Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options

View Options

A Closer Union: A Letter on the South African Union and the Principles of Government. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
page: [7]

Closer Union

A Letter by Olive Schreiner

To the Editor of the Transvaal Leader.

DE AAR, October 30, 1908.

DEAR SIR,—In answer to the questions on Closer Union you sent me—many of them seem to me almost unanswerable till the large, underlying principles of our future structure have been determined. Under a system of Federation one would require to give one answer; under Unification another: with a liberal franchise one answer; with restricted, another.

As far as possible I will try briefly to reply.

I. What subjects in your opinion ought to be discussed at the National Convention?

All those broad principles which will determine what the nature of our future social page: 8 structure is to be—i.e. Federation or Unification; the basis of representation; the native question; the nature and functions of the Federal Court, etc. etc. etc., and all matters touching trade. I look upon this Convention mainly as the voice of one preparing the way; its value should be chiefly educational; it should indicate for us in outline what the feeling of the different States and classes is, and what exactly are the nature of the chief difficulties which have to be overcome; so giving the mind of the nation something definite to work on.

II. What form of Closer Union do you favour—Federation or Unification; and for what reasons?


Firstly: Because all history teaches that in small States there tends, other things equal, to be more personal freedom, more individuality, and a higher social vitality than in large. I believe a body of small, highly organised social units self-governing, but uniting together for the furtherance of certain great common aims, to be the highest form of social organisation yet evolved by page: 9 humanity, and that which, probably, will ultimately prevail throughout the world, at least for a time.

Secondly: Because a vast territory, highly diversified in its physical features, in the nature of its populations, and the history and traditions of their past, does not lend itself healthily to centralised government.

Thirdly: Because a huge territory like South Africa, divided into a number of strongly organised and individualised though confederate States, will present a far greater obstacle to the undue dominance of any interest, class, or individual than the same territory under a unified and centralised government. The special danger of centralised democratic States is always the tendency to fall a prey to the tyranny of sections, of large interests, or of strong individuals. The walls of each self-governing State are so many barricades, each one of which must be broken down before any oppressive over-domination can absolutely succeed; and, behind any one of which a successful resistance may take place when others have fallen. In short, it makes for freedom. I think even the short history of South Africa in the past throws light on this.

page: 10

Fourthly: Because I hold that our continued division into States will tend to produce a finer type of citizen. I believe that were there two large territories, both situated exactly as South Africa is to-day, and that one adopted a completely unified form of government, while the other formed a confederacy of largely autonomous States, that at the end of fifty, and, yet more, of one hundred years, the last would be found not merely to possess a more self-governing people imbued with a more strongly civic spirit, but that the general intellectual vigour and initiative would be found higher; that it would be found to have produced a larger number of remarkable men and women, even in the non-political realms of art, literature, and science. If in the fifteenth century it had been possible to break down permanently the walls of the European States and weld them into one State, with one form of laws, one Government, and one set of institutions, I believe the progress of the human race would have been stayed. The wonderful rate of evolution among the peoples of Europe during the last six hundred years has largely depended on their being divided into a num- number page: 11 ber of comparatively small States; enabled to enrich each other with the results of their always-varying experiments in government, in education and in arts, and to stimulate each other by the impinging of unlike upon unlike. Had it been possible to unify and govern from one centre the entire body of Europe, I believe her peoples would to-day be almost as moribund as those of China. We, at the extremity of a continent, alone in these Southern Seas, far removed from other nations, will be particularly liable, with a centralised and uniform form of government, to sink into a torpid and retrogressive State; it is essential our component parts should retain enough individuality and distinctness to impinge upon and stimulate each other, if our life is to be adequately fertilised.

Men, like sheep, soon lose their individuality when congregated in too large masses under uniform conditions. It is hard to catch six sheep scattered about on a large plain; but three thousand massed in one uniform flock can be driven by one boy to the shambles.

Fifthly: I am in favour of Federation in opposition to Unification because it is in the page: 12 order of growth. The nation, if it desires, can at any time easily pass from a moderate form of confederacy to a closer, or on to absolute unification: but it will be impossible for it, without dislocation of the entire social structure, to pass back from Unification to Federation.

A great Frenchman, perhaps the most noted genius who in modern times has given his thought to the study of State growths, expressed the view in the early days of the North American Republic, that the centrifugal forces would probably ultimately prove too strong, and the several States sever themselves from the centre. Time has proved that even he was wrong; and it would seem likely that wherever confederate States are geographically united, once the federation formed, the danger to be feared is rather the continual growth of the central power. Switzerland and other countries illustrate this.

It is quite possible that in one hundred or even fifty years we shall form one centralised State; but that is a wholly different matter from starting with one.

Finally: I am in favour of Federation, page: 13 because I believe a moderate form of Federation is healthily possible in South Africa to-day; and Unification is not. Even if it be possible for any body of persons hurriedly to force it through, the revolution which would be caused in our entire social structure, the rights, possessions, privileges which would be interfered with, must ultimately, as the people fully grasped its meaning, cause social disaster, and a confusion which would be inextricable.

III. (a) If you favour Federation, please state briefly; what powers should be given to the Central Parliament and what retained by the local parliaments?

I think all powers should be retained by the local parliaments, except those touching a few large matters common to all, i.e. railways, posts, telegraphs, external coast defence, customs, and inter-statal and external trade relations generally, etc. The all-important and really primary function of a Federal Government, the arrangement of our relations with foreign States, our Central Government cannot be called upon to fulfil, while England maintains her control over us.

page: 14

(b) How the revenue of your Colony should be allocated as between the central and local parliaments?

This is a matter to be worked out, when once the nation has determined on the general outcome of the relation between the States and Federal Government. The way in which the revenue should be treated must depend largely on what the functions of the Central Government were.

(c) How such questions as Asiatics, natives, railways, and debts should be dealt with?

This question is too important and intricate for brief discussion.

IV. How many members should there be in each of the Houses of Parliament?

That would necessarily depend on the extent of their duties. Under a system of Unification, four or five times the number would be required, which would be adequate under a system of Federation.

page: 15

V. What should be the basis of representation?

It should be in no respect narrower than that now existing in any of our States. I hold, it should be adult franchise, with a high educational test. This would tell heavily against the natives, most of whom the educational test would exclude. I therefore think that, where natives are still living in large masses, under a tribal tenure, some arrangement should be made for their electing a certain if small number of direct representatives to the Federal Parliament; but all natives not still living under tribal tenure would of course come under the ordinary law for all citizens. I am in favour of an educational test, mainly because it may serve as a stimulus in the direction of education to both the poor whites and natives.

It has been suggested that the voters' roll as at present existing in each State should be taken as the basis of representation for the Federal Parliament. This would have this one immense advantage, that the more retrogressive States, with a narrow electoral basis, would be almost compelled to enlarge it, in order to obtain their adequate share of representation in the Central Parliament.

page: 16

VI. Would you favour the equal representation of States in the Upper House? If so, for what reason?

Certainly: the reason being that it would help to equalise the smaller with the larger States, which might otherwise be completely wiped out.

VII. Are you in favour of single-member constituencies; or do you consider it advisable to adopt some system of proportional representation?

Yes, proportional representation.

VIII. Should any attempt be made at the Convention of assimilating the franchise conditions in the different Colonies?

Only in the direction of endeavouring to induce the more retrogressive sections to widen their base. It would bode ill for the future of our Confederacy if its preliminary action were to be an endeavour to deliberalise any State. Finally, I think the decision must be left with the States themselves.

page: 17

IX. Do you consider the Convention should deal with the question of the representation of Asiatics, natives, and coloured people, or should it leave this matter for settlement by the future Parliament of South Africa? If you are of opinion the matter should be dealt with by the National Convention, please state on what lines.

I think this, like all other root questions, should be most fully discussed by the Convention, and the result of that discussion most fully and frankly placed before the nation. I am of opinion that where the Federal franchise is concerned, no distinction of race or colour should be made between South Africans. All persons born in the country or permanently resident here should be one in the eye of the State. I am, and have always been, strongly opposed to the importation of Asiatic or other labourers to undersell the labour of the permanent inhabitants of the land. I regard it as criminal on two wholly distinct counts: and I have always held that, whether as a speculator or a seeker-for-health, when a man temporarily enters a country for a limited number of page: 18 years, having no interest in its future, it is quite just, though it may not be expedient, to refuse him the franchise. I hold, further, that the inhabitants of South Africa, like those of all other countries, are under certain conditions justified in refusing admission to foreigners at their ports, though I think the conditions under which it is desirable seldom occur; but, once admitted to take up their permanent residence in our country, I think no distinction of race or colour should be made. South Africa must be a free man's country. The idea that a man born in this country, possibly endowed with many gifts and highly cultured, should in this, his native land, be refused any form of civic or political right on the ground that he is descended from a race with a civilisation, it may be, much older than our own, is one which must be abhorrent to every liberalised mind. I believe that an attempt to base our national life on distinctions of race and colour, as such, will, after the lapse of many years, prove fatal to us.

page: 19

X. Should the delegates of the Transvaal and the O.R.C. insist on special conditions as regards the working of the railways, or should they allow the railways to be handed over to the control of the future Parliament of South Africa unconditionally? If not, what conditions should they insist upon?

I think such important financial questions, like all others of importance, should be fully discussed and permanently settled before we enter into any form of Union. For this reason: If when the Central Parliament meets the inland States have an immensely preponderating influence, they may, unless matters are firmly fixed beforehand, bring in legislation of such a nature that, had the inhabitants of the coast towns known it was coming, they would never have entered into the Union; the same thing reversed might take place, if the seaboard interests by combining had a preponderating vote. It would be too late then to demur. There would be no course open but secession, with possible civil war.

The Eastern Province taal has a saying: “Trouw is nie paere koop!” (“Marriage is page: 20 not buying horses”)—neither is Closer Union. He that is in cannot get out! It is best to clear the ground before you pitch your tent!

XI. It has been suggested that if the question of the capital is decided by the National Convention there will be grave danger that the delegates of Colonies other than that where the seat of Government is to be will be unfairly prejudiced on their return, and that in this way the cause of Union itself may be prejudiced. What is your opinion?

The suggestion referred to in your question has rather a sinister aspect. Does it not rather seem to suggest that the people of South Africa should buy a pig in a poke; or rather that the pig should be kept carefully hidden in the bag till it is too late for the people to object to buying it? The matter of the capital is certainly one which should be fully discussed by the Convention, and the opinion and vote of its members known, as a guide to the public. In a country situated as South Africa is it is not a small question, and is one of those which should be finally decided before the Union is entered page: 21 on. As to the suggestion that if his views were known it might prejudice the delegate in the eyes of his fellow-citizens on his return, if he were influenced by fear of this it would merely show he was not a proper person ever to have sent to the Convention. Personally, I think none of the existing capitals should be chosen. Bloemfontein is the most central; Capetown is (or was, till destroyed by the smoke of bad coals from tall chimneys, with which no attempt to cope has been made) one of the loveliest spots on earth; but even against these there are serious objections.

I believe the capital should be built in a small, neutral territory and entirely anew. Most of our old towns in South Africa are rich in local traditions, sacred and treasured by the men who in their own persons, or those of their forefathers, raised them. It is impossible for the Pretorian or Bloemfonteiner to feel to Grahamstown as the descendant of the British settler feels, whose forefathers built it, as it were, out of their own sinew and fibre, as it is for the Grahamstown man to see in Pretoria and Bloemfontein what the men see who have shed their blood page: 22 for them. In one hundred years the local traditions will be our common property. It is not so now. We must face facts.

An even deeper objection to all the existing State capitals is that they all represent or lie near great centres of commercial or financial activity, and the feeling that these might gain undue power from the neighbourhood of the Central Government would form an unnecessary point of friction.

In its own territory, under its own laws, a city in which every South African was equally a citizen and at home, it might come to be much more to us nationally than merely the spot where the delegates we had elected met to deliberate. It might become for us the material embodiment of that ideal of South African unity that is slowly shaping itself within us; an all-man's-land, where we might more easily forget our racial differences; our God's acre, on which we were all equal and united.

Even from the stand of architecture, we might make it the point of a new departure, in a direction purely South African in the best sense. The grotesque and hideous towns and public buildings which at the cost of page: 23 millions we have so often slavishly raised, in imitation of the cities and buildings of Europe, might be departed from. John Ruskin has said the only type of absolutely new and beautiful architecture evolved in the last two centuries has been the old type of Dutch farmhouse at the Cape. Choosing a naturally desirable position, laying it out in the wide squares, suitable to our land of unlimited spaces and wide skies, and following, with such adaptations as would be necessary for public buildings and civic uses, the old farmhouse ideal, we should raise a great white city: no building being more than two stories high, and simple, square, solid, white pillars forming colonnades around our squares. And, adopting the Moorish idea (also African, and suggested already in the little half-courts so often found at the back of our old farmhouses), we might raise our buildings, always with inner paved courts and cloisters, admitting air, excluding excessive heat and wind, adapted to a land where snow and winter damp are almost unknown, and beautiful because so adapted to our needs, our architecture would represent that simplicity and strength which have been the noblest page: 24 characteristics of the South African people of the past.

By excluding from it as far as possible all unnecessary manufacturing and commercial activities, and all elements that antagonise men, and making it as far as possible the centre of those which unite, raising here our great Federal libraries, museums, and art galleries, and holding here our literary and scientific congresses and inter-statal sports, it might as the time passed become, in a far more than the merely political sense, the centre of our united national life, and an object of legitimate pride to us all.

The question of expense has been raised; but I much doubt whether the adaptations and changes necessary in any town which became the capital would not ultimately cost quite as much without the same large benefits. The new wine should go into the new bottle; and there should be nothing in the new capital to recall the divisions of the past.

page: 25

XII. Should an attempt be made at the outset to include the whole of South Africa (that is, Rhodesia, Basutoland, Swaziland, Bechuanaland Protectorate, and Nyassaland, as well as the four self-governing Colonies) in the scheme of Closer Union?

Ultimately, no doubt, these territories will become part of the Union; but as matters would have to move very slowly, and with due regard to the rights of all concerned, on the part of those having the care of those rights, and the matter being a very intricate and important one, I should say decidedly no.

You have said you would be glad to have my view on any other matters affecting the Union. There are some points on which I should care to make some suggestions.

Firstly, as to COST.

It has lately been continually rung into the ear of the man in the street, who up to the present has not given much study to the, to him, often entirely new problems suggested by the talk of Closer Union, that if page: 26 only Closer Union can be effected there will be an instantaneous and marvellous advance in wealth all over South Africa; and that if Unification be adopted instead of Federation there will be an immense diminution in public expenditure, and therefore in his personal taxation.

Neither statement seems to me true.

The depression from which we are now suffering is largely the aftermath of the war, and of that reckless indulgence in building and other speculations which followed it.

The men whose farms and property were destroyed may have by this time rebuilt their houses, they may have almost as many sheep, half as many cattle, and one-third as many horses as they had before; but their income during the last years has gone to restore these things, and we must still feel the loss of the accumulated capital they would otherwise have had to expend. Closer Union can no more restore this to us, nor unbuild the unnecessary houses and harbour works, or other constructions in which our wealth has been lost, than it can make one Karroo bush strike its roots ten inches deeper, page: 27 or bring rain to one flock of dying sheep on a drought-smitten plain. Three successive good agricultural years would do more to restore our economic condition than any alteration in the form of political organisation would do in many times that number. If the Union succeeds in establishing complete free trade between all South African States, it will undoubtedly be beneficial in the long run to the majority of the inhabitants, as all forms of free trade are; but the intolerable burden of the poor man in South Africa is not the tax on inter-Colonial trade, but the crushing taxation on over-sea imported articles; and while certain places, classes, and persons may gain by the changes resulting from Closer Union, others must lose heavily. No doubt it is not done wilfully, but the man in the street is being misled. I suppose every one has met the complement of the man who had had his salary reduced by one-fourth, and who recently remarked that he must battle through, for no doubt when Closer Union came his employer would raise it; or the Capetown boarding-house keeper, unable to earn enough bread for her children, who remarks, with a wan and pathetic smile, page: 28 “But they say this Closer Union's coming, and then I suppose things will be all right!” The conception, perhaps unintentionally but widespread, through public speeches and letters in newspapers that Closer Union is a kind of new Father Christmas who will drop a pound into every empty pocket is a delusion, and pernicious; it will be followed by reaction when the truth is discovered.

As to the statement that Unification will be cheaper than Federation, and that taxation will be diminished under Closer Union, I doubt it. I believe ultimately either Unification or Federation will cost the country as a whole more than the present system; change is always expensive; and that Unification, under which expensive new local councils would have to be set up and endless revolutionary changes made, would be more expensive than Federation; even were Federation to cost more [which I do not for a moment believe it would] merely as a training school for our citizens, bringing the duties and rights of self-government close to them, I believe we should find it pay.

We South Africans have many faults, but page: 29 the past history of all our races proves that we have not accepted as a people the doctrine that every man has his price, and that the value of all institutions can be measured in gold. We have always shown an even extreme aptitude for sacrifice when once any section of us has been convinced it was necessary. I believe that it is not by holding out the elusive bait of a pound in every empty pocket that our people will ultimately be led to make those heavy sacrifices which will be necessary on the part of many if Union is to be accomplished; but rather by inducing them to face the facts, and if they make sacrifices to make them willingly and consciously, in a cause they feel worthy. I believe this course would be both more statesmanlike and more practical.

Secondly, as to HASTE.

There seems to be to-day, on the part of some persons, a feverish, and, in its hurry and precipitation, a most un-South-African haste to see Unification accomplished instantly, and they are unwilling to examine difficulties or brook delays.

We have seen the same feverish anxiety, page: 30 and the same contempt for obstacles before in South Africa with regard to the same subjects, on the part of men as able, and from their point of view as single-minded, as any of that very able and remarkable body of men who are seeking to accomplish political unification to-day—and we have seen that they met with disaster.

You cannot hurry South Africa, and any attempt to do so may in the long run make history repeat itself. One of the ablest members of the Cape Parliament, speaking on Closer Union in the House of Assembly, instanced the rapid Federation of the United States of America as indicating that there was no cause why we should not as rapidly combine. He left out of consideration entirely the fact that America federated under the guns of the enemy! There are times in the life of nations, as of individuals, when conditions so cataclysmic overtake us that the changes which under ordinary conditions could only have required years to take place are accomplished in months, weeks, or even hours. A vessel with first, second, and third-class passengers on board might sail for months without their ever coming near each page: 31 other or amalgamating in any way, but the moment a pirate ship appeared and threw out its grappling irons all men would stand shoulder to shoulder, and in ten minutes they would be unified. It is quite possible to imagine a condition occurring in South Africa which would make Union accomplish itself with the rapidity with which a thunderclap follows lightning—but those conditions do not exist to-day.

The ease with which Australia entered on Closer Union is often instanced for our example. But nothing could be more misleading. Not only has Australia an almost completely homogeneous population, being inhabited mainly by men of one race, speech, one language, and of one tradition, but it is comparatively new. The moss had already grown green on the thatched roofs of Western Province farmhouses, and oak trees generations old had met over them, when Australia was still untrodden by white men; and even when our British settlers landed, and the treks began to go to the northern lands, Australia had hardly begun her history; and among our vast native populations we have social institutions simple in form, but page: 32 with their roots deep struck into the ages of the past, and not lightly to be uprooted and modified.

The difference between Australia and South Africa in this matter is the difference between two men setting out to make a garden: the one out of twenty acres of smooth meadow land, the other out of twenty acres of karroo, with kopjes, rocks, sluits, and ant-heaps on its surface. All the first man would have to do would be to run a steam-roller over the ground to level its small inequalities, to take out a foot rule and draw a plan—here a wall, there a flower-bed, and there a row of trees, and, giving it to the workman, order the plan to be carried out.

For the other man the problem would be far different; if he attempted to move a steam-roller over it, the steam-roller would be broken; if he tried to lay it out by rule of thumb, everywhere he would meet with obstacles; there would be no way for him but carefully to study it yard by yard: up this kopje a road might be built and a rockery made, across that sluit a bridge must be thrown, here flower-beds could be laid, and in the sandy hollows great trees might be page: 33 planted. In the end the result of his labours might be something more individual and beautiful than anything the other could produce; but there could be no haste, no rule of thumb plan; everything must be modified to meet the unconquerable conditions.

Further, in the case of the United States, Canada, and Australia, what was attempted and accomplished was never Unification, but Federation. I can recall no case in the history of the world where a body of distinct States, some of them with long histories, and all with marked characteristics, have suddenly determined to do away with the laws, privileges, and traditions which gave them their individuality. Tyrannous conquest has often done it; but the change is too sudden to be healthy. Even a wide form of Federation is difficult enough of accomplishment; and the assertion that it would be quite possible for the South African States in the course of a few months to break up their organisms successfully and healthily to become a unified State, so far from being statesmanlike, appears to me childish.

This nervous and anxious hurry to attain page: 34 Closer Union irresistibly reminds one of a posse of old aunts and mothers anxious that a certain young man and maiden should be wed, and who to attain this end are anxious to keep in the background all causes of difference between the young people, and to draw a veil over all difficulties, financial and personal, which, if faced by the young people, might give pause; and they are delighted when they have led them into the church or the registry office. The true union between man and woman may be the most desirable thing on earth, but will they really have accomplished this? Will not all the difficulties and differences re-arise in a more acute form when the persons concerned are inextricably bound? Might not differences which, had they been fairly faced and discussed beforehand, in time have melted or been satisfactorily arranged, now rise up as insuperable, when they can no longer be freely dealt with? May not the bond of external union become one of internal conflict and bitterness?

By compelling two horses to put their heads into the same nosebag, do you of necessity put them on better terms with one another? May not the mere forced proxi- proximity page: 35 mity cause antagonisms which might never have existed otherwise?

It is sometimes said that we must hurry on Closer Union because it will prevent war from ever taking place among South Africans again. But surely all history teaches us that the bitterest and most bloody wars of modern times have not always been those between unallied States, but exactly those between peoples who were united, and where one party felt the union to be unequal and not for their advantage! Not only the American War of Independence, when America strove and succeeded in breaking herself free from union with England, or the great American war of North and South, and innumerable others, show this; but the civil wars within completely unified States themselves, such as France, where a class or party feel themselves oppressed or drawn into a union of which they have not fully understood the terms, exemplifies this. The external bond between individuals or States, where it is not the expression of a subtler internal union, so far from promoting harmony, is the inevitable cause of conflict, and possibly bloodshed.

page: 36

It may be said that human life is short, and it is natural that those who have laboured and thought over this subject of Closer Union should be anxious to see it finally completed!

I take it we are not little children building sand-houses on the seashore, anxious to have them completed, the last tower shaped, and the seaweed stuck in to crown it before our nurses come to call us home to tea! If we are doing anything, we are attempting to raise a structure that will stand the test of the ages, and if we should not be the men to lay on the last coping-stone, amid a blare of trumpets, shouts of applause, and showers of titles—if quietly and almost unrecognised we have been able by our labour to ensure that one foundation-stone shall be laid a little deeper and stronger than would otherwise have been, and that the work should stand a little better the test of centuries—I do not know what more we should ask.

It is not he who puts on the last stone and ties the flag to the roof, but he who lays the foundations deep and well, who is the masterbuilder of work that is for time.

“Without haste, but without rest,” said the great German.

page: 37

“Wacht een bietje; alles zal recht komen” (“Wait a little; everything will come right”), said the old South African President.

These, it seems to me, are the mottoes which should guide us in seeking to aid the growth of that United South Africa, the outline of which is now shadowing itself in the thoughts of our people.

Thirdly, as to SIZE.

One hears to-day often the statement, even from thoughtful persons, that we are upon the eve of making a “great nation”; the context showing the word “great” is not used merely in its sense of size, as it might be used of an agglutination of seaweeds, or a long row of sand-hills, but in its loftier sense to indicate something exalted and desirable in human life; and the statement is even sometimes so made that it would almost seem to indicate that a company of able, well-intentioned men sitting round a table might almost instantaneously manufacture this “great” nation as a carpenter might an arm-chair.

Such statements seem to be not merely page: 38 misleading, but gravely pernicious, as they tend to the implanting of a false national ideal.

Leaving aside the fact that a nation cannot be manufactured, that it exists and grows from its own roots, or it does not—and that though powerful individuals may accelerate its growth or tend it in certain directions for good or evil, they cannot create it—the serious objection to the statement lies in the fact that it suggests the idea that by the mere agglutination of units into a larger political union something lofty and desirable must necessarily arise. But a nation because the length of its territory is five thousand miles and its population proportionate is of no necessity greater, in the loftier sense, than one whose length is only one thousand and its population proportionate, than a man weighing 350 pounds—perhaps with a feeble heart, an atrophied brain, and a distended abdomen—is of necessity in at all a more desirable condition than the man who weighs 120 pounds, who may have every organ sound and every function active: every inch such a man adds to his bulk may be to his damnation; and it may be so also with a nation. page: 39 The nations which have contributed most to the sum total of human good have seldom been large, and generally small and very small. The England of Elizabeth's day, with its minute population and small acreage, was greater than the whole Russian Empire is to-day—perhaps than she herself is now, with Ireland and India tacked to her sides! Rome, when she sat a Republic on her seven hills with her small territory round her, was immeasurably greater than when, a great, feeble, dilated body, she stretched across half the known world, waiting for the knife of the peoples she had conquered and armed to fight her battles, to stab her enfeebled heart; little Holland was greater than the whole Spanish Empire when it dominated Europe and ruled in the New World; Greece, even the little city and territory of Athens, which might have been put into many a Karroo farm and lost there, was greater and is more immortal than the whole Persian Empire. The tiny State of Switzerland is to-day greater than the whole vast territory of Brazil; and the small town of Concord, in America, has been immeasurably greater than up to the present have been the cities page: 40 of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco combined; they might pass away as a puff of smoke to-morrow and be forgotten, but the little town is immortal in the heart of humanity for the great deeds that have been done there and the wise men who have walked in her quiet streets; and it is quite within the range of possibility that if to-morrow we could unify the whole of the States and territories in South Africa, that at the end of fifty or one hundred years the whole huge entity might possess nothing so great to be recorded of it as are some pages in the history of the late little Free State, or even of the old Cape Colony.

Unlike as the physical conditions, the populations, and the problems of the different parts of South Africa are, there are still certain great underlying conditions making for unity everywhere, though in widely different proportions—all the same racial elements, white-man, black-man, and brown-man; almost everywhere there is the same clear, white sunlight, and a certain subtle conformity in the physical features of the country which we recognise as South African; and, diverse as our people, our land, and our page: 41 problems are in each part, they are yet more like each other than they are like anything else in the world. Adding to this the fact of our separation from other peoples at the end of a continent, it becomes clear that natural conditions do exist which will ultimately lead us to form parts of one large organisation; but whether that organisation will constitute a “great nation” or one very small and undesirable must depend on conditions far more deep and vital than the mere conglomeration of our States into a political whole touches.

Of the degrading and devitalising conceptions which can lay hold of the soul of an individual or a nation, the most purely destructive is the conception that the highest good to be attained is the continual accumulation of material possessions. And those who preach to us, whether intentionally or in the light-heartedness of careless speech, the doctrine that we can attain by the mere welding of our States into one huge political whole to true national greatness, are distilling into the cup of thought of a young nation drops of poison.

Unless the foundations be laid in justice page: 42 and wisdom, they labour in vain who build the State—though hand join in hand—and territory be annexed to territory.

Fourthly, as to the NATIVE QUESTION.

I hold this to be the root question in South Africa; and as is our wisdom in dealing with it, so will be our future.

No exact census exists of the population of South Africa, but it is roughly calculated that there are about nine millions of inhabitants, eight million of dark men and one million of white.

The white race consists mainly of two varieties, of rather mixed European descent, but both largely Teutonic, and though partly divided at the present moment by traditions and the use of two forms of speech, the Taal and the English, they are so essentially one in blood and character that within two generations they will be inextricably blended by inter-marriage and common interests, as would, indeed, long ago have been the case had it not been for external interference. They constitute, therefore, no great problem for the future, though at the present moment their differences loom large. Our vast, dark page: 43 native population consists largely of Bantus, who were already in South Africa when we came here; of a few expiring yellow varieties of African races, and a small but important number of half-castes, largely the descendants of imported slaves whose blood was mingled with that of their masters, as is always the case where slavery exists, and a very small body of Asiatics. It is out of this great heterogeneous mass of humans that the South African nation of the future will be built. For the dark man is with us to stay. Not only does the Bantu increase and flourish greatly, as is natural in his native continent, and under the climatic conditions which are best suited to him; not only does he refuse to die out in contact with our civilisation, as the yellow races have largely done, and rather tries to grasp and make it his own; not only can we not exterminate him—but, we cannot even transport him, because we want him! We desire him as thirsty oxen in an arid plain desire water, or miners hunger for the sheen of gold. We want more and always more of him—to labour in our mines, to build our railways, to work in our fields, to perform our domestic labours, and to buy page: 44 our goods. We desire to import more of him when we can. It has more than once happened in a House of Legislature that bitter complaints have been brought against the Government of the day for employing too many natives on public works, and so robbing the landowner of what he most desires —native labour.

They are the makers of our wealth, the great basic rock on which our State is founded —our vast labouring class.

Every great nation of the past or present has contributed something to the sum total of things beautiful, good, or useful, possessed by humanity: therein largely lies its greatness. We in South Africa can never hope exactly to repeat the records of the past. We can never hope, like Greece, to give to the world its noblest plastic art; we can never hope, like Rome, to shape the legal institutions of half the world; the chief glory of England, that wherever she goes, whether she will or not, and even against her will, she spreads broadcast among the nations the seeds of self-governing institutions—may never be ours. But the great national parts are not exhausted; and there lies before us page: 45 in South Africa a part as great and inspiring as any which any nation has ever been called upon to play—if we are strong enough to grasp it.

The problem of the twentieth century will not be a repetition of those of the nineteenth or those which went before it. The walls dividing continents are breaking down; everywhere European, Asiatic and African will interlard. The world on which the twenty-first century will open its eyes will be one widely different from that which the twentieth sees at its awaking. And the problem which this century will have to solve is the accomplishment of this interaction of distinct human varieties on the largest and most beneficent lines, making for the development of humanity as a whole, and carried out in a manner consonant with modern ideals and modern social wants. It will not always be the European who forms the upper layer; but in its essentials the problem will be everywhere the same.

We in South Africa are one of the first peoples in the modern world, and under the new moral and material conditions of civilisation, to be brought face to face with this page: 46 problem in its acutest form. On our power to solve it regally and heroically depends our greatness. If it be possible for us out of our great complex body of humanity (its parts possibly remaining racially distinct for centuries) to raise up a free, intelligent, harmonious nation, each part acting with and for the benefit of the others, then we shall have played a part as great as that of any nation in the world's record. And as we to-day turn our eyes towards Greece or Rome or England for models in those things wherein they have excelled, nations in the future, whatever their dominant class may be, will be compelled to turn their eyes towards us and follow our lead, saying, “Hers was the first and true solution of the problem.”

I have said we to-day have to face the problem in its acutest form; but we have also exceptional advantages for solving it.

In our small, to-day dominant, European element we have the descendants of some of the most virile of the northern races, races which, at least for themselves, have always loved freedom and justice; in our vast Bantu element we possess one of the finest breeds page: 47 of the African stock. A grave and an almost fatal error is sometimes made when persons compare our native question with the negro question in the Southern States of America. Not only is the South African Bantu (a race probably with a large admixture of Arab blood!) as distinct from the West Coast negro, who was the ancestor of the American slave, as the Norwegian is from the Spaniard, but he has never been subjected to the dissolving and desocialising ordeal of slavery. We find him in the land of his growth with all the instincts of the free man intact; with all the instincts of loyalty to his race and its chiefs still warm in his heart; with his social instincts almost abnormally developed and fully active; we have only with wisdom and patient justice slowly to transfer them to our own larger society—they are there! Every man and woman who has studied the Bantu in his native state—before we have indoctrinated him with those vices which dog everywhere the feet of our civilisation, and have compelled his women to graduate in our brothels and his men in our canteens or have dragged him into our city slums, where even our own races rot—knows that the proudest page: 48 of us may envy many of the social virtues which the Bantu displays. We have a great material here, wisely handled.

In our small, permanent, and largely South African born, Asiatic population we have a section of people sober, industrious, and intelligent, rich with those deep staying-powers which have made many Asiatic peoples so persistent, and often dominant, in the past and present. Even in the most disorganised element of our population, often without definite race or social traditions, I believe that careful study will show it to compare favourably, and often most favourably, with analogous classes in Europe (and I speak from a wide personal knowledge of those European classes).

This is the material from which our nation must be shaped; and we, the small and for the moment absolutely dominant white aristocracy on whom the main weight of duty of social reconstruction rests, have reason to be thankful it is what it is.

If by entering on a long and difficult course of strictly just and humane treatment, as between man and man, we can bind our dark races to us through their sense of justice page: 49 and gratitude; if we, as a dominant class, realise that the true wealth of a nation is the health, happiness, intelligence, and content of every man and woman born within its borders; if we do not fail to realise that the true crown of honour on the head of a dominant class is that it leads and teaches, not uses and crushes; if, as the years pass, we can point with pride to our native peoples as the most enlightened and the most free, the most devoted to the welfare of its native land of all African races; if our labouring class can in the end be made to compare favourably with that of all other countries; and if for the men of genius or capacity who are born among them there be left open a free path, to take their share in the higher duties of life and citizenship, their talents expended for the welfare of the community and not suppressed to become its subterraneous and disruptive forces; if we can make our State as dear to them, as the matrix in which they find shelter for healthy life and development, as it is to us; then I think the future of South Africa promises greatness and strength.

But if we fail in this?—If, blinded by the page: 50 gain of the moment, we see nothing in our dark man but a vast engine of labour; if to us he is not man, but only a tool; if dispossessed entirely of the land for which he now shows that large aptitude for peasant proprietorship for the lack of which among their masses many great nations are decaying; if we force him permanently in his millions into the locations and compounds and slums of our cities, obtaining his labour cheaper, but to lose what the wealth of five Rands could not return to us; if, uninstructed in the highest forms of labour, without the rights of citizenship, his own social organisation broken up, without our having aided him to participate in our own; if, unbound to us by gratitude and sympathy, and alien to us in blood and colour, we reduce this vast mass to the condition of a great seething, ignorant proletariat—then I would rather draw a veil over the future of this land.

For a time such a policy may pay us admirably both as to labour and lands; we may work gold mines where the natives' corn now stands, and the dream of a labourer at two-pence a day which has haunted the waking page: 51 visions of some men may be realised—but can it pay ultimately?

Even in the commercial sense, will it pay us in the direction of manufacture and trade, if, when the labouring classes of other countries are steadily increasing in skill and intelligence, ours remain in the mass mere hewers of wood and drawers of water, without initiative or knowledge? Will it even pay us to have him robbed of his muscular strength and virility by a sudden change to unhealthy conditions of life? Considered as a mere engine of labour, is not his muscle one of our commercial assets? If we doctor him with our canteens and cheap wines, and immerse him in city-slum life, will he even as a machine of labour remain what he is?

Are we to spend all our national existence with a large, dark shadow looming always in the background—a shadow-which-we-fear?

I would not willingly appeal to the lowest motives of self-interest, yet it may be permitted to say this: As long as the population of South Africa is united, and the conditions of warfare remain what they are, we need page: 52 fear no foe. With our inaccessible coast, and few harbours, our mighty mountain ranges and desolate plains, into which the largest armies might be led and left to starve, we are as unassailable as Northern Russia behind her steppes and icefields; it would take more than a Napoleon to walk over us; we are, indeed, an impregnable fortress in these Southern seas—if the entire population is united.

But what if we are not united? What if, when the day comes, as it must, when hostile fleets—perhaps not European—gather round our shores, and the vast bulk of our inhabitants should cast eyes of indifference, perhaps of hope, towards them? Having no share in the life of our State, being bound to us by no ties of sympathy, having nothing to lose, might not the stranger even appear in the guise of a deliverer, and every bush hide a possible guide, and the bulk of the men and women in our land whisper, “It is no business of ours; let them fight it out”?

As long as nine-tenths of our community have no permanent stake in the land, and no right or share in our government, can we ever feel safe? Can we ever know peace?

page: 53

One dissatisfied man or woman who feel themselves wronged is a point of weakness in a community; but when this condition animates the vast majority of the inhabitants of a State, there is a crack down the entire height of the social structure. In times of peace it may be covered over by whitewash and plaster, and one may profess that all is well; but when the time of conflict and storm comes, that is where the social structure will give way.

But a far more subtle and inevitable form of evil must ultimately overtake us. It is ordained by the laws of human life that a Nemesis should follow the subjection and use, purely for purposes of their own, of any race by another which lives among them. Spain fell before it in America; Rome felt it; it has dogged the feet of all conquering races. In the end the subjected people write their features on the face of the conquerors.

We cannot hope ultimately to equal the men of our own race living in more wholly enlightened and humanised communities, if our existence is passed among millions of non-free subjected peoples. The physical labour we despise and refuse because they page: 54 do it for us; the continual association with human creatures who are not free, will ultimately take from us our strength and our own freedom; and men will see in our faces the reflection of that on which we are always treading and looking down. If we raise the dark man we shall rise with him; if we kick him under our feet, he will hold us fast by them.

It was recently reported in one of our Houses of Legislature, in a speech by one of our leading men, that once when discussing the question of the light and dark races with a Bantu, the latter had said: “When you do well to us, you do well to yourselves.”

This seems to me to sum up the philosophy of the whole matter. The dark man is the child the gods have given us in South Africa for our curse or our blessing; we shall rise with him, and we shall also sink with him.

To-day we in South Africa stand at the parting of the ways; and there is no man and no woman, however small and without influence their voice may be, and though themselves devoid of citizen rights, who, believing that the future of South Africa depends on our taking in this matter the page: 55 higher and more difficult path, can absolve them to themselves, if they do not speak the word which weighs on them.

Lastly, if I were asked what in South Africa is our great need at the present moment, I should answer, “Great men to lead us.”

In an ordinary household, where a woman brings up the children she herself has borne, who share her blood and to whom her instincts bind her, she needs no exceptionally great or rare qualities to rear her children and govern her house in harmony. But if a woman, having children born of her own body, should marry a man already having children by another wife, and they two should again have children of their own, and even receive into their family one or two children by adoption, then, to make her work a success, that woman would require altogether wider and more exceptional gifts. The animal instinct which binds us to what is ours by blood would not suffice; and unless carefully watched and controlled might totally unfit her for the work she had to do. She would need not merely those high intellectual powers which enable us to under- understand page: 56 stand types of mind widely distinct from our own, but those still rarer graces of the spirit allied to intellectual gifts but distinct from them, which make the love of justice inherent in an individual and which would enable her to stretch maternal sympathies out, far beyond the limits of mere instinct. If she possessed these qualities in balanced proportions, the domestic world she ruled over might become a centre of unity and desirable human relations; if she possessed none of them, it would become a hell.

So the man fitted to be the national leader of a great heterogeneous people requires certain qualities not asked for in the leaders, even the great leaders, of a homogeneous race. Our call in South Africa to-day is not for a Cavour or a Talleyrand, nor even at the moment for a William Wallace or a Robert Bruce. The man who should help to guide us toward the path of true union and a beneficent organisation must be more than the great party leader, the keen diplomatist, far-seeing politician, or even the renowned soldier. He may be some of these, but he must be much more.

He must be a man able to understand, page: 57 and understanding to sympathise with, all sections of our people; loving his own race and form of speech intensely, he will never forget it is only one among others, and deserving of no special favour because it is his; he will value the diverse virtues of our two great white classes which almost, as much as their faults, have brought them into collision, and seek to harmonise them; he will understand the really colossal difficulties which a white race has to face in dealing with a labouring class which is severed from it by colour (difficulties often not understood by those across the seas; who condemn conduct which they themselves would probably follow if brought face to face with the same difficulties); he will realise to the full the difficulties the dark man faces when, his old ideals and order of life suddenly uprooted, he is thrown face to face with a foreign civilisation which he must grasp and rise to, or under which he must sink; and he will seek by every means in his power to help him bridge the transition without losing his native virtues. At all costs to himself he will persist in holding up before us the ideal, by which he is himself dominated, of a great page: 58 South Africa, in which each element of our population, while maintaining its own individuality, shall subserve the interests of others as well as its own; till from this sense of mutual service and from that passionate love for our physical Mother Earth, which is common to all South Africans, shall grow up the wide and deep South African feeling that alone can transform us into a “great nation.” In spite of many mistakes and many failures, and the sorrow which walks beside all who strike out new paths for the feet of men, such a man would form the true centre of our national life, and, however fitfully and slowly, would lead our national conscience to shape itself in harmony with that ideal. For beneath the self-seeking and animal instinct which covers the surface of our lives lies that which in its saner moments does recognise singleness of purpose where it finds it, and knows only that a wide justice and humanity between men is righteousness—the righteousness that exalteth a nation.

It is said that when centuries ago a great Hollander died the little children cried for him in the streets. When our national leader dies, the hearts of a complex people will put page: 59 on mourning for him from the kraal in Kafirland to the solitary Karroo farmhouse, and the cities where men congregate. And when, with the passing of the years, the mists of present self-interest and racial antagonisms have faded from before our national eyes, men standing beside his grave will recognise him for what he was—the father of his people.

What South Africa calls for to-day is no hero or saint or impossible figment of the mind—simply for a man with a clear head and a large heart, organically incapable of self-seeking or racial prejudice.

We have all known men of this type in private life; they are found in all races; the list of the Roman Emperors was not without them; they have appeared in the history of almost every people; they have even trodden our South African earth in the little history of our past, though they played smaller parts.

The name of one man will suggest itself to every one. Holding the somewhat invidious delegated power of an English Governor at a time of particular difficulty, he bound equally the heart of the Boer, the Bantu, and the Englishman to him.

page: 60

Nearly twenty years ago, when I attended the opening of the railway in Bloemfontein, at a gathering where most present were Dutch, men remembered him, and though he had been so long gone from us a message of greeting was sent to this man over the seas; and, it is said, that when a South African of Dutch blood, who has since been branded as the most bitter of the opponents of British rule, was asked to stand for the Presidency of the Dutch Republic, of which he afterwards became President, that before accepting he wrote asking this Englishman, then a private citizen, to stand, as in that case he would himself withdraw. So do the hearts of great men unite peoples.

The States and territories of South Africa will ultimately combine in some form of union. It is inevitable; no man can stay it.

If among those things which fate still holds hidden from us in the hollow of her hand there be such a man, or such men, loving justice and freedom, not only for themselves or their own race, but for all their fellow-countrymen, and able to imbue us with their own larger conception of the national life, and lead us towards it, then I page: 61 see light where the future of South Africa rises; if not, we shall still attain to a political unification in some form or other, but it will be a poor, peddling thing when we have it—perhaps bloody.


DE AAR, 1908.