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

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

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

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