The Afrikaner ideal of a republic

South Africa only became a Republic on the 31st May 1961, but the formation of a Republic had been the dream of many Afrikaners since the nineteenth century, and was not something that was thought about only after National Party (NP) victory in 1948. In the 1830s when some Afrikaners left the Cape on the Great Trek, their ideal was to create an Afrikaner republic. After facing much opposition from the British, this was at last achieved in both the Zuid Afrikaanse Republic (ZAR) and the Orange Free State (OFS). This however was short-lived, and by 1902 at the end of the Anglo-Boer or South African War, the Afrikaners had once again lost their republics and were again brought under British rule. From this time, until the formation of the Republic of South Africa in 1961, the forming of a republic was an issue in the minds of many Afrikaners.

Launching the Union of South Africa

In some sense, the formation of the Union of South Africa could be viewed as an effort by Capital, colonial authorities and Afrikaner Nationalists to counter the challenge posed by a growing Black political consciousness. This was done by systematically disenfranchising Black voters throughout South Africa on the basis of ever more stringent pre-conditions being given the franchise. When this tactic was eventually exhausted, Afrikaner Nationalist elements resorted to naked racism and violence to legitimate their claim to hold exclusive power within the South African state. By examining the origin of Black resistance to minority rule, I shall explore the formation of the Union of South Africa as an articulation of the discourse of colonialism taken to the nth degree. By this approach I also hope to show that the advent of formal Apartheid is but a continuation of this logic.

The focal point of the relationship between the British and Dutch settlers was the issue of labour. With the end of slavery in 1870, the British had developed a strong philanthropic lobby, particularly with regard to the rights of indigenous societies. A figure who was highly influential in this regard was Dr Phillip. The Dutch/Boer settlers in contrast viewed the indigenous South African population as a source of labour for agricultural development and vehemently opposed any reconceptualisation of this role with regard to native peoples. Further the Boer societies rationalized their entitlement to land by characterising pre-colonial African societies as consisting of nomadic herdsmen who moved around from season to season in search of grazing land. Thus, for Boer society, land in South Africa was mostly underutilised.

With the advent of British rule at the Cape, the Boers, many of them eager to flee from the colony to escape imperial rule, decided to move inland where, they reasoned, they could forge their own destiny. This thinking is implicit when one examines commemorations of events such as the death of PietRetief and the Battle of Blood River. Furthermore the British system of indirect rule did not apply only to the indigenous colonies, but also to their colonies. This in itself was problematic with regard to the formation of colonial identities in that colonists viewed themselves not in terms of their relation to their home countries, but in terms of the evolving conditions within the colony.

This conceptualisation was one of the most crucial reasons for the outbreak of the South African war. Of course one ignores the economic factors at one’s own risk. As this model informs more often than not the British response to the striving for independence by its colonies, with regard to the fact that Europe was at the end of the Napoleonic wars, and British prestige – despite the defeat of imperial France – was waning. Added to this, the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley and later the discovery of gold on the Rand marked South Africa as a potentially lucrative source of revenue for the British Empire.

South Africa`s four provinces at the time of the Union

It is often assumed that the discovery of gold at the Rand was the chief cause of the South African War. This is not completely true, as British imperialism was chiefly concerned with expanding its territory in Southern Africa, in so doing enforcing dominion over all the inhabitants of annexed territories. The Boer Republics, however, were chiefly concerned by British attempts to annex their self-declared republics, a move that would once again put them at the mercy of capital and politics as dictated by England proper. A further concern was that the Boers were chiefly agriculturalists, with little or no skill in industry and manufacturing, and their conceptualization of their relationship to the land was less utilitarian and more Romantic/Calvinist. Finally, denying the franchise to foreigners in the Boer republics, by their reasoning, was repayment for the treatment the Boers received at the Cape.

The abortive Jameson raid and the issued ultimatum thereafter assured that a confrontation would occur between the Boer republics and the British colonial machine. Initial confrontations between the Boers and British resulted in a number of victories for the Boers; however, this momentum could not be sustained, because Britain as a superpower had more resources and manpower to realise its expansionist policy.  Secondly, with the institution of Kitchener’s scorched earth policy, Boer commandoes were denied any material support. Finally, by arming a large number of Blacks – in addition to employing them as ditch diggers, scouts and logistical support – they ultimately tipped the balance in the direction of the British. Only the realization that, as a population, Europeans were vastly outnumbered by the Black population of South Africa, prevented the British from exterminating the Boers. By this, I mean that the British realised that for racial domination to be viable, they would need to forge an alliance with the Boers – hence the generous terms of the Treaty of Vereeniging.  

The Union Buildings were designed by the British Architect Sir Herbert Baker and inaugurated in 1913. The two wings symbolised the Union of the 'two races' in South Africa: the English speakers and the Afrikaners.

The result of the South African War was a polarising of South African politics into conservative and liberal streams. This is evident when one examines developments before, during and after South Africa became a Union. These would include the loss of life during the South African War, both in combat and within the internment camps, the tension between the ‘bittereinders’ and the ‘hensoppers’ (those who refused to surrender and those who saw the conflict as futile). A number of issues resulted from the arming of large numbers of ‘blacks’ to fight on both sides of the war. This became a source of tension that made difficult an alliance between a Boer and British. Lastly, an increasing number of educated ‘blacks’ were emerging from the mission education system, and this challenged the notion that ‘blacks’ could be denied the vote because of an inferior educational status.

On 31 May 1902, Representatives of the Boer Republics and the British government signed the Peace of Vereeniging. From the outset of the negotiations, British Prime Minister Chamberlain intimated that Britain would negotiate a peace that fostered unity among the settler populations, with the condition that British culture and loyalty to the crown would be the foundation of this peace. Kitchener went as far as to suggest that the Boers accept the terms of a British peace and tie their hopes for independence to regime change, which would surely, he said, speed up the process. Among the more notable consequences of this treaty was that the Dutch language was granted equal status to English in legislation and that self-rule would eventually be granted to the Union colonies. In order to make this peace acceptable to the Boer republics, it was decided to exclude from the terms an insistence on universal franchise for both Black and White. This would have far-reaching consequences, as Britain in effect abdicated its responsibility to influence the policies and laws enacted by South Africa. During this process, Britain continued the subjugation of traditional African structures of governance through its policies of indirect government.    

The Bambatha rebellion was a notable Black South African response to the encroachment that resulted from the constitutional tug-of-war between the British and the Boer republics. The root of the Bambata/Bambatha Rebellion was the sustained pressure put by colonial authorities on traditional societies to force indigenous peoples into the European-controlled labour market. Discontent was welling up among many black people in Natal, particularly with regard to the allocation of land for sugar plantations and the heavy tax burdens that the colonial government imposed on blacks in Natal. After Dinizulu was deposed by the Natal government, the traditional way of life of the Zulu people came under renewed pressure, as the colonial administration continued with its policy of subjecting pre-colonial social structures to the colonial purpose. This policy was known as indirect rule.

Among the first indications of a brewing rebellion was the killing of a farmer, Henry Smith, on 17 January 1906 by one of his workers. When questioned during his trail, the worker admitted killing the farmer out of resentment for having to enter in a labour relation with him in order to pay tax. In response to Bambatha’s refusal to pay taxes, the colonial government of Natal sent an armed force to arrest him. Bambatha fled to the Mpanza valley with his family and was given refuge by the Zulu king Dinizulu. 

On 14 April 1906, the Natal Government offered a reward of £500 for the capture of Bambatha. On his return to his chieftaincy, Bambatha discovered that the colonial government had installed his uncle as ruler in his place. After deposing his uncle, Bambatha and his followers fled into the Nkandla forests and from there proceeded to wage a guerrilla war against the colonial government. Government measures to suppress this rebellion by Bambatha only served to garner him more support among the Zulu people, and many chieftaincies joined up with him. On 5 May 1906, Bambata’s forces engaged a colonial force dispatched to end the rebellion for good. The colonials, armed with firearms, inflicted heavy losses on Bambatha’s forces. Bambata was forced to flee, but his forces were tracked to the Mome Gorge. In the battle that followed, Bambatha was captured and killed on 10 June 1906.

The response to this rebellion was to set the tone for the constitutional developments that eventually resulted in the Union of South Africa. The status and views of Blacks were considered a secondary concern, as the British were more concerned with encouraging unity and loyalty to England among the settler population. This was played out in the National convention of 1908

The most important reason for the National convention of 1908 was to foster closer relations between the four colonies with regard to policies concerning labour, the relationship of between Britain and South Africa, education, fostering equality between Afrikaans/Dutch and English and the question of extending franchise to Black South Africans. This convention can be considered the prelude to South Africa becoming a Union. It is important to note that each of the colonies that participated in this process were considered self-governing territories.  Among the major debates at this convention was the question of whether the unification of the South African Colonies would take on the form of a union or a federation. What the shape of the South African economy would take and legislative procedures that would be followed to empower laws were also debated.  The final concern was the apportioning of constitutional authority in such a way as to avoid a situation in which the political interests of one group would dominates the other. This convention in many regards constituted the foundation for the Union of South Africa, as many of the issues discussed and examined would form part of the laws of the eventual Union.

source: Africa in 1929- Kimberly

The South Africa Act of 1909 could be considered as an empowering of the decisions reached at the National Convention of 1908 by the British Parliament. This is to say that draft laws, such as language policy and the denial of the franchise to Black South Africans, as well as the eventual form the Union of South Africa were now finalised. The passing of this act, however, was not made without opposition as the South African delegation – known as the Schreiner mission – travelled to Britain in order to convince the English parliament of the need to make amendments to the South Africa Act, specifically to confer the right to vote upon all South Africans. Included in this delegation were Dr Abdurahman, as leader of the ‘Coloured’ delegation, and JT Jabavu, as leader of the ‘African’ deputation. The main concern of the Schreiner mission was that the unification of the colonies would empower the Union parliament to remove the franchise from persons of colour at the Cape.

Britain, as indicated earlier, had at this point given up on influencing governance in South Africa as long as South Africa remained loyal. The granting of self-governance to the different South African colonies as well as marked encouragement toward closer economic ties brought the vision of a unified South Africa closer to reality. In 1909, Lord Elgin, the British Colonial secretary, met with the leaders of the different colonies in South Africa and discussed the issue of a potential union as well as a proposed constitution for the Union of South Africa. Old divisions hampered this process though, as the smaller and less wealthy colonies feared that the larger and wealthier ones would dominate them. The Cape colony, in particular, feared that in a union, the other colonies would eliminate Black voters from the voters’ roll, and these voters were the electoral base for many Cape politicians.

Natal, on the other hand, wished to retain some of its independence, but eventually relented on this condition. When it came to actually forming the Union, an important concern was who would lead the government. Initially Steyn, who was once president of the Orange Free State, was asked to form a government, but he declined the offer, while Merriman, as last prime minister of the Cape Colony, indicated he would never serve under Louis Botha. Thus, it was decided that Botha would form the first government as Prime Minister.

On the 31 May 1910, exactly eight years after the Boers had made peace with the English through the Treaty of Vereeniging, South Africa became a Union. Despite the mistrust in the Boer camp, the Afrikaners, as they now became known, had negotiated and achieved self-determination.     

The response of the African press to the formation of Union was one of undisguised hostility. Much effort was directed at stalling or changing the draft Act of the South African Union. But despite all efforts, the act was passed through the colonial parliaments.

In response, John TenguJabavu convened the Cape Native Convention. Jabavu was an important Black political leader, educationist and journalist, and he played an important role in the establishment of what was to become the African National Congress. The principle objection of this convention was that Britain would no longer be able to intervene on behalf of the native people and that the relationship between them and the Crown would be broken.

The attempt was doomed to fail, despite the fact that every politically conscious black person was against the terms and not the principal of the Union. The representatives of the National Convention and various colonial governments gave their support to the formation of the Union under terms that virtually ignored the Black population.Despite vocal objections to the terms, the establishment of the Union of South Africa went ahead.

In closing, politically,it was nothing short of a miracle that the British and Afrikaners were able to unite to form the Union of South Africa despite the hatred, tensions and damage that the two South African Wars had inflicted on the psyche and landscape of the country. It must be admitted that the formation of the Union was a direct result of the Treaty of Vereenging. By ignoring the wishes of the majority of the population, the formation of the Union of South Africa contributed to the political upheaval and turmoil that would engulf the country for the next eighty years.

South African History Year General History
South African War 1899 Accession of Edward VII
  1901 British Governor General representing the British crown
Death of Cecil Rhodes, Treaty of Vereeniging 1902 Colonial Conference
Death of Paul Kruger, introduction of Chinese labour in Transvaal 1904 Anglo-French Entente
Responsible Government in Transvaal, Zulu Rebellion 1906  
Responsible Government in O.R.C., Selborne Memorandum 1907 Imperial Conference, Anglo-Russian Entente
National convention 1908  
  1909 South Africa Act
Establishment of Union of South Africa 1910 Accession of King George V

The 1914 Rebellion

Most Afrikaners were against South African participation in WW1 on the side of the British. Many had German family ties and others remembered that the Germans had supported them in the South African War and that they had lost family members and friends in the war against the British. When South Africa was asked to invade German South West Africa (SWA) in August 1914 there was opposition from the ranks of the newly formed National Party (NP) and even from some who were part of the South African government. At their August congress the NP opposed invasion and on 15 August there was a republican demonstration in Lichtenburg.

The South African government viewed the issue from the perspective that there was a chance that in the future they might be able to incorporate the area into South Africa. At a special session of Parliament in September it was agreed, by large majorities in both Houses, that SWA should be invaded. Smuts and Louis Botha did not take internal opposition to this very seriously, and although they said that only volunteers would be asked to cross into the territory, this was not always followed.

On 15 September CF Beyers, who was commander of the Active Citizen Force, decided to resign his commission. That night, while he and JH de la Ray were on the way to Potchefstroom, they failed to stop at a roadblock set up by troops looking for a criminal gang. The troops shot at them, and De la Ray was killed. Although this was reported as an accident many thought it was intentional and placed the blame on Smuts and Botha, and it turned the Afrikaners against the government. On 9 August after admitting to treasonable intentions, SG Maritz, who was in charge of the military district that covered the SWA frontier, went over to the German side. Beyers and De Wet were unsure what their actions should be, but a short while later went into open rebellion and voiced support for restoring independence to the republics.

The 1919 Deputation to Versailles


In September 1919 Hertzog led a deputation to Versailles asking for the restoration of Boer independence. He asked that the Transvaal and the Orange Free State become Boer Republics. The response was that this could not be done, with Britain pointing out that South Africa was independent and that they could not intervene. At this point Hertzog decided to work toward his party becoming the government, so that his ideal could be reached.

The 1924 Pact Agreement

In 1923 Creswell of the Labour Party and Hertzog (NP) decided to join their parties together for the next election. Coalition was rejected and they decided to enter into a pact only where controversial seats were divided between the parties. The parties disagreed on some basic principles, and Hertzog promised no secession and no change in the constitutional relationship with the British Crown. This move was not popular with some Nationalists, and was a compromise in his own ideals. This meant that under the Pact government Hertzog could not go about forming a republic, although this remained an NP ideal.

Early Constitutional Development toward a republic

Introduction to the Balfour Declaration and Status and Seal Acts

After Union in 1910, South Africa was a dominion. Effectively it was no longer a colony, but it was not independent and could not leave the empire or ignore the monarchy. One of Hertzog’s aims was secession from Britain, but he could not attain this as a result of the Pact agreement. Instead he decided to work towards sovereign independence, which is when a country has supreme power over its own affairs. After WW1 the dominions kept dominion status although in many cases they were given power that should be reserved for an independent country. Cases of this were the signing the Treaty of Versailles, the joining the League of Nations and being given mandates to look after. Hertzog therefore set about getting clarity on the position of the dominions.

1929 - Election tension

source: Africa in 1929- Kimberly

Hertzog had Afrikaner Nationalists in competition to him because he had become so moderate, and was even losing support in his own party, which now had an anti-Hertzog section. This was despite his actions in getting sovereign independence, and largely because of the republic issue.

1934 - The Purified Nationalist Party

In 1933 the NP formed an alliance with the SAP, and the alliance was formalized in 1934 as the United South Africa National Party, or the United Party (UP). The merger prompted staunch segregationists from Cape Town to establish the Purified National Party under the leadership of Daniel F. (D.F.) Malan, to counteract the UP's relatively moderate positions on race and to protect the rights of the Afrikaner.

1938 - The Great Trek Centenary

source: Boers in the Karoo

This celebration led to a growth in Afrikaner nationalism and ideals of a republic. It was also at this time that many Afrikaner heroes were created, mainly from the days of the Great Trek but also from the 1914 Rebellion. Support for the NP increased considerably.

1939 - World War Two

Pro-Nazi groups developed during this period. The ‘Nuwe Order’ and the ‘Ossewabrandwag’. There was an increase in the anti-British feeling and many still supported the Germans from the days of the South African War. Other Afrikaner organizations also developed, such as the Republican Party and the Afrikaner party.

The 1948 election and the National Party Victory

On 28 May 1948, the Herenigde Nasionale Party (Reunified National Party*) took power from Jan Smuts' United Party (UP) by the thinnest of majorities (5 seats). The HNP came to power in coalition with the Afrikaner Party, led by Nicholaas C. Havenga. D. F. Malan, became prime minister at the age of seventy-four and formed the first government dominated by Afrikaners. Havenga was made minister of finance.

When the 1948 election campaign started, the UP failed to see that it was in serious trouble. Afrikaners had been seriously alienated from the UP by the split decision in 1939 to take South Africa into the war and by the disruption the war effort caused. By 1948 there was growing irritation with wartime restrictions that were still in place. Living costs had increased sharply. White farmers in the Northern provinces were particularly unhappy that black labour was leaving the farms and moving to the cities.

After the 1948 victory at the polls Malan said: 'Today South Africa belongs to us once more. South Africa is our own for the first time since Union, and may God grant that it will always remain our own.' When Malan said that South Africa 'belonged' to the Afrikaners he did not have the white-black struggle in mind but the rivalry between the Afrikaner and the English.

The NP that came to power in 1948 was two parties rolled into one. The one was a party for white supremacy that introduced apartheid, promising the electorate it would secure the political future of whites; the other a nationalist party that sought to mobilise the Afrikaner community by appealing to Afrikaans culture - their beliefs, prejudices and moral convictions, a sense of a common past and shared hopes and fears for the future.

DF Malan

Immediately after the 1948 election the government began removing the remaining symbols of the historic British ascendancy and began institutionalising their policies of segregation. Malan believed that Africans threatened the prosperity and purity of the Afrikaner culture. The South African prime minister based his policy on a system which became known as Apartheid by institutionalizing the already existing segregation policy. These policies arose from a history of settler rule and Dutch and British colonialism, which became policies of separation after South Africa gained self-governance as a dominion within the British Empire. It represented an oppressive system of laws and regulations that kept Africans inferior to Whites for years. The government separated and divided the races by instituting segregated schools, buses, work reservation, etc. Many discriminatory regulations were imposed such as the Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, the Population Restriction Act of 1950, and other racial classifications. Probably the most notable law that the Malan government passed was the Registration Act, which allowed the government to classify every individual by race. The Herenigde Nasionale Party and the Afrikaner Party merged officially in 1951 to become the National Party (NP).

It is now necessary to look at the actions of the first two NP Prime Ministers in the move towards the creation of the South African Republic DF Malan and J.G Strijdom.

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