THE Union of South Africa still suffers from the romantic illusions and false optimism which attended its foundation. The golden days of 1910 assumed a union of hearts and not merely of institutions. Given patience, good will and favorable circumstances, those hopes might have been realized. But it was not to be. The young nation found itself plunged into the Great War only four years after the achievement of union. Still more significantly, Dutch South Africa was called upon to fight on behalf of Great Britain against Germany less than thirteen years after the termination of the war waged against Great Britain by the Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State -- a war in which they had received the ill-concealed sympathy of the Kaiser and his people. The strain was too great. The old Republics blazed out into rebellion. With extraordinary moral courage Generals Botha and Smuts took the field, in honorable fulfilment of their promises of allegiance, on the side of their ancient foe against their own people. They suppressed the rebellion. But they suppressed it at the cost of incurring immense unpopularity, and of being repudiated by a large section of their former supporters. Their success led to the ultimate triumph of the Nationalist movement under General Hertzog. That movement, seven years after Botha's death, succeeded in hounding Smuts out of office and seizing the reins of government.

When the National Convention met in 1908-9 there was much canvassing of a "federative solution." The delegation of Natal actually laid on the table a draft "British South Africa Act" embodying the federal principle. But the forces working against federation were too strong. The Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, John X. Merriman, with whom financial saving was almost a monomania, was convinced that federalism spelt extravagance. Moreover, the larger colonies -- the Cape and the Transvaal -- contained large numbers of both races, Dutch and English, distributed in such a way as to make it difficult to draw boundaries between them: thus federation on the Swiss model was impossible. It is true that each of the smaller provinces, Natal and the Orange Free State, was more homogeneous -- the one overwhelmingly English, the other overwhelmingly Dutch. But when ex-President Steyn of the Free State declared for a legislative union, the possibility of a federal solution disappeared. The whole weight of the Transvaal delegation headed by Generals Botha and Smuts was thrown in favor of union.

Thus pressed, the Natal delegates unwillingly gave way. To placate them, a makeshift system of provincial councils was devised. Looked at superficially, this system bears some resemblance to a close federation of the Canadian type. In reality, however, all the essential elements of federalism are absent. The ordinances of the provincial councils may be vetoed by the Union Government, which appoints and removes the administrator, the head of the province. The councils possess no exclusive legislative powers. On every point they may be overridden by Union legislation. The courts may declare their ordinances invalid -- but the acts of the Union Parliament are not subject to that restriction. The powers of the councils may be curtailed or extended by unilateral action on the part of the Union Parliament, which also has the undoubted legal right to abolish them. In short, they are important local government bodies rather than organs of states in a federation.

From the beginning, however, Natal regarded the councils as a fundamental part of the bargain of Union and thought of their maintenance as an undoubted moral obligation. One legal guarantee she thought she had secured. Bills abolishing provincial councils, or abridging their powers, were, in terms of the Constitution, to be "reserved for the signification of His Majesty's pleasure." As the unwritten Constitution of the British Commonwealth stood in 1910, this meant that the King's Ministers in Great Britain would virtually be called in as arbitrators between the provinces and the Union. The process of amendment which has just culminated in the Statute of Westminster has rendered this safeguard illusory. It is now universally accepted that the King is advised solely by his Dominion Ministers in matters affecting any particular Dominion. Reservation has thus become a meaningless anomaly. Natal's only protection remains the common sense and good faith of the rest of the Union.

Isolated by Natal's geographical position and still more by her history from the general life of the Union, the people of Natal saw with surprise and displeasure the rapid development of an Africander nationalism all around her. In truth, the atmosphere of good will which was so apparent at the National Convention was not deeply enough grounded to last. Generals Botha and Smuts were in a difficult position. Firmly convinced of the wisdom and righteousness of a policy of conciliation, they had to suffer the reproach from many of their old friends of being weak-kneed compromisers, while their new supporters -- including a solid block of members from Natal -- had not enough vision or imagination to understand the Dutch point of view and the singularly unhappy position of their leaders. While General Hertzog and others complained that the application of the bilingual principle was intolerably slow, Natal murmured at its being applied in practice even to a limited degree. Natalians forgot that Dutch had been the sole official language of the Transvaal and Free State less than ten years before the establishment of the Union. It was hard to understand that their own natural and laudable British characteristic of warm-hearted loyalty to the throne was not at all shared by many people outside Natal, and that even the leaders of the country felt an honorable but cold sense of obligation rather than a passionate devotion. Perhaps Botha's and Smuts's worst enemies were, after all, their friends.

All these tendencies were accentuated by the Great War and the rebellion. The rebellion made the success of the Nationalist Party possible, though the party itself had been founded two years earlier. General Hertzog, himself not a participant in the rebellion, had no hesitation in capitalizing the sentiments which it had aroused. Nationalism grew as a political force. General Hertzog himself has been fairly consistently (as he is today) an autonomist of the type of Arthur Griffith or Michael Collins rather than a republican secessionist. Many Nationalists, however, openly preached secession and were not disavowed. The party today contains strong republican elements, at present only held down by General Hertzog's personal influence.

It was due principally to the preaching of these republican doctrines that the idea of the secession of Natal first began to be canvassed. Natal, in short, did not intend to secede from the Union until a strong group in the Union openly talked of seceding from the Empire. The overwhelming majority of Natalians (to speak frankly) had not thought of the war in terms of South African interests at all. They fought and died, gallantly, cheerfully, for England, for the "old country," for "the Empire," not for South Africa nor yet to "make the world safe for democracy." Their attitude was perfectly natural, intensely exasperating to the Nationalists, and a source of embarrassment to the leaders -- Botha and Smuts -- whom they still continued to support.

While they were with great complacency contemplating the victorious end of the war and the terms of the armistice, they learned, to their undisguised horror and indignation, that a deputation of leading Nationalists was planning to attend the Peace Conference, and to plead in the name of the principle of "self-determination" for the restoration of the independence of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. That the members of the deputation seriously expected to attain their object may be doubted. They probably knew enough of English psychology to realize that Englishmen would never seriously consider self-determination as applicable to a state so fortunate as to be a member of the British Commonwealth. The work of the deputation may be regarded simply as a gesture, making clear, in a way not even very dignified, a point in a national argument. General Hertzog made the biggest mistake in his political career when he consented to form part of the deputation. Having committed himself to the secession of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State from the Union, he is in a very difficult position if he opposes the secession of Natal.

So strong was republican feeling in the Nationalist Party, that a great conference which was held in 1920 to bring about reunion between it and the South African Party, led to nothing because the Nationalists would not agree to drop secession as an ideal. In despair, General Smuts turned to the Unionists. They represented the consciously British vote in the provinces other than Natal. Realizing the need of sacrificing much in order to save something, the Unionist Party adopted heroic measures. It decided to dissolve, and its members joined the South African Party. Even then Natal provincialism persisted, and the Natal members of the South African Party continued to form a semi-independent wing, not fully amalgamating even with their fellow "Britishers" from other provinces.

With a cabinet enlarged by four of the ex-Unionist leaders, General Smuts appealed to the country in 1920. He received an adequate majority, and for the moment it seemed as if he had triumphed over republicanism for good. But in reality he had alienated almost as much support as he had gained, and many of his old supporters drifted into nationalism rather than work with the ex-Unionists. Disasters crowded thick and fast upon him. A great strike in the Witwatersrand mines was suppressed with severity, not indeed more severely than would have been the case in many European states, but with a harshness unusual in South Africa where rebellion is regarded as one of the more venial sins. Nationalism and organized labor drew together. At the election of 1924 they scored a signal triumph, and General Hertzog took office with a ministry composed of eight Nationalist and three Labor members.

Now for the first time Natal began to experience what the Transvaal and Orange Free State had experienced a quarter of a century before -- rule by an alien race. For, though the Labor Ministers effectively silenced the republican propaganda and helped to lead General Hertzog back into the path of independence within the Empire from which he had strayed, they were powerless to prevent the application of Nationalist principles in other directions. Bilingualism was carried to its logical conclusions -- in Natal, as elsewhere. Afrikaans-speaking officials began to increase more and more rapidly in the public services -- a natural development, but one resented in Natal. Worst of all, a bitter controversy arose over the question of the flag. A new South African flag was finally approved, and though the Union Jack may fly side by side with it on certain buildings in the larger towns, Natal has refused to be comforted. The flag of his country is regarded by many a Natalian with hatred and contempt -- again to the intense exasperation of other South Africans.

Thus far the situation created in South Africa in 1924 may seem to resemble that which has arisen in the Irish Free State in 1932. The analogy is sufficiently close to warrant examination. Hertzog, like de Valera, had made his name as a republican. Like de Valera he has not always been fairly represented. Like de Valera, again, he has to face the opposition of yet more extreme republicans, to whom what they regard as his moderation is anathema. Like de Valera, he came into office with the support of labor. In his case the flag question was what the oath question is with de Valera. And, although both parties in Ireland are nearer to the republican left than is the case in South Africa, there is some considerable resemblance between the situation of Cosgrave and that of Smuts.

It is just possible -- no more than just possible -- that South African history may repeat itself in Ireland and that de Valera, having removed the last obstacles to perfect equality between the Irish Free State and Great Britain, may, like Hertzog, turn on his own republicans and die in the odor of sanctity of Dominion status. But one thing is certain. Neither Hertzog in South Africa nor de Valera in Ireland is fitted by education, temperament or political affiliation to conciliate the British minority. If we imagine a union of Ireland including intractable Ulster, formed in the spirit of Redmond rather than of de Valera, Collins or even Cosgrave, and a development a quarter of a century later which left de Valera Prime Minister of all Ireland, we shall understand the Natal secession movement. For though Natal, to do her justice, is a little more tolerant than Ulster, the resemblance is great.

To the north of the Union lies the self-governing colony of Southern Rhodesia. Possessing sentiments similar to those of Natal, she has been successful outside the Union in maintaining her position and even acquiring self-government. General Smuts did his utmost to entice her into the fold in 1923-24. He failed; and the result has been the accentuation of Africander nationalism within the Union. This tendency, largely Rhodesia's own fault, has estranged her more and more from her great neighbor. Natalians now look longingly at the colony of Southern Rhodesia. They see there an English-speaking territory under the Union Jack, free from the burden of bilingualism, with its own autonomous government. They see it, in spite of its close proximity to the Union, able to maintain itself economically and in a position to threaten withdrawal from the South African Customs Union.

At the same time, after eight years of Nationalist rule, they feel the iron entering deep into their soul. English to a fault, they have not yet had enough imagination to realize what the twenty-three years beginning with Milner and ending with Smuts indeed, but Smuts dependent on the ex-Unionists, have meant to the republicans of the Free State and the Transvaal. They fear that, even if Smuts succeeds at the polls in 1933 or 1934, his success will only encourage the republican wing of the Nationalist Party to renew its domination. They feel that a greater South African Confederation of the Union, Natal, Rhodesia and the Native Protectorates may one day be formed but that in the meantime the first ideal is to withdraw Natal from the Union and make her an independent bargaining factor.

General Smuts, it is true, has all along favored an expansionist policy, and, apart from a sincere broad-mindedness and desire for internal conciliation, is driven by this desire to favor a policy of closer rapprochement with Great Britain. For only with British good will and active British coöperation could the greater South Africa be brought into being. Some ardent Nationalists have spoken of the flag of a republican South Africa floating over Kenya, but the responsible leaders of the party, and in particular General Hertzog, have followed what may fairly be called a "little Africander" policy. They were unenthusiastic over the acquisition of Southwest Africa, they did their best to hinder the incorporation of Southern Rhodesia into the Union, and they vigorously protested during the election of 1929 against the linking-up of the Union with what they called "Kaffir states."

Success on the part of the Natal devolutionists would probably not pave the way to a greater South African Union, but would place permanent power in the remaining provinces in the hand of a dominant Africander majority, somewhat resentful at the Natal attitude and little disposed to make concessions to the large English-speaking minority within its borders. Natal and Rhodesia would take on the guise of "cities of refuge" to which gradually more and more young English South Africans would drift. No doubt a new problem would arise when Cape Town, in some ways more English even than Natal, and the Cape Peninsula, containing the British naval station, Simonstown, demanded the same right of secession as had been accorded to Natal. Within fifty years South Africa would be split into a Dutch Republic centering around Pretoria and exploiting the gold mines of Johannesburg; a British naval station at the Cape; an outlying colony, Natal, reproducing on a more extensive scale the problems of Kenya; a detached Southern Rhodesia; and territories in Central and East Africa the future development of which it is not now possible to forecast. Surely statesmanship and common sense would endeavor to prevent such a "Balkanization" of South and Central Africa. Natal is, in a deeper sense than it has realized, the key to the problem. If she stands fast and yet learns to exhibit more understanding, more of the spirit of give-and-take, she may save not only South African unity but also the permanent position in a Greater South Africa of that British tradition which she holds so dear.

English-speaking South Africans run the risk of going through a phase of defeatism which in the long run may harm their Afrikaans-speaking fellow citizens as much as it does themselves. The Englishman is not used to being in a second place, whether it be in South Africa or in Ireland. It is comparatively easy for him to be a magnanimous and even generous ruler -- few peoples have a better record in this respect -- but when he feels that he is ruled, he is apt to stumble along in confusion, quite perplexed by the unaccustomed character of his rôle. The English-speaking South African, whether in Natal or elsewhere, has no reason to give up. He is numerous enough and successful enough to hold his own if he will realize that he cannot always be on top in every sphere of the national life. In his surprise and disgust at finding this expectation unrealizable, he tends to despair. But hope, so Lord Bryce has hinted in the closing sentences of "Modern Democracies," is the greatest of political virtues. Once abandon hope, and the way is left open for fear, resentment, the " inferiority complex" and the whole miserable train of vices, neither virile nor noble, which English rule has occasionally called forth among subject-races and from which folk of English descent are not exempt. Greatly daring, we may say that what can yet save South Africa is a strong infusion of true Christianity; for it is one of those countries where the principles of the Sermon on the Mount represent the only workable and sensible political philosophy.

If we descend from these more or less idealistic heights and survey the human possibilities and probabilities of the South African situation, we shall be led to the conclusion that while secession from the Commonwealth and the consequent disruption of the Union are possible, the probabilities lie in the direction of the maintenance of an undivided Union within the Commonwealth. In spite of much bitter feeling and some irreparable harm since 1910, there is ground for hope. A growing minority even in Natal (principally of the younger generation) is coming to take a broad and statesmanlike South African view of the situation. There is more than a possibility that the electorate may not give the Nationalist Party a third term of office. Within the limits of the makeshift provincial system (which like the makeshift Third Republic in France will probably outlive many "permanent" institutions), a great measure of devolution can be accorded to Natal. By patience and untiring effort, it will still be possible to rebuild on a rock foundation of reverence for facts the structure of Union which, reared on the sands of optimistic illusion in 1910, has been so battered by the storms of the war and post-war years.

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  • EDGAR H. BROOKES, Professor of Public Administration, University of Pretoria; South African delegate at Geneva in 1927; author of "The History of Native Policy in South Africa," and other works
  • More By Edgar H. Brookes