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The Political Situation. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
page: 85
page: 86


But when we look at the Cape Colony at the present day, the doubt at first forces itself upon us whether there is a Progressive Element at all. Would this unbroken spell of Retrogressive legislation and political flaccidity be possible were really Progressive Elements existent in the country?

In times past there was such an element. Small but united, there was a Progressive Party of which no advanced European people need have been ashamed. From the days of Pringle and Fairbairn to the page: 87 days of Sir George Grey and Saul Solomon, not only was South Africa not wanting in liberal and advanced individuals, but these individuals had their influential following. It was by these men and their party that our most advanced institutions were created, our comparatively broad basis of enfranchisement instituted, our most beneficent educational establishments, native and otherwise, founded, and the recognition on our Statute-book of the fact that to all men, irrespective of race and colour, the law should deal out an even-handed justice—this and much more was the work of these men.

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When to-day we see how steadily we are undoing this work, and legislating in opposition to it, and how entirely opposed to the Progressive spirit of the past is that which guides our public councils to-day, the suggestion will force itself upon us: “Is not the Progressive Element dying or dead among us?”

For years past Retrogressive measure after Retrogressive measure has stained our Statutebook; undesirable commercial contracts have been entered into, subjecting public interests to personal gains; the name and prestige of the Cape Colony have been used for the attain- attainment page: 89 ment of extra-colonial ends in a manner we do not desire—yet we have remained passive. In town or village no public meetings have been called to protest against these courses of action. In no case have even the smallest knots of men been found banded together to defend the country against these changes. If we except the recent protest against the bread and meat tax and against the appointment of one of the Monopolist Party to the highest function of the State, the country has remained in a condition of deadly passivity and almost comatose inertia.

On the surface I allow it page: 90 appears that there is no progressive element in South Africa, but I believe this appearance is not a reality.

I believe that in every town, and in every district and village, will be found (though not invariably among its most important or wealthy members) a certain body of men and women, from the bank clerk to the clergyman, from the shop assistant to the small tradesman, from the schoolmaster or mistress to the enterprising young farmer, Dutch or English, from the working man to the wholesale merchant, who are as essentially advanced in their view as any body of men or page: 91 women in any country: persons wholly unaffected by the disease which seems eating the core of our national life—that fevered desire to grow wealthy without labour, as individuals by reckless speculation, and as a nation by annexations.

And if it be asked how, if this Progressive Element exists among us, it has become so completely inoperative, my reply is simply—Because it lacks organisation.

At the time of the Restoration there were not fewer advanced and progressive Republicans in England than there had been in the lifetime of Oliver Cromwell. They had page: 92 not died nor emigrated at the accession of Charles the Second; they were still there, holding their views with the same strength and with perhaps an added bitterness, but as a power in the land they were annihilated. They had lost their leader; they had lost their organisation; and the extreme Retrogressive Party had attained to both of these. That mass of persons, indifferent to reforms and public interests, which is found in every country, and which sides with each dominant party because it has the power of conferring benefits and inflicting injuries, went over to the Royalists as it had page: 93 before gone over to the Republicans. The Democratic Party for years was inoperative in England, but it was not dead, only disorganised; it came to life again, more democratic than ever.

So, looking nearer home, there were not, eleven years ago, fewer non-progressive and reactionary persons in the Colony than at the present day: there were probably more.

The men who have raised the franchise, who have taxed the necessaries of life, who have crushed all endeavours to contend with scab, who session by session attempt to pass a Flogging Bill which would disgrace page: 94 a semi-barbarous people, have not sprung into existence to-day; they were here, holding their views if possible more ardently than to-day, but they were powerless; they could not even materially impede Progressive legislation, because they were unorganised.

This position is ours to-day. Exactly as the Anti-Progressive individual sat on his farm, unable to give expression to his views, because he sat alone, and had no means of communicating with his like-thinking and like-feeling fellows, so to-day the Progressive men and women stand alone in this country; they are not aware of their page: 95 own numbers; they are not aware of the intensity of common conviction which would bind them into a solid body were they once in touch.

The organisation of these now scattered and isolated units into one united whole is, I believe, the one and only means of staying the Retrogressive Movement in this country. And the great practical question before us now is—How is this to be done?

I allow that I see great difficulties in the way.