While whites were engaged in their own political manoeuvres, the black population was relegated to the sidelines. Black hopes that British rule would lead to improved political rights and status were swiftly shattered. When British troops arrived on the Witwatersrand in 1900, crowds of black workers jubilantly burned their passes, assuming they would not be needed under an enlightened British administration; but pass laws were enforced with even greater vigour. African leaders, such as the Pedi chief, Sekhukhune II, and the Kgatla chief, Lentshwe, who had rendered valuable assistance to British forces during the war, helping to oust Boer commandos from their neighbourhoods, gained little in return. Transvaal Africans who had moved on to deserted Boer farms, hoping that land colonised in the nineteenth century would be restored to them, were swiftly evicted by British troops and police. Writing in the magazine South African Outlook, an African contributor expressed the sense of disillusionment felt in rural areas:
One strong incentive reason that impelled the Natives of the New Colonies to put themselves at the disposal of His Majesty’s troops in the late war was that the British Government, led by their known and proverbial sense of justice and equity, would, in the act of general settlement, have the position of the black races upon the land fully considered, and at the conclusion of the war the whole land would revert to the British Nation, when it would be a timely moment, they thought, for the English to show an act of sympathy towards those who have been despoiled of their land and liberties. Alas! This was not the case. The black races in these colonies feel today that their last state is worse than their first.
Among the black elite there was profound shock that, under the terms of the Treaty of Vereeniging, Britain had agreed to postpone consideration of black political rights until after the introduction of self-government - effectively handing over the decision to white voters. The Transvaal Native Congress complained to the House of Commons in London that, while Afrikaners who had been ‘enemies of the King and British principles’ had been favourably treated, the interests of Africans who had shown their loyalty by ‘hearts and deeds’ had been ignored. A petition sent to King Edward VII by the Orange River Colony Native Congress made a similar protest. ‘It seemed to [your petitioners] deplorable that before bloodshed ceased the avowed cause of Justice, Freedom and Equal Rights, for which the war had been undertaken should have been so easily abandoned. Your petitioners believed that without some measures of representation in the legislature of this Colony their interests will ever remain in jeopardy.’ For years to come, African spokesmen in all four colonies denounced the Treaty of Vereeniging as one of the greatest injustices that had been perpetrated against them.
Lord Milner gave short shrift to African protests. ‘A political equality of white and black is impossible,’ he said. ‘The white man must rule because he is elevated by many, many steps above the black man; steps which it will take the latter centuries to climb, and which it is quite possible that the vast bulk of the black population may never be able to climb at all.’ Milner’s main concern was to achieve a uniform ‘Native policy’ that would facilitate the integration of the four colonies in a federation. He believed that the different traditions and laws affecting the African population that each colony maintained represented a serious stumbling block.
The Cape Colony’s tradition of adhering to a non-racial franchise had endured for fifty years since the establishment of a parliament. Although the Rhodes administration had raised franchise qualifications with the intention of making access to the voters’ roll more difficult for non-whites, any man could vote, regardless of race, provided he was at least barely literate and that he either earned £50 a year or occupied a house and land worth £75 outside communal land in the African reserves. Africans and Coloureds formed a significant part of the electorate: some 10 per cent of registered voters were Coloured; about 5 per cent were African. In 1903, according to an official report, the 8,117 African voters on the register affected the results in seven of the forty-six Cape constituencies, enough to decide the outcome of the election. Moreover, though no Coloured or African man had ever sat in the Cape parliament, they were eligible to stand for election. Coloureds and Africans were also entitled to own land as individuals and to take up any profession or occupation.
The three northern territories had followed a harsher tradition. Although Natal had been granted representative government by Britain in 1856 on the same basis as the Cape Colony, the Natal parliament had imposed so many hurdles on Africans seeking the vote that an official inquiry concluded in 1903 that only two Africans had ever registered as voters and both of them were believed to be dead.
In the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, only whites had political rights. The only relationship tolerated between white and black was that of master and servant. Resolutions were passed from time to time to emphasise the point. As recently as 1899, the Transvaal Volksraad had prohibited Africans from walking on the sidewalks of streets. Africans were excluded from trade and from all skilled work; nor could they own land individually. Only a tiny fraction of land in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State had been set aside for use as African reserves. The vast bulk of the African population ‘squatted’ on white-owned land working as sharecroppers or labour tenants in exchange for a place to live, raise crops and pasture their cattle.
To help him fashion a uniform native policy, Milner appointed a South African Native Affairs Commission in 1903 to draw up a blue-print. Its chairman, Sir Godfrey Lagden, a colonial official, and almost all its other members, were English-speaking. Most were regarded as representing ‘progressive’ opinion on native matters; several were described as ‘pro-Native men’. They travelled extensively throughout southern Africa gathering evidence. The report they issued in 1905 was to have a profound effect on South African thinking on race relations.
The main recommendation of the report was that whites and blacks should be kept separate in politics and in land occupation and ownership on a permanent basis. In order to avoid the ‘intolerable situation’ in future whereby white voters might be outnumbered by black voters, a system of separate representation should be established for the black population, though political power, of course, would always remain in white hands. Land should also be demarcated into white and black areas with, as the report said, ‘a view to finality’. In urban areas, separate ‘locations’ should be created for African towns-men.
These ideas on the need for segregation between white and black were widely shared at the time, by friends of the black population as well as by adversaries. The Reverend Charles Bourguin, a well-known missionary, produced a paper in Pretoria in 1902 giving support to the policy of keeping races apart. Alluding to increasing tension between white and black, he said: ‘If we will avoid disaster I think, as many others, that the best thing for Black and White would be for the Natives to live as much as possible their own life, manage their own affairs, and have their independent institutions under the guidance of sympathetic White administrators.’
The significance of the Lagden Commission was that it elevated practices of segregation commonly employed throughout southern Africa during the nineteenth century to the level of a political doctrine. Segregation was used by every leading white politician as a respectable slogan and found its way in one law after another on to the statute book.
Facing the juggernaut of white power, the small black elite made strenuous efforts to mobilise political action to protect their interests. They had emerged from mission schools strongly attached to the ideals of Christianity, wore Victorian attire, adhered to British cultural values and put much faith in what they referred to as a ‘white sense of fair play’. Cricket was a favourite leisure pursuit. Detached from traditional society, they were employed as teachers, church ministers, clerks, interpreters and journalists, and aspired to show how easily Africans could adapt to ‘white civilisation’. They shared a vision of a non-racial ‘civilised’ society in which merit counted for more than colour.
In one polite petition after another, elite organisations aired their grievances - over land, pass laws and other discriminatory measures affecting Africans of ‘training, character and ability’ - and demanded political representation. But they were constantly rebuffed. Responding to a Transvaal petition signed by no less than forty-six chiefs and 25,700 other Africans, Lagden dismissed it, saying it had been ‘rapidly engineered by a few half-educated natives who are connected with native newspapers . . . [and] cannot be taken to have been understood by or to represent the natives in general’. More strident calls were sometimes heard. In 1906, an African-owned newspaper in Natal, Ilanga Lase Natal, urged Africans to take political action. ‘Vukani Bantu! ’, it demanded, a phrase in Zulu and Xhosa meaning ‘Rise up you people!’ Its editor, John Dube, was summoned before the Governor, given a severe reprimand and obliged to publish an apology.
It was in Natal that local grievances erupted into open revolt. Land shortages and a series of natural disasters - drought, locusts and an outbreak of rinderpest that decimated cattle herds - had resulted in widespread poverty. The white quest for ever more land fuelled discontent. After Zululand was incorporated into Natal in 1897, Natal’s white rulers allocated large areas of it for white settlement. A Zululand Land Delimitation Commission in 1904 set aside 3.8 million acres for Zulus, much of it ‘stony, arid and malarial’, and 2.6 million acres for whites, deemed suitable for commercial agriculture. Government instructions prohibited Africans living in ‘white’ areas from either buying or renting land there, requiring them, in effect, to become labour tenants or move. In Natal itself, half of the black population lived in reserves that were mostly overcrowded and overworked; the other half occupied land leased from white owners, paying relatively high rents, many falling into debt. Increased taxes added to their burden. In September 1905, the Natal government, in financial straits, promulgated a new poll tax due to be paid in January 1906
Though Natal was habitually swept by rumours of African unrest, the authorities regarded their system of ‘native administration’ as by far the best in southern Africa. ‘We rather congratulate ourselves,’ a government minister, Frederick Moor, told the South African Native Affairs Commission, ‘that our Natives are the best-mannered, and the best behaved, and the most law-abiding people that we have got in South Africa.’ When trouble started, the authorities were taken by surprise.
The revolt grew out of a small incident. On 7 February 1906, a group of twenty-seven Africans living on a farm near Byrnetown in the Natal Midlands refused to pay the poll tax. When a police detachment was sent to arrest them, a scuffle broke out; two white policemen were stabbed to death. The reaction of the authorities bordered on panic. On 9 February, they declared martial law over the entire colony and sent a column of the Natal Militia to the Midlands under the command of Colonel Duncan McKenzie. A Natal-born farmer and transport rider, who had served in Rhodesia during the Ndebele and Shona uprisings, McKenzie was a firm believer in ruling native populations through fear. The use of martial law, he said, provided ‘a golden opportunity’ to inflict ‘the most drastic punishment on all leading natives found guilty of treason’ and to instil in them ‘a proper respect for the white man’. The Times of Natal subsequently described him as ‘a fanatic . . . whose sole idea is of “keeping top dog” and whose simple cure for most native trouble is systematic and wholesale “walloping the nigger”’.
The first two culprits caught by McKenzie’s men were given a summary trial by a drumhead court martial and executed by firing squad. Twelve others captured in March were tried by a regular court martial and shot before assembled chiefs and tribesmen. Long prison sentences were handed out to other participants. As well as dealing with the Byrnetown dissidents, McKenzie spent six weeks marching through Midlands chiefdoms tracking down tribesmen reported to be ‘defiant’, burning villages and crops, confiscating cattle and deposing chiefs, convinced that he was ‘nipping in the bud’ a widespread conspiracy against white rule.
But just when it seemed that repression had succeeded in snuffing out tax protests, a more serious episode occurred in the mountains and forests of Nkandla, on the southern border of Zululand. A minor chief from the Weenen district of Natal called Bambatha fled there after falling foul of the authorities. Appointed a chief in 1890, Bambatha had become embroiled with white landlords in a series of disputes over rent defaults. Heavily in debt, he evaded demands for payment of the new poll tax and left for Zululand. In his absence, the authorities installed a new chief. Returning home in April 1906, Bambatha kidnapped the new chief, opened fire on a police detachment sent to investigate and then headed for the Nkandla hills intent on fomenting rebellion, taking with him several hundred followers. Claiming to be acting in the name of Dinuzulu, the son and heir of Cetshwayo, he was joined by a number of prominent chiefs, collected an army of a thousand men and adopted the war-cry and war-badge of the old Zulu kings. For nearly a month, he conducted guerrilla warfare against white troops commanded by Colonel McKenzie until, in June, he was trapped in the Mome Gorge and killed. Once more, it seemed that resistance had been successfully suppressed. On 18 June, Natal’s governor, Sir Henry McCallum informed the Colonial Office that there was ‘no chance whatever of the rebellion spreading into Natal’.
On that same day, a troop convoy was attacked in Mapumulo, a heavily populated district of Natal bordering on Zululand. The attack marked the start of an uprising by thousands of armed tribesmen, led by their chiefs aggrieved by the poll tax and the arbitrary punishments inflicted on defaulters. The rising was put down with indiscriminate brutality. In all, more than 3,000 were killed; 7,000 were imprisoned; some 700 had their backs ‘lashed to ribbons’; villages were razed to the ground and crops destroyed. White casualties, by contrast, were minimal: six white civilians died and eighteen white soldiers were killed in action. Winston Churchill, a junior minister at the Colonial Office, described Natal as ‘the hooligan of the British Empire’. White politicians in southern Africa were equally critical. General Smuts described Natal’s 1906 campaign as ‘simply a record of loot and rapine’. Britain’s high commissioner, Lord Selborne, remarked in private: ‘Natal is bankrupt in policy and finance.’
Though the revolt - or the Bambatha rebellion, as it came to be known - was crushed, tension and unrest in Natal and Zululand continued unabated. Rumours persisted that another revolt was being planned. Dinuzulu’s name was frequently mentioned. After eight years of banishment abroad, he had been allowed to return to Zululand in 1897. Officially, he was treated as no more than one of eighty-three petty chiefs of Zululand, with authority confined to his own Usuthu clan. But Zulus regarded him as representing the Zulu royal house, the embodiment of their national pride, and looked to him for leadership. The authorities knew that he had been in contact with rebel leaders, including Bambatha, but were uncertain of what role he had played. His name, his war-cry ‘Usuthu’ and his war emblem had been used during the uprising, but Dinuzulu himself affirmed his loyalty to the government and offered to raise a levy to aid government forces to prove it. His offer was turned down.
In 1907, after the murder of several loyalist chiefs and the discovery that Dinuzulu had given shelter to Bambatha’s wife and two children for seventeen months at his headquarters at Nongoma, government officials became convinced that not only was he the mastermind behind the 1906 rebellion, but also that he was planning another uprising. Although the Colonial Office in London considered the evidence against Dinuzulu to be flimsy, the Natal government declared martial law over Zululand once more and mobilised the militia. Dinuzulu was arrested and charged with high treason, incitement to murder, incitement to sedition and rebellion, being an accessory to murder, sheltering rebels, and other lesser charges.
The trial of Dinuzulu on twenty-three charges of high treason opened in Greytown in November 1908. In a letter to his defence lawyer, William Schreiner, the former prime minister of the Cape Colony, Dinuzulu wrote: ‘My sole crime is that I am the son of Cetshwayo. I am being killed through ill-will, there is nothing that I have done.’ The presiding judge, Sir William Smith of the Transvaal bench, delivered his verdict in 1909. On the charge that Dinuzulu had fomented the rebellion, Smith remarked: ‘I think the probabilities of the case are so overwhelmingly against the theory that the prisoner incited Bambatha to commence the rebellion that it seems to me to be incredible . . . If, under the circumstances I find to have existed in this case, the prisoner did incite him to rebel, I should be inclined to say that he deserves to be acquitted on the ground of insanity. As it is, I think he is entitled to be acquitted upon the facts.’ On the charge that during 1907 Dinuzulu had conspired to raise a further rebellion, Smith said bluntly: ‘I do not find any evidence which would warrant the conclusion that any further insurrection or rebellion was contemplated. ’ Twenty of the twenty-three charges against Dinuzulu were dismissed. However, on the charge of having harboured rebels during and after the rebellion, Dinuzulu was found guilty and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment.
The Bambatha rebellion was the last tribal revolt against white rule in South Africa. In searching for the underlying causes of the rebellion, Natal’s white community placed much of the blame on mission-educated Africans stirring up trouble for their own purposes rather than on the harsh impact of white taxes, fines and land-grabbing. Most whites tended to distrust Christian Africans - kholwa, as they were known - far more so than ‘traditional’ Africans whom they believed to be more respectful of white rule. A Natal police commissioner attributed African discontent and the 1906 rebellion to education and missionary influence which, he claimed, ‘tends to inculcate an equality between black and white, which is a dangerous doctrine in Natal, and must result in discontent in the subject race’. Natal’s governor, Sir Henry McCallum, concurred: ‘It seems certain that many of the semi-civilised natives who are the outcome of missionary effort . . . have been, unfortunately, agents for spreading ideas of resistance against constitutional authority.’ He blamed, in particular, members of independent African churches - ‘Ethiopians’, as they were called - who had broken away from the mainstream.
A relatively small number of Christian Africans, in fact, participated in the rebellion. But the notion nevertheless became deeply embedded among the white community. John Buchan used the idea in his novel Prester John, published in 1910, which was based on events in Natal. He tells the story of a fanatical black church minister fomenting rebellion in order to revive the empire of Prester John, the legendary Christian ruler of Ethiopia. The plot is thwarted by a heroic young Scots storekeeper.