo opposition), five for the Labour Party, and eleven Independents.
The first South African Cabinet drew its strength from both the Afrikaner and English sections of the population and consisted of Generals Botha and Smuts with H.C. Hull from the Transvaal, J.W. Sauer, H. Burton, F.S. Malan, and Sir de Villiers Graaff from the Cape, General Hertzog and Abraham Fischer from the Free State, and Sir F.R. Moor and Dr C.O. Grady Gubbins from Natal, under General Louis Botha as Prime Minister.
Five hundred and fifty delegates attended the inaugural conference of the S.A.P. at Bloemfontein – ‘Het National Kongres’ – and speeches were delivered by Generals Botha, Smuts, Hertzog, and de la Rey and President Steyn. In his chairman’s address General Botha declared that it was a privilege ‘to preside over so many moderate men’. The party would strive for the samesmelting (fusion) of the two sections, out of which one nation would be born.
The conference decided to scrap the word ‘Nasionale’ in the title of the party. One delegate said that the word ‘nationalist’ was ‘unpopular with many in the country’. These remarks must have chilled the hearts of the real nationalists who were present, but for the moment they swallowed their pride and went forward with their associates.
There remained a fundamental difference of approach between the two wings of the S.A.P. General Botha and General Smuts believed that all efforts should now be devoted to eliminating racialism between the English and the Dutch, that both White groups should be reconciled in ‘one stream’. Towards the British, therefore, Botha propounded a policy of conciliation, believing that both sides should be ready to compromise in the interests of a united nationhood.
Hertzog, on the other hand, believed in the so-called ‘twinstream’ policy, whereby the English and Dutch were to develop separately side by side, with the rights of neither subordinated to those of the other. In Hertzog’s view, Botha’s policy could lead only to the destruction of the Afrikaner people. The English culture was dominant. English was the language of the courts and the civil service, the highest posts in which were held by Englishmen or English-speaking South Africans. The English were strongly entrenched in the leadership of industry, commerce, and high finance. The Boer War had resulted in the expulsion of no fewer than 10,000 Afrikaners from their land, and these men, demoralized by defeat and completely without training or experience of urban life, were to swell the ranks of the growing army of poor Whites in desperate competition with the non-Whites on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. For the Afrikaner to practise ‘conciliation’, Hertzog believed, would mean his permanent subordination to the English, an end to his dreams of State and nationhood.
The Botha Cabinet plodded along uneasily, outwardly united, inwardly divided, until 1912, when on 12 December at De Wildt, Hertzog gave utterance to his secret feelings in a manner which Botha could not overlook.
‘Imperialism is only good for me in so far as it is useful to South Africa,’ he declared, during a bitter attack on Unionist leader Sir Thomas Smartt, whom he described as a ‘foreign fortune hunter’. ‘When it comes in conflict with the interests of South Africa, I am a determined opponent of it…. I am not one of those who speaks of conciliation and loyalty, for those are idle words that deceive nobody. I have always said I don’t know what this conciliation means … the people who speak most about loyalty know the least about it.’ The language question was a weighty issue, he said, but it was only part of the greatest problem, that of South African nationalism.
This speech, running counter as it did to government policy, provoked a storm and Botha asked Hertzog to resign. Hertzog refused, and so Botha resigned himself and formed a new cabinet without him. This brought about a breach in the ranks of Afrikanerdom which has persisted to this day. The basis had been laid for the emergence of Afrikaner nationalism as a fully fledged political force in the arena of greater South African politics.
While the Botha-Smuts faction was greatly disconcerted by Hertzog’s conduct, most Afrikaner nationalists were wild with enthusiasm. In support of Hertzog a mass meeting was held at Princess Park, Pretoria, on 28 December 1912, and 5,000 people attended. Hertzog was given a hero’s welcome, and General de Wet, speaking from the top of a dunghill, declared that he would rather stand there with his own people than on a decorated platform amongst strangers.
When Parliament reassembled, Hertzog had six supporters in the House, and though he was now out of the Cabinet, he still remained a member of the S.A.P., hoping that the next conference of the party would declare itself in his favour. When the conference opened at Cape Town in 1913, Botha made an effort to hold the party together and called for reconciliation, but Hertzog replied that the rift was a matter of principle, not a difference of personalities, and that a superficial peacemaking would serve no purpose. A motion of confidence in Botha was passed by 131 votes to go, and Hertzog, followed by his supporters, left the hall in dramatic fashion.
The logical next step was for Hertzog to gather his own supporters together and form his own party, and this he did at Bloemfontein from 7 to 9 January 1914, by a conference under Hertzog himself as chairman and De Wet as the vice-chairman.
Some 450 delegates from all over the Union attended and decided to establish the Nationalist Party. Its programme of principles stated that the development of the national life should be on Christian-National lines, a phrase which was to become as significant in South African politics as National-Socialism in that of Germany. The ‘native policy’ of the party was to be ‘the dominance of the European population in a spirit of Christian trusteeship, with the strictest avoidance of any attempt at race mixture’. These have remained the basic tenets of Afrikaner nationalism to this very day.
Despite occasional flights of opportunism, indeed, there has been a remarkable consistency about Nationalist Party policy throughout the fifty years of its existence. The Nationalists claim that this is because basically their policy has been forged from the experience of the volk ever since the days of van Riebeeck. The two pillars on which the party is based remain: apartheid between English and Afrikaans-speaking White South Africans, and apartheid between White and Black South Africans.
They are different sorts of apartheid, admittedly, but the underlying idea is the same. It is that the purity of the Afrikaner race will only be preserved by isolation from other White groups; and that the purity of the White race will be only preserved by isolation from the non-Whites.
At first the Afrikaner nationalist regarded the greatest threat to his existence as coming from the English-speaking section, associated as it was with the premier imperialist power of the day. The threat from the non-White could be contained more easily. The vast majority of non-Whites did not have the vote, were residentially segregated – with a large proportion sealed off in the Reserves – and had as yet no effective political or trade union organizations to speak for them. The Native National Congress had been in existence for two years before the Nationalist Party was formed, but had not yet developed into a movement of real significance.
Nevertheless, the potential threat of the Black man to White supremacy was clearly recognized by the Nationalist politicians. In Botha’s Cabinet, Hertzog had been Minister of Native Affairs for a short while and had drafted a Bill which contained the essentials of his segregation policy. The government took it over from him and it became the basis of the 1913 Land Act, which made it impossible for Africans to acquire land ownership rights in most parts of the country, the so-called ‘White areas’. It was in fact to counter the threat of this Act that the Native National Congress had been called into existence, a Black nationalism responding to the aggression of White nationalism.
In a speech reported in The Star on 14 October 1912, General Hertzog adumbrated a policy which bears remarkable similarities to the Bantustan policies of the Vorster government today.
The Star reported:
He was convinced that segregation with the separation of Black and White as was done in the Transkeian territories was the only solution. … The natives would not be allowed to have land in the White man’s territory. … They would place natives in those parts where there were already large masses of their compatriots. … His scheme meant nothing less than defining the respective spheres of Blacks and Whites. … Natives would be given the right to enter European territory in order to earn a living there.
And in a speech on the Land Bill in the Assembly on 16 May 1913, Hertzog filled out the picture:
The fact was that so far they had always seen to it and would always do so, that in practice, whatever his rights on paper, the native would not have these equal rights. … When they placed the native in a separate territory they gave him an opportunity of developing, and his position would become stronger and stronger, and he would be able even to have a continually growing measure of self-government within that territory. … Of course, if they had a certain amount of self-government, they would still stand under the control of this House.
It was a pipe dream then; it is a pipe dream now. But the Nationalists have clung to their tattered vision as if it were a revelation from on high, a divine guarantee that they will survive by expelling the Black man from their midst, while at the same time they develop an economy based on the careful exploitation of Black labour. The contradiction between their vision and reality has never been resolved.
The most striking feature of the Nationalist constitution at this period was the fact that it contained no reference to the desire of the Nationalists to convert South Africa into a republic.
This, says van den Heever, was ‘merely a matter of procedure’.
But the opportunity to further the republican aim, at least for the more militant Nationalists, came with the outbreak of the First World War on 4 August 1914.
Parliament was summoned on 9 September, and General Botha announced that since South Africa was an integral part of the British Empire she was automatically at war with the common enemy. The British Government had requested South Africa to undertake military operations against German South-West Africa, and Botha informed parliament that the Union government had agreed. General Hertzog immediately moved an amendment that all measures should be taken to defend South Africa if attacked, but that an attack on German territory would be ‘in conflict with the interests of the Union and the Empire’.
He assured the House that the people would not support such a war. Hertzog’s amendment, however, was defeated, and Botha’s motion accepted by the margin of ninety-one votes to twelve.
General de la Rey, who had till then been a supporter of Botha and was a nominated Senator, opposed Botha on this point. He abstained from voting, declaring that he had conscientious objections, and on the same night left Cape Town by train for the north, to be seen off by his friend Botha at the station.
Clearly something was in the wind. A section of Nationalist Afrikanerdom was convinced that the hour had struck to stake their claim for the reconstitution of the Boer republics.
General Christiaan Beyers resigned as Commander-in-Chief of the Union Defence Force. He wrote: ‘It is sad that the war is being waged against the "barbarism" of the Germans. We have forgiven but not forgotten all the barbarities committed in our own country during the South African War.’ On the same day Beyers was visited in Pretoria by de la Rey, and after a discussion of half an hour or so the two left by road for Potchefstroom, where General Kemp was in charge of a training camp. What the generals had in mind is uncertain, but there is good reason to believe that de la Rey intended to discuss plans for the simultaneous resignation of leading army officers as a protest against the government’s actions.
Disaster struck unexpectedly. On the road through Johannesburg de la Rey was shot while travelling in General Beyers’s motor-car. It was an accident, caused by a ricocheting bullet from the gun of a police constable who was taking part in an intensive search for the Foster gang, responsible for a series of murders and robberies on the Reef. But in the eyes of Nationalist Afrikanerdom, the death of de la Rey had been engineered by agents of the government, and the whole incident caused a popular mood of shock and outrage. At the funeral Generals Beyers, de Wet, and Kemp had difficulty in restraining the feelings of the crowd, whose emotions had been worked to a pitch by the ‘visions’ of one ‘Siener’ van Rensburg, a Boer War veteran, who proclaimed that he saw, amongst other things, the figure fifteen and a clot of blood. Generals Botha and Smuts attended the funeral to convey the sympathy of the government.
The declaration of war, followed so shortly by the killing of General de la Rey, provoked a widespread and hostile reaction amongst the Nationalists. Protest meetings were held against the conscription of soldiers, and there were widespread disturbances, culminating in rebellions in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. General Manie Maritz, who was head of a commando of the Union forces on the border of South-West Africa, refused to obey an order to move against the Germans and joined them instead with the intention of setting up a ‘free republic’.
In a proclamation issued on behalf of the ‘provisional government, General Maritz announced: ‘that the former South African Republic and Orange Free State as well as the Cape Province and Natal are proclaimed free from British control and independent, and every White inhabitant of the mentioned areas, of whatever nationality, are hereby called upon to take their weapons in their hands and realize the long-cherished ideal of a Free and Independent South Africa.General Beyers, de Wet, Kemp, Maritz, and Bezuidenhout were proclaimed heads of the new provisional government.
Typical of the rebel attitude was the following paragraph from the proclamation of Maritz: It is known that on various occasions the enemy has armed natives and Coloureds to fight against us and since this is calculated to arouse contempt among the Black nations for the White man, therefore the warning is issued with emphasis that all Coloureds and natives who are captured with weapons, as well as their officers, will pay with their lives.’ Once again, as with Hertzog in the Boer War, the greatest crime was for a Black man to take up arms against a White. The fight for the republic was an exclusively European one.
Botha and Smuts struck back energetically against the rebels. Martial law was proclaimed on 14 October, and the Union forces quickly crushed the scattered forces of their opponents. General Maritz was defeated on 24 October and took refuge with the Germans. General Beyers was drowned in the Vaal River on 8 December. General de Wet was taken prisoner in Bechuanaland, and General Kemp surrendered. The ‘provisional government’ was scattered to the winds, while the leading rebels were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment and heavily fined.
The rebellion added one more to the stock of Nationalist martyrs. This was Kommandant Japie Fourie, who was forced to surrender on 16 December, immediately court-martialled, and sentenced to be shot. Dr Daniel Francois Malan, leading figure in the Dutch Reformed Church, happened to be in Pretoria at the time. He drew up a petition for a reprieve, obtained thousands of signatures, and was one of a deputation which tried to interview General Smuts on his farm at Irene, near Pretoria. The members of the deputation were told that General Smuts was walking on his farm, and they waited in the homestead for his return. But he did not reappear, and eventually the deputation departed, leaving the petition in the hands of an aide, Lt Louis Esselen. There was some suspicion that Smuts had deliberately avoided meeting the deputation. In any event, Smuts received the petition on the following morning. The sentence of death was confirmed, and Fourie was shot.
The episode made a deep and lasting impression on Nationalist Afrikanerdom. Dr Malan himself regarded it as a turning-point in his career.
With the collapse of the rebellion and the gathering momentum of pro-war propaganda, the Nationalist Party experienced many difficulties. Nationalist meetings were broken up by patriotic mobs, and several Nationalist leaders were manhandled. The party considered it politic to play down its republican aspirations. A statement by the Federal Council of the Nationalist Party said:
While the right of every individual to discuss the desirability of the republican form of government is acknowledged the Council is of the opinion that, as a result of the war, public feeling is at present running too high for a calm discussion of the matter on its merits, and for the time being it is not desirable that any steps should be taken to make active republican propaganda which would cause ill-feeling and embitter social relations and would create a wrong impression in the minds of the population or a section thereof.
The top Nationalist leaders were also careful to dissociate themselves from the rebellion, though their attitude towards it was, to say the least, equivocal. President Steyn and General Hertzog had been asked to repudiate the rebellion of General Maritz, but had refused to do so. On 27 January 1915, there was a meeting of the Die Raad van Kerke (the Assembly of Churches) in Bloemfontein, followed by a meeting of predikante. An appeal was made to the government to cease all executions, and the Dutch Reformed Churches decided that no church punishment would be imposed on the rebels without the collection of complete evidence. On 4 August 1915 in a speech at Cradock, Dr Malan declared: ‘We love freedom, but revolution is neither in our blood nor in our history nor in our religion.’ He would have had some difficulty in proving the truth of any of those propositions.
At the same time, the rebellion served to consolidate all Nationalist Afrikaners round the newly-born Nationalist Party and brought it into the forefront of political activity. In July 1915, the first Nationalist daily paper, Die Burger, was established in Cape Town, and Dr Malan was persuaded to leave the ministry to become its first editor. Among those who had urged him to accept this post were General Christiaan de Wet and ninety-four other rebels in jail.
‘In the awakening of our feeling for national unity lies our salvation,’ stated the paper’s first editorial.
On 4 August 1915, 6,000 women marched from Church Square to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to plead for the release of de Wet and the other rebels. They carried with them a petition signed by 63,000 women.
At the inaugural conference in Middelburg in September 1915, Dr Malan became the first Chairman of the Cape Nationalist Party. The manifesto and programme of action which were adopted declared that jingoism could no longer be tolerated, as it was creating division amongst the people. The government, the conference proclaimed, was embracing the jingo and alienating the Afrikaner, causing workers’ strikes (1913 and 1914) and a rebellion, mismanaging the country’s finances and education, and suppressing free speech. The conference pledged the party to work for national unity, equality of language, the development of independent universities, the segregation of the Africans in their own territories, and the transfer of African education to the Department of Native Affairs.
The tremendous strides which had been made by the Nationalist Party were registered at the Union’s second general election on 21 October 1915. The Nationalists were returned as the third biggest party with twenty-seven seats (seven in the Cape, sixteen in the Orange Free State, and four in the Transvaal), to fifty-four seats for the S.A.P., thirty-nine for the Unionists, four for the Labour Party, and six Independents. For a party barely twenty months old, this was no small achievement.
The next opportunity which arose for pursuing the republican ideal was the peace conference at Versailles after the war. The Nationalists took at their face value the famous fourteen points of President Wilson and such pronouncements as that of Lloyd George, that ‘no peace is possible until stolen rights and freedoms are restored and the principle of nationalities and the independent existence of small states is recognized’. An independence congress was held at Bloemfontein on 16 January 1919, and Hertzog declared: ‘The aim of your coming together is the freedom of South Africa.’ It was decided to send a deputation to Versailles to request complete independence for South Africa, or at least the restoration of freedom to the Transvaal and the Free State, with the Cape and Natal granted the right to self-determination.
‘As a Free Stater I love the freedom of the Free State more than the subordination of the Union (to the Empire),’ declared Hertzog. He said that if each of the four provinces could gain their independence, there was nothing to prevent their coming together again in freedom.
The congress declared: ‘No true enduring peace and contentment is possible until not only the stolen rights are restored but also the whole Union is completely independent and separated from the British Empire, whereby alone full equality between the English and Dutch sections and a sound and friendly relationship between South Africa and the United Kingdom can be established and fostered.’ Generals de Wet and Hertzog, Dr Malan, F.W. Beyers, Senator A.D.W. Wolmarans, P.G. Grobler, A.T. Spies, and E.G. Jansen were chosen as delegates to put the Nationalist case to the British government and later to the peace conference.
The South African government refused passports to General de Wet and Grobler, however, and their places were taken by N.C. Havenga and H. Reitz.
The delegation set off in high spirits, but met with a miserable reception everywhere. The crew of an English ship on which they had booked to leave refused to transport these ‘traitors to the British Empire’, and so on 4 March they were compelled to travel to New York by Dutch boat, thereafter transhipping to London. Attempts to see Lloyd George in Britain were unsuccessful, and at the Versailles conference itself the delegation was regarded as having little more than nuisance value. Who were these dissidents from the backveld to challenge the great prestige and authority of General Smuts, who had made his mark on the world stage during the war? Finally, managing to see Lloyd George on their return from the Continent, the delegation was given a sympathetic hearing, but firmly told that the British government was powerless to take any action except on the advice of the legally elected South African government. The homeward journey of the delegation was again by Dutch boat, via Spain, Egypt, Ceylon, Singapore, and Java to Durban.
The delegates themselves were given a hot welcome on their return home. It had at first been proposed that their followers should entertain them to dinner at an hotel, but because of a menacing mob the celebration was advanced to lunch-time. The mob, however, was not to be put off, and eventually the delegates had to be smuggled from the hotel by an unwatched side door and packed off home while the crowd threw rotten eggs and sang ‘God Save The King’. The high hopes of the independence congress had been drowned in the ridicule or indifference of the whole world.
Despite these wartime setbacks, however, the Nationalist Party continued to gain ground with the electorate, and there is no doubt that already it could claim to be rallying the majority of Afrikaners to its banner. At the third general election on 10 March 1920, the Nationalist Party was returned with the largest number of seats – forty-four, as against forty-one for the S.A.P., twenty-five for the Unionists, twenty-one for Labour and six independents – while the Nationalist vote had grown to 100,491, as against 89,843 for the S.A.P. Smuts, who had taken over the leadership of the S.A.P. after Botha’s death, was in a dilemma, as he was unable to obtain a majority unless he contracted an alliance with one of the other parties. He at first proposed an all-party government, but Labour refused. Hertzog then proposed a Nationalist-S.A.P. coalition, but on the basis of ‘ South Africa first ‘ Smuts refused. Finally in November 1920 the S.A.P. and the Unionists fused, with the new Cabinet containing three Unionists – Smartt, Patrick Duncan, and J. W. Jagger. At the fourth general election on 8 February 1921, the S.A.P., now incorporating the Unionists, swept home with seventy-nine seats. But the Nationalists had not lost ground – they won forty-five seats, one more than in the previous election – while Labour had nine and there was one Independent.