The impetus towards closer union between the four British colonies of southern Africa accelerated throughout 1908, bolstered by a change of government in the Cape Colony. After four years in office, Jameson’s Progressive party was ousted in elections in February by the South Africa Party, a coalition backed by the Afrikaner Bond. The Cape’s new prime minister, John Merriman, an English-born anti-imperialist, had long been an outspoken critic of British policy in southern Africa and considered that in the post-war era colonial politicians should be left to manage their own affairs without interference from Britain. In a lengthy exchange of letters after the war, he found common cause with Jan Smuts in the Transvaal and Marthinus Steyn, the former president of the Orange Free State. Like Merriman, Smuts regarded union as a way of diminishing imperial influence. On the eve of Merriman’s election campaign, Smuts sent him his best wishes. If Merriman won in the Cape, Smuts wrote, then ‘a unique opportunity will present itself for righting the situation in South Africa, an opportunity such as may not recur in our lifetime’. Three governments in the region - the Transvaal, the Orange River Colony and the Cape - would then share a common outlook. ‘There is the chance to neutralize all the evil effects of the war, to weld South Africa into a compact South African nation, and to rid ourselves of the internal discords which always and inevitably invite Downing Street interference.’ What Smuts envisaged was a self-governing dominion within the British empire. Steyn, for his part, hoped that closer union would bring together the Afrikaner people in one state, giving them effective control and hastening the prospect of full independence.
In Natal, the white population was generally averse to the idea of a union with other colonies likely to fall under Afrikaner control; they would have preferred to retain a separate British identity. But the Zulu rebellion of 1906 had aroused fears about their ability to maintain their own security, making them more amenable to the idea of closer union for the first time.
British officials encouraged the idea of closer union, hoping that it would help secure British influence through increased British immigration, and compiled a memorandum outlining the benefits that would accrue to the four South African colonies and to Southern Rhodesia. The British high commissioner, Lord Selborne, disclaimed any intention of interfering in their internal affairs, but added: ‘What South Africa requires more than anything else is stability - stability in political conditions, stability in economic conditions, stability in industrial conditions . . . But true stability will remain impossible so long as there are five separate governments in South Africa, each developing a different system in all branches of public life and each a potential antagonist of the other, but no one national government with authority to harmonise the whole.’
In May 1908, when representatives of the four colonies met in Pretoria to try to resolve disputes over customs tariffs and railway routes, Smuts pointed to the need for a political solution to their economic differences and proposed a ‘national convention’ to find a way forward to union. His proposal won unanimous approval.
The convention assembled first in Durban in October 1908, then moved to Cape Town in November. There were thirty delegates, nominated from the ranks of each colonial parliament: twelve from the Cape Colony; eight from the Transvaal; five from the Orange River Colony and five from Natal. Fourteen were Afrikaners; sixteen were of British origin. They included four prime ministers - Merriman from the Cape; Botha from the Transvaal; Fischer from the Orange River Colony; and Frederick Moor from Natal - and many other prominent figures: from the Orange River Colony, Marthinus Steyn, General de Wet and General Hertzog; from the Transvaal, General de la Rey, Jan Smuts and Sir Percy FitzPatrick; and from the Cape, Starr Jameson. The chairman was the Cape’s chief justice, Sir Henry de Villiers. Three delegates from Southern Rhodesia were also invited to attend. But there were no representatives of the black population.
The principal architect was Smuts. He arrived at the convention with a constitutional scheme that he had already cleared with leading delegates from the Cape, the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony. The most contentious issue concerned political rights. Cape delegates were determined to retain their non-racial franchise; the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony delegates were adamant in refusing to allow any form of black representation. The issue had been discussed at length previously in correspondence between Smuts and Merriman. Merriman argued for a limited, uniform franchise, similar to the Cape’s system, for reasons of expediency:
I do not like the natives at all and I wish we had no black man in S.Africa. But there they are, our lot is cast with them by an over ruling providence and the only question is how to shape our course so as to maintain the supremacy of our race and at the same time do our duty.
He contended that the Cape system, fortified by a more stringent educational test, would not mean that blacks would exercise any great weight in elections but that it would provide a necessary ‘safety-valve’. To allow no African vote at all would be ‘building on a volcano’.
I sympathize profoundly with the native races of South Africa whose land it was long before we came here to force a policy of dispossession on them. And it ought to be the policy of all parties to do justice to the natives and to take all wise and prudent measures for their civilization and improvement. But I don’t believe in politics for them. Perhaps at bottom I do not believe in politics at all as a means for the attainment of the highest ends; but certainly so far as the natives are concerned politics will to my mind only have an unsettling influence. I would therefore not give them the franchise . . .
When I consider the political future of the natives in S.A. I must say that I look into shadows and darkness; and then I feel inclined to shift the intolerable burden of solving that sphinx problem to the ampler shoulders and stronger brains of the future.
After heated debate at the convention, a compromise was reached: delegates agreed that each colony should retain its own franchise laws. They also agreed to a safeguard for the political rights of the Cape’s Africans and Coloureds, stipulating that any bill altering the Cape’s franchise law would require the support of two-thirds of the members of both houses of parliament in a joint sitting. But simultaneously, they proposed that Africans and Coloureds in the Cape should be deprived of the right to sit in the union’s parliament; at the insistence of northern delegates, ‘only persons of European descent’ were to be eligible as members.
By February 1909, the delegates had reached sufficient consensus to sign a draft constitution. They agreed to a unitary rather than federal political system, with a bicameral parliament consisting of a Senate and House of Assembly, a cabinet system of government, and a governor-general as formal head of the executive. The four colonies were to become the provinces of the Union of South Africa, each with its own provincial assembly. Dutch and English languages would be accorded equal recognition. The draft constitution also included provisions to facilitate the eventual incorporation of Southern Rhodesia and the three British territories of Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland. Politicians on all sides declared that union would not be complete without them; most wanted their immediate transfer to the union.
After its publication on 9 February, the draft constitution gained general approval from the white population. In Natal and the Cape, there were pockets of dissent, but most whites, whatever their misgivings about the details of the draft constitution, considered that union was too valuable a prize to lose. In June, after various amendments had been agreed, the parliaments of the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony gave the draft constitution unanimous consent; in the Cape parliament, only two members dissented; in Natal, voters in a referendum approved it by a three-quarters majority. In July, a delegation from the four governments left for London to obtain the blessing of Britain’s parliament.
The reaction to the draft constitution among African and Coloured groups, meanwhile, was overwhelmingly hostile. Cape Africans and Coloureds were appalled that a colour bar curbing their right to sit in parliament was to be introduced for the first time. They also resented the way in which Africans and Coloureds in the three northern colonies were to remain excluded from political representation. Protest meetings were held throughout South Africa. A convention of African groups from all four territories assembled in Bloemfontein in March 1909 and agreed that union was ‘essential, necessary and inevitable’, but pleaded that the Cape’s tradition of a non-racial franchise should be upheld. They looked to the British government to protect their interests.
Their cause was taken up by William Schreiner, the Cape’s former prime minister, newly elected to the Cape parliament in 1908 as an independent member. In a letter to Cape Town newspapers, he described the draft constitution as ‘narrow, illiberal and short-sighted’. During parliamentary debates, he fought the colour-bar provisions point by point, describing them as ‘a blot’ on the constitution, introducing amendments at every opportunity, speaking no less than sixty-four times. ‘We are in the position of trustees, and the rights of the coloured people should not be bartered away for any benefit which the Europeans may get.’ It would be better to stand outside the union than to forsake that trust, he said. Serious consequences would follow ‘this wrongdoing’ - ‘Union without honour is the greatest danger any nation can incur.’
Schreiner was praised by African newspapers as ‘our South African Abe Lincoln’, but his efforts were to no avail. Only one other member of the Cape parliament voted with him against the draft constitution; ninety-six voted in favour.
Schreiner’s last hope rested with the British government. Together with a handful of other white liberals in Cape Town, he drew up an ‘Appeal to the Parliament and Government of Great Britain and Ireland’, protesting about the proposed Cape colour bar. He argued that since it was Britain that had granted the ‘fundamental rights and liberties’ of the Cape Colony in the first place, it was Britain’s duty now to protect them. He then resolved to travel to London to put the case himself, joining forces with deputations from African and Coloured groups. Gandhi too, newly released from his third spell of prison, set sail for London to make clear Asian opposition to the colour bar. ‘The Union should not merely be a union of the White British subjects, but of all British subjects who are domiciled here,’ he said.
On arrival in London, the official delegates from South Africa were accorded a warm welcome, provided with cars and office accommodation and praised by the press. General Botha who had won admiration during a visit to London in 1907 as the doughty foe transformed into a trusted ally, was singled out for special attention. ‘He is quite the favoured Premier,’ Merriman’s wife, Agnes, wrote home. ‘All these people are as keen about the Dutch now just as much as they hated them during the War - and it is a mercy Botha takes it all for what it is worth . . . The more I see of Botha the more I like him - he goes his course utterly unmoved - and people are really quite silly about him.’ Botha was introduced to Edward VII at a dinner on 22 July, and two days later a state banquet was held at Buckingham Palace for all nineteen delegates and their wives. Abraham Fischer’s wife, Ada, found herself sitting next to Lord Milner but managed to make clear her disdain for him. ‘I almost pitied the man,’ Abraham Fischer wrote to his son, ‘he seemed so out of it.’
The Liberal government considered that few changes were needed to the draft constitution. The colonial secretary, Lord Crewe, took the view that Britain was still bound by the decision about the franchise taken at the time of the Vereeniging peace conference in 1902, postponing the issue ‘until after the introduction of self-government’ - in effect, leaving the matter in the hands of white politicians.
The official delegates themselves were adamant that they expected no British meddling. ‘It is my firm conviction,’ wrote Sir Henry de Villiers, the head of the delegation, in advance of their arrival in London, ‘that no worse blow could have been struck at the cause of sound relations between the races [Boers and British] than this notion of attempting to induce the British Parliament to over-ride the almost unanimous wish of South Africa on a question of native policy.’
Nevertheless, the official delegates were worried about the impact that Schreiner and his Coloured and African colleagues might make on public opinion in Britain and sought to discredit them at every opportunity. Sir Starr Jameson, the first to arrive in London, informed The Times that the ‘agitation’ of the ‘extreme negrophilists’ was ‘doing a great deal of harm to the native people’. Merriman added his voice: ‘The present agitation can have nothing but the worst possible effect. It will put the clock back and upset the very friendly liberal policy manifested by those states which do not adopt the Cape policy. I think Mr Schreiner’s present mission is one of the most unkind things ever done to the natives.’ Botha insisted that the question of political rights for non-whites would ‘have to be solved in South Africa by the South Africans’, who had always ‘shown a spirit of justice and fair play towards the native races’ in the past and could be trusted to do so in the future.
When the official delegates met Lord Crewe at the Foreign Office on 20 July, he reassured them that he had no intention of amending provisions concerning the franchise and representation. ‘These matters must be settled in South Africa itself,’ he said. He insisted, however, that the British government would retain responsibility for administering Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland; there would be no immediate transfer, he said, ‘until we see how the new machine works’. Crewe was worried that once control of the territories had been passed to the union, then Britain’s ‘power of protest’ would vanish. If something went wrong, then ‘a terrible responsibility will rest upon us in view of our obligations’. Other than that, Crewe and the official delegates reached rapid agreement on the draft constitution.
When Schreiner’s delegation met Crewe on 22 July, the morning after he had finalised matters with the official delegates, he received them courteously and responded sympathetically to their representations, but was otherwise non-committal. Schreiner also found difficulty in arousing public interest in his mission. The British press was almost unanimous in opposing the suggestion that the British parliament should tamper with the draft Act; only the Manchester Guardian came out in support.
The South Africa Bill was debated in the House of Lords on 27 July, with all the delegates from South Africa present. Exercising their right as Privy Councillors, Botha, Merriman, Moor and De Villiers sat in the chamber of the House, while other government delegates looked on from the Official Gallery. Above, seated in the Strangers’ Gallery were Schreiner, Gandhi and the African and Coloured delegates. Only seven peers participated in the debate; six of them were in favour of accepting the Bill without amendment. The Archbishop of Canterbury said it was justifiable to impose on the native population restrictions and limitations ‘which correspond to those which we impose on children’, and expressed the hope that ‘the larger, sounder, and more Christian principles will in the long run prevail in South Africa as years advance’.
In the debate in the House of Commons in August, a disparate collection of Liberal backbenchers, Irish nationalists and Labour members fought the colour bar, proposing amendments to the Bill. The Labour leader, Keir Hardie, quoted statements by Botha, Smuts and other white politicians to show that they might be intending to destroy the Cape franchise. As a result of economic competition, he said, white opinion was becoming less liberal rather than more liberal. No member of the House, he went on, could justify the colour bar. It was nonsense to maintain that amendments to the colour bar would wreck the union. In its present form it was a Bill to unify the whites and to disenfranchise the non-whites. ‘For the first time we are asked to write over the portals of the British Empire: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”’ But none of the amendments received more than a fraction of votes in support.
In summing up, the Liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith, acknowledged the ‘absolute unanimity of opinion in the way of regret’ about clauses dealing with the rights of blacks and Coloureds. But he said he believed that the whites would deal with these issues more wisely if they were united than if they were to remain divided between separate colonies. ‘Any control or interference from outside . . . is in the very worst interests of the natives themselves . . . I anticipate that, as one of the incidental advantages which the Union of South Africa is going to bring about, it will prove to be a harbinger of a native policy . . . more enlightened than that which has been pursued by some communities in the past.’