JUST five years ago, also on the eve of a general election, I reviewed the political situation in the Union of South Africa and attempted to forecast the result.[i] On that occasion I was more fortunate than prophets sometimes are, for I foretold the defeat of General Smuts and estimated accurately the ultimate strength of the parties. But I would disclaim the rôle of prophet today because not only are there so many warring factors at work, but also because the elections will have taken place (June 12) shortly before these lines appear in print.

It may be remembered by some readers that the two parties, Nationalists and Labor, which had been in opposition since the grant of independent government, allied themselves at the last elections in order to avoid three-cornered contests which would split the vote and result in a victory for the South African Party of General Smuts. It was entirely an election compact, and was successful in that many of Smuts's candidates lost their seats. But the Nationalists had but a bare working majority; and in order to allow them to consolidate their position the agreement was continued in the House of Assembly. It was plain, however, that two such groups, holding diametrically opposite views on contentious matters like wages, labor hours, native representation and trades unionism, must sooner or later find progress in double harness somewhat complicated. Nevertheless the decision was made. Labor was rendered more amenable by the award of three seats in the Cabinet. It was a generous award; but it has become a gift not unlike the shirt of Nessus, for it has shattered the Labor Party.

The Labor Party record in this last Parliament has been a sorry one in the extreme. Although professedly the apostles of progress, they have fettered the liberty of the press which has been the boast of Anglo-Saxon countries since our forefathers won that privilege. At election times all leading and special articles dealing with politics, as well as the reports of meetings, must now be signed with the names and addresses of the reporters, editors and sub-editors who have handled or otherwise been responsible for the "copy." This measure was nothing but a crude attempt at intimidation, as in this twentieth century the press do not invent statements and place them in the mouths of politicians.

So far Colonel Creswell was given the reins by his Nationalist friends; but in the other main planks of his Progressive platform, an eight-hour day and women's suffrage, he did not secure their support; and, moreover, the time came when they claimed as their share of the bargain the passage of the Flag Bill which had for its aim the exclusion of the Union Jack from South Africa. Although himself an ex-officer of the British Army, Colonel Creswell supported the abolition of the Union Jack, and the country seemed heading full for civil war when the Minister of Justice came to the rescue with a compromise that was ultimately adopted and sufficiently reasonable to be accepted by the moderate majority. Thus it is that American tourists who have visited the Union on world tours during the last four years have seen dual flagstaffs, the left-hand of which flies the Jack and the other the new Union flag, on the white central bar whereof are a microscopic Jack and equally minute flags of the old Transvaal and Orange Free State Republics. So tender, too, was the Nationalist conscience that a new set of stamps had to be issued without the King's head.

But sensational as were these episodes at the time, the Labor Party provided more food for criticism in other ways. One of the three Ministers won considerable notoriety by expecting the country to pay his daily taxi-fare from his house to his office (a distance of fifty-odd miles), but the Auditor-General in his Annual Report gave so scathing an indictment of this item of some $4,625 that the culprit had to make amends by promising to pay off so much a month -- a rather undignified proceeding for a man who was at the moment a Minister of the Crown. He was later destined to bring his career to an abrupt termination when on his own initiative he gave an audience to a deputation of men from the diamond diggings, after it had been decided at a Cabinet meeting that they should not be given an interview to ventilate their troubles; in defiance of the Council he seized a chance of addressing them and assured them of his complete sympathy. The publication of the correspondence which passed between him and the Prime Minister, resulting in a demand for the resignation of his portfolio, was productive of much mirth throughout the country.

This, however, was but the foolish action of a single member of the Government: the attitude adopted by the Prime Minister himself regarding the German Trade Treaty comes into a very different category. One of the few members of the House of Assembly who has the courage at times to launch out as an independent, although nominally he is in the ranks of Labor, stated without any equivocation that this was nothing but a deliberate design to cut the painter of the British connection. He asked pertinently what particular debt South Africa owed Germany that the latter should be given preference over the sister-members of the British Commonwealth of Nations. He instanced the United States as having consolidated its financial status by the creation of a tariff wall and inquired why the British Commonwealth of Nations, which could be equally well self-supporting, should not follow on the same fiscal lines. A further assault was made on the Treaty by General Smuts, who rose in the debate and recalled the fact that at the Ottawa Conference of 1887 the leading Afrikander of the Cape Bond, Jan Hofmeyr, had put forward proposals relating to Imperial Preference, the first time that a suggestion was made for the fiscal consolidation of the different members of the British Empire.

General Hertzog is narrow-minded but he is the most astute of parliamentarians. In this case he tried the game of "having it both ways." For the purpose of instructing the rather thick-headed Nationalist Party in the reality of the "sovereign independence" which he claimed to have obtained at the Imperial Conference a couple of years earlier, the Treaty is open to the perusal of all mankind; and, needless to remark, has received the hearty approbation of the Nationalist members he leads. But, for the purpose of avoiding submitting it to a hostile majority in the Senate, General Hertzog ranked the treaty in the category of "secret diplomacy." The Prime Minister's misuse of a constitutional power produced a twofold effect. The first was to prevent the Senate rejecting the Treaty; but his refusal to submit it to that body led or misled the other members of the British Commonwealth of Nations into concluding that the Union approved of the measure because the Legislature did not reject it. Confusion was thus introduced into a sphere where everything should be most carefully ordered. A vital distinction in the nature of treaties disappeared. This distinction was between treaties that are not publicly discussed for reasons of state, and treaties that are submitted for parliamentary approval. In this particular instance the treaty itself provided for ratification by the competent legislative authority. The power to complete treaties that cannot be publicly discussed is the high-water mark of a people's confidence in its government. In Great Britain itself and other countries it is safeguarded by the fact that foreign politics are usually not regarded as party politics. In the Union under the recent government this power has been used to conceal a lack of confidence--a grave violation of the spirit of constitutional government.

The Premier during his recent term of office has made a gesture of friendship towards the United States by the appointment of an agent-general there, but it is not easy to understand in just what way the Union had benefited thereby. It seems little else than one of those cases best expressed in the old classical tag, "Parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus." Even the canned crayfish from the Cape factories failed to tickle the American palate. There should, however, be some consolation from the American point of view in that American motorcars still dominate the market.

To revert finally to the election. The state of the parties after the election four years ago was as follows: Nationalist, 65; South African Party, 51; Labor, 18; Independent, 1. Such was my forecast and such was the ultimate result. Today two factors obscure the issue: first, the split of the Labor Party into two warring factions; and second, the creation of certain new constituencies. As regards the former, it seems very unlikely at the moment of writing that there will be even an eleventh hour truce, the leader of the "Rebs" (as we might style them) having developed a very high temperature in animosity against Colonel Creswell, and having declared his intention of fighting Creswellite candidates wherever possible. He does not extend his feud against the Nationalists. It is therefore conceivable that in certain areas a split vote will spoil the Creswellite chances. On the other hand, some eight new constituencies have been created by a recently appointed Delimitation Commission and it is not unreasonable to presume that the Commissioners have done their work with an eye to the advantage of the government which brought them into being. Strange, almost incredible, things were done at election times under the old Transvaal Republican Government, from the polling of dead men to the wholesale suppression of ballot-boxes. One can well understand, then, that in bringing into being the new areas in Natal, which is mainly anti-Nationalist, the political obstetricians will have plenty of precedent for seeing to it that the new arrivals shall not be inclined to call upon General Smuts as their sponsor.

[i] Cyril Campbell: "South Africa Before the Elections," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, June 1924.

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  • CYRIL CAMPBELL, formerly on the editorial staff of the Rand Daily Mail and South Africa correspondent for the London Times
  • More By Cyril Campbell