ON June 12 a General Election for the House of Assembly took place in South Africa. Prior to the dissolution there was a House of 135 members, in which the "Pact Government" of Premier Hertzog had 73 pledged supporters -- 63 Nationalist and 10 Labor -- giving it without the vote of the speaker an assured majority of 10 over all possible combinations. On most questions General Hertzog could also count on the support of 7 members of a detached wing of the Labor Party, as well of one Independent, which meant in effect a majority of 26. The South African Party opposition, led by General Smuts, numbered 54.

In consequence of the operation of the automatic redistribution provisions of the South Africa Act, the new House will have 148 members. The elections have increased the representation of General Smuts' South African Party from 54 to 61, and the Labor wing of the government bloc has suffered a reduction in numbers from 10 to 5; but (allowing for a safe seat still to be filled) the Nationalist Party itself will be stronger by 15 in the new House than it was in the old. General Hertzog's own party will in fact now have a majority, after allowing for the speaker, of 7 over all possible combinations. With his pledged Labor supporters (for he has decided to continue the "Pact" in the Government as well as in the House), he will have a majority of 17. Moreover, he ordinarily will have the support of the 3 remaining Laborites and the one Independent, giving him a majority of 25.

The elections have therefore confirmed General Hertzog in office, with his effective majority practically unchanged. Labor representation has been reduced, and while the South African Party has improved its position as a result of Labor losses in the towns, this improvement is more than counterbalanced by the gains made in the rural areas by the Nationalists, who now for the first time in the history of the Union have an independent majority. General Smuts and the South African Party remain in the cold shades of opposition, and are left to extract what comfort they can from the fact that the number of votes cast for their candidates is not very far short of the number cast on the side of the Government and its allies.

These, briefly summarized, are the essential facts. What do they signify? To anyone outside South Africa the most interesting feature of the facts as I have stated them will doubtless be that for the second time in succession the electorate of South Africa has refused to accept the leadership of General Smuts. He is the one man in public life in South Africa with an international reputation. In Europe and America his name is still one to conjure with. His pronouncements on international questions are eagerly awaited. In relation to South Africa itself he has a magnificent record of service. State Attorney of the old South African Republic at 28; one of the heroes of the Anglo-Boer War; a leader in the restoration of the political influence of the defeated people after the struggle; foremost among the builders of the South African Union; as General Botha's chief lieutenant in the Union Parliament for nine years, and thereafter Prime Minister himself for five, the man who played the biggest part in launching the Union and in resolving the problems of adjustment which it brought with it; a valued member of the Imperial War Cabinet; an important figure at Versailles; the chief contributor toward establishing the status which South Africa has today among the nations of the world; with all this, a man held in the highest esteem in the inner circles of science and philosophy -- yet, twice rejected by the electorate of his own land! Verily, here seems to be a prophet not without honor, save in his own country.

Of this phenomenon there is a twofold explanation. The first is to be found in the fact that General Smuts occupied a position of authority in South Africa during a long and difficult period in which the Government had to meet several very serious crises. Again and again the call came to him to act. He never shirked his duty. He struck quickly, and he struck hard. Inevitably he made enemies, bitter enemies, in the process. And his is not the personality which can pour balm on the wounds he has made, or ever appease the hostility of an enemy once created. So it was that the situations which he was called upon to face, and which he did face with courage, determination, and single-minded patriotism, coupled with defects in his personality, have drawn upon him the concentrated, implacable hostility of the people whom he has served so well.

The other explanation I find in that most important element in politics -- sentiment. It is one of the first lessons to be learnt in public life that sentiment is a factor which the public man despises to his cost. To him who glories in his triumphant logic mere sentiment may seem to be stupid and annoying -- but again and again it has proved to be stronger than logic, and more effective than the most powerful of arguments. The politician who exploits sentiment for narrow party ends is a grave danger to the state, but often, also, serious consequences flow from the attitude of the statesman who despises it. Let me attempt to indicate the part which sentiment has played in our recent South African history, and if it be remembered that for the most part General Smuts has been in conflict with sentiment, the cause of his unpopularity will be the better understood.

Circumstances have brought into juxtaposition in South Africa the descendants of two strong races, British and Dutch, each having reason to be proud of its history and traditions, the one firmly rooted in the soil of South Africa by centuries of settlement, the other able to draw on the wonderful resources of British civilization and culture, neither willing to surrender its individuality and its traditions, or even light-heartedly to see them comprehended in a larger whole. That juxtaposition made the nineteenth century in South Africa a century of strife, which left bitter feelings based on a sense of injustice among the physically weaker Dutch element. The culminating point was the Anglo-Boer War, which brought the whole of South Africa under the British flag. This had two not unnatural and for a time quite distinct reactions. First there was the political reaction, the movement of which General Smuts was one of the leaders, to reëstablish the political position of the Dutch-speaking element, superior (in South Africa itself) numerically, but as a result of the war inferior politically. Secondly there was what one might call the cultural reaction. The former Dutch Republicans had lost their liberty and were in a position of subjection. A small people, they were confronted with the mighty power of Britain, its world-wide culture, its centuries of tradition. It seemed inevitable that they should be swamped. Instinctively they turned to the protection of their own distinctive culture and traditions. They pressed the claims of their language, Afrikaans, as something different from the Dutch of Holland; they developed their literature in that language; they sought to promote their cultural union.

Of these two reactions the political movement came to fruition first. The statesmanship of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman gave responsible government to the two former republics within five years of the end of the war, and by 1908 they, and the old Cape Colony as well, were ruled by predominantly Dutch governments. This prepared the way for Union. It came into being in 1910 in an atmosphere of inter-racial goodwill, and General Botha became the first Prime Minister of a united South Africa as the leader of a predominantly Dutch South African Party. But the very rapidity with which the success had been secured was to be the cause of further trouble. Generals Botha and Smuts had won through, largely because of the liberalism of British statesmen. At the National Convention which framed the Act of Union the prevailing relations between Dutch and British South Africans were of the most friendly character. What more natural than that they should put racial conciliation in the forefront of their policy, and go forward as if the Act of Union did really represent a union of races as well as of lands? But in fact the equal status and equal recognition which alone Dutch national sentiment could accept as the basis of national unity had not yet been obtained. The strength of that sentiment among their own people was not fully appreciated by Generals Botha and Smuts. In particular they were out of touch with the cultural movement to which I have referred. And so the policy of conciliation induced a reaction, which came to a head when General Hertzog had a disagreement with his colleagues and was forced to leave the Botha Government in 1912. That fact gave a new direction to the cultural movement. With General Hertzog as leader it assumed a political bias; out of that the Nationalist Party was born, basing itself very definitely, in the first instance at least, on an appeal to a separatist Dutch national sentiment. On that sentimental appeal the Nationalist party grew gradually to greatness. At each successive election it increased its representation; at each election General Smuts, the chief opponent of the sentimental appeal, fell more and more into disfavor with his own people; at last, in 1924, the Nationalists came back from the polls as the strongest individual party, and in alliance with Labor, which was linked to it by a common dislike of Smuts, the stern represser of strikes and industrial disturbances, it formed a Government. It is that Government which has ruled South Africa for the last five years, and which has triumphed at the recent elections.

In determining the issue of those elections the sentimental appeal played a not inconsiderable part. It is true that in this respect the position in 1929 was not the same as in 1924. In the interval the Nationalists had enjoyed the effective coöperation of an almost entirely British Labor Party, and they had accepted the declaration of the 1926 Imperial Conference as satisfying their sentimental aspirations. Their leaders, feeling that the equality of status and equality of recognition, which had now been secured, provided a fair basis of coöperation between Dutch and British in South Africa, were certainly anxious for racial peace and harmony. But among the rank and file the fires kindled by the sentimental appeals of the past were not yet dead. The South African party's adoption of immigration as one of its platform planks suggested the fear that this meant the state-aided introduction of British settlers who might be counted on to "vote British." The Opposition's use of the German Treaty as the basis of an appeal to British sentiment produced the inevitable reaction. And so it came about that the anti-British nationalist sentiment which had carried the party to victory in the past found an almost spontaneous expression which was as effective as at any previous election.

It is of this welling up of sentiment, then, that General Smuts has been the victim, and indeed his still surviving unpopularity was an important contributory cause of the Nationalist victory.

Two other things must be mentioned in an attempt to account for the result of the elections. The first is this. The Hertzog Government was able to appeal to the country with confidence on its record. The last Smuts Government had ruled the country during a period of depression; the necessity of making both ends meet won them many enemies. Their successors had the advantage of a period of prosperity. For them there was no need to resort to unpopular expedients. Moreover, they used their good fortune in a manner which commended itself to most of the electorate.

Finally, there must be mentioned as a determinative factor in the elections a new issue which was introduced -- the native question. The greatest of all the problems with which South Africa has to deal is that of the relationship between the politically superior Europeans and the numerically superior native peoples, considered in all its bearings, political, economic, social. The question of the survival of European civilization on the sub-continent profoundly agitates men's minds, and fills many with deep apprehension. On questions of native policy it would seem obviously in the interests of the Europeans to maintain a united front. This election was the first at which such questions became a leading issue. During the last Parliament General Hertzog had introduced a series of Native Bills. Of these the one which came to assume most importance was his measure dealing with the franchise. In this matter the position in South Africa is highly anomalous. At the moment of Union there were wide differences between the franchise laws of the four colonies. In the Cape Colony the natives enjoyed the franchise; elsewhere they did not. The Act of Union enshrined the status quo, and provided that it could not be altered without a two-thirds majority of both Houses of Parliament sitting together. The main feature of General Hertzog's proposal was the progressive abolition of the Cape franchise, coupled with certain minor concessions to the natives in the other provinces. The South African Party opposed the measure, pressing for the consideration of the whole native problem in the non-party atmosphere of a National Convention, with a view to the maintenance of a united European front. The Government's proposal failed to obtain the requisite two-thirds majority, and General Hertzog proceeded to make it one of the chief issues at the elections. The result was, as might have been feared, that color prejudice was very vigorously exploited; this undoubtedly affected many votes.

So much then for the result of the election, and its causes. On its probable effects I must needs be brief.

As concerns the relations between South Africa and the British Empire, the effect will be small; save in one respect, indeed, it might be described as negligible. Since the Imperial Conference of 1926 the Nationalists and South African party have been agreed on the question of imperial relationships. General Hertzog and his colleagues are satisfied with the position which prevails today; they will not seek any substantial change in that position. The difference between the two parties is now only in respect of the practical question of the extent of the coöperation between South Africa and Great Britain. The German Treaty recently concluded by the Hertzog Government represents a breach, small for the moment, but possibly of considerable future significance, in the principle of Imperial Preference. The policy which it represents has now received the endorsement of the majority of the electorate.

Of more importance is the possible effect of the elections on the harmony and peace of British and Dutch in South Africa. The South African Party which General Smuts leads has for some time now represented a genuine attempt at coöperation between the two races within a single party. It has comprehended British and Dutch elements in approximately equal numbers. As for the other parties, Labor has been almost exclusively British, the Nationalist Party almost exclusively Dutch. But in consequence of the Nationalist appeal to Dutch sentiment there has been a gradual attrition of the Dutch element in the South African Party, and as a result of the recent election, though the Dutch South African Party voters are still many in number, they represent for the most part a diffused minority, and there will be very few Dutch South African Party members in the new House. An exclusively Dutch-speaking Nationalist Party will be faced in the House by an almost exclusively English-speaking South African Party. Here lies a real danger that the work of the last twenty years will be undone and that we shall see a recrudescence of much of the old racial strife. Happily Dutch Nationalists and British Laborites continue to coöperate in the same government. But even so the danger is considerable.

But the most disturbing factor in the situation is the relationship existing between white and black. The united front of the Europeans has been broken. Color prejudice has been stirred as never before. And though the Prime Minister has still not got a two-thirds majority for his proposals, he will probably be encouraged by his recent success to proceed with them, and if they are again defeated he may decide to force another election exclusively on the native issue. Prejudices would in that event be roused still further, and one hesitates to contemplate the inevitable reaction on the native mind. For though General Hertzog's proposals in themselves have much to commend them, they have come to be enveloped in an atmosphere of color prejudice and ill-will, which can only have the effect of creating a sullen, discontented, hostile native population, and which would dispel all hope of a solution being found satisfactory either to white or to black. And since, in a world which is shrinking apace, men of diverse colors confront one another in many lands, such a state of affairs in South Africa could not be isolated but must have far-reaching effects.

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  • JAN H. HOFMEYR, Former Principal of Witwatersrand University; Administrator of the Transvaal Province, 1923-28
  • More By Jan H. Hofmeyr