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A Closer Union: A Letter on the South African Union and the Principles of Government. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
page: 37

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.