How British pragmatism stole the votes of millions
With municipal elections almost upon us the publication of Martin Plaut’s ‘Promise and Despair’ is a timely reminder of the long Struggle to attain a non-racial democracy and how a window of opportunity was missed in the early 20th century. STEPHEN COAN r
WHEN was the first nonracial election in South Africa? Contrary to popular belief, not in 1994. From the mid-19th century the Cape Colony had a non-racial franchise, though admittedly for men only and restricted to property owners.
“For the best part of a century men of all races participated in the Cape’s elections,” says Martin Plaut in Promise and Despair – The First Struggle for a NonRacial South Africa.
Natal had a similar arrangement to the Cape but one so ring-fenced with restrictions the vote was well-nigh inaccessible to people of colour; in the two Boer republics, Transvaal and Orange Free State, only white men could vote.
South African-born Plaut’s previous book was the best-selling Who Rules South Africa? (2012), co-written with Paul Holden. A student activist in South Africa, when his studies took him to Britain, Plaut joined the Labour Party, becoming an adviser on Africa and the Middle East plus representing the party in the UK AntiApartheid Movement. Plaut joined the BBC in 1984 and subsequently became Africa editor of BBC World Service News. He retired in 2013 and is now a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London.
Promise and Despair tells the story of the non-racial delegation that went to London in 1909 to fight for the extension of the Cape franchise to the whole country as southern Africa stood on the brink of union.
The South African Native and Coloured People’s Delegation sailed from a country which had been torn apart less than a decade earlier by the Anglo-Boer War (18991902). Ending in stalemate rather than outright victory, the ensuing treaty saw the bloody-nosed British lion pushed for a union of the English colonies and the Boer republics.
The war’s end had kindled hopes among non-whites that the franchise would be extended by the British in gratitude for sacrifices made by black people, but the treaty between the Boers and Britain granting self-government to the two republics hinged on acceptance by the British of the phrase: “The franchise will not be given to the natives until after the introduction of self-government”.
“Britain genuinely tried to keep up to its promises to the indigenous peoples,” says Plaut. “But they had only just squeaked a victory in the war; they were certainly not up for another war and there were not many cards left at their disposal. Plus Germany was waiting in the wings.”
“The real problem was between the Cape prime minister John X Merriman and the Transvaal’s General Jan Smuts. Merriman said to Smuts, ‘Let’s go with the Cape franchise, that’s worked for us.’ But Smuts wasn’t having any of it, he was worried that the conditions of the franchise would lose the votes of some 10 000 bywoners.”
So, at Smuts’s insistence, the British abandoned the proposal that Africans ultimately gain the vote in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Treaty signed, the next item on the agenda was the creation of a new constitution for the Union of South Africa.
In 1908 a national convention drafted a constitution in which Africans and coloureds would retain most of their voting rights in the Cape but not in any other part of the Union. In 1909 an official all-white delegation went to London with the draft and strict instructions it be passed by the British parliament without amendment. Among the delegation’s members were Merriman, generals Louis Botha and Smuts from the Transvaal and mining magnate and author Sir Percy Fitzpatrick.
A once-divided black opposition now united in the face of white political intransigence and sent the non-racial delegation with the aim of persuading the imperial parliament to have the draft constitution re-written, extending the Cape’s non-racial franchise to the rest of the country and allowing black South Africans to stand for parliament.
“This group accepted the qualifications required for the Cape franchise,” says Plaut. “That was not contested, they agreed with it.”
The delegation was led by former Cape prime minister William Cronwright Schreiner, lawyer and brother of novelist Olive Schreiner, and included: Walter Rubusana, a Congregational church minister and president of the South African Native Convention; John Tengo Jabavu, editor of Xhosa language newspaper Imvo Zabantsundu and president of the Cape Native Convention; Thomas Mapikela representing Africans from the Orange River Colony; Natal’s John Dube, teacher and preacher; and Abdullah Abdurahman, president of the African Political Organisation founded in 1902 to defend coloured peoples’ social political and civil rights.
Mohandas Gandhi accompanied the delegation but was not an official member.
This non-racial delegation was not without support, both in South Africa and Britain.
“My own party, the Labour Party, was directly involved and very supportive,” says Plaut. “This is what attracted me to the story. That, and the existence of non- racial elections in 19th century South Africa. Plus you have all these extraordinary characters in the delegation, each of whom deserves a biography of their own.”
On July 5, 1909, the delegation’s petition was published in the Times and the Manchester Guardian.
The signatories said while they would normally “deprecate” interference in the domestic concerns of South Africa “the issues raised in the draft constitution were so serious they had no option but to appeal to the imperial parliament”.
They argued prophetically that, if passed, the constitution would result in a “disastrous separation of the population of South Africa into more or less hostile camps”.
Behind the scenes there was much lobbying by members of a then vote-less group: women. “One of the things that stands out for me in the book is the role of women,” says Plaut. “Women such as Betty Molteno, Emily Hobhouse, and Helen Clark and her fellow Quakers – they did a lot of lobbying on the delegation’s behalf.”
Formal negotiations in late July concluded with the British government in agreement with the official South African delegation. The parliamentary debates followed. The first, in the House of Lords, was described not as a debate by the Morning Post but “a chorus of congratulation and approval”.
The bill came before the House of Commons on August 16, 1909. There was evident unease at racial discrimination being written into the constitution but it was clear the bill would be passed. Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith said he regretted the racial clauses but had allowed them to stand “simply because we desire this great experiment of the establishment of self-government in South Africa to start on the lines and in accordance with the ideas which our fellow citizens there have deliberately and after long deliberation come to”.
The “fellow citizens” being South African whites. The bill was passed.
Why were the British so determined to reach a settlement? German military expansionism and a looming war, according to Plaut.
“They knew a war was coming and wanted all their ducks in a row.”
Meanwhile, post-Union in 1910, the rights of black people were gradually whittled away. The end of the Cape franchise came in 1936. “For the first time since 1853,” writes Plaut, “Africans could no longer vote.”
Author Martin Plaut
by Martin Plaut is published by Jacana.
Promise and Despair – The First Struggle for a Non-Racial South Africa