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“The Art of the Possible”: Churchill, South Africa, and Apartheid (Part 2)
“An Elgin Marble: Bas-relief in the manner of the Parthenon Frieze (commonly called the Elgin Marbles). Design attributed to Mr. W-nst-n Ch-rch-ll.” Lord Elgin was Colonial Secretary, but as his deputy, Churchill took the lead. (Bernard Partridge in Punch, 25 April 1906)
“Almal sal regkom”
Continued from Part 1.
In 1994 President Nelson Mandela’s representatives asked this writer for the text of Churchill’s third speech to Congress. South Africa’s president was to address a Joint Session, soon after ending Apartheid (racial segregation). I assumed he wanted the 1952 text because it was the only one in peacetime. There were no Churchill quotations in Mr. Mandela’s speech. But there was a certain echo—of which more anon.
The article prompting this essay argued that Churchill’s support of South African union helped deprive Africans of their rights.1 The truth—and Churchill’s part in Apartheid—is more complicated. Churchill had his faults, to be sure. Some of them stemmed from his stubborn optimism. “Almal sal regkom,” he often remarked in Afrikaans: “All will come right.” Much has long since come right in South Africa, and Churchill made his contribution.
Apartheid did not begin when Natal, Cape Colony, the Transvaal and Orange Free State united in 1910. It developed gradually, not taking legal form until 1949. Nor were blacks everywhere deprived of the franchise. As Britain approved the Transvaal constitution in July 1906, Churchill and Colonial Secretary Lord Elgin strove to expand, not diminish, liberties.
In 1906, Natal put down a Zulu uprising against taxation. Elgin feared trouble between “the ‘personal’ rule of the Native (which must almost of necessity rest with the Governor) – and the ‘self government’ accorded to the Colony as a whole.” But Elgin and Churchill believed a compromise was possible.2
“No cause for present apprehension”
Elgin had intended to lay the question of native rights before the cabinet. This, wrote historian Ronald Hyam, contributed to his dismissal. Prime Minister H.H. Asquith simply didn’t consider native rights as important as settling with the Boers.3 In April 1908 Lord Crewe replaced Elgin as Colonial Secretary. (Simultaneously, Churchill became President of the Board of Trade.)
The compromisers faced several challenges. First, “nothing could be done for Africans involving the spending of British taxpayers’ money.” Second, “Africans hated to be hurried and hustled.”4 After all, why rush? There was “no serious friction” between blacks and whites. “Each race goes its own way and lives its own life.” There was nothing like the racial animus in America. “Neither in the British Colonies nor in the Boer Republics is there any cause for present apprehension.”5
Churchill’s progressive views on race were not shared by Elgin, who had no experience of African society. Natives could vote in Cape Colony, Elgin conceded. But that would end “when the whites begin to realise that political power is passing out of their hands.” Elgin would admit to “some franchise rights” but not “the same rights” as whites. Native councils should be established to give them freedom to express their views.” How would those views matter? Elgin never addressed the question. “It is therefore all the more remarkable and impressive,” wrote Ronald Hyam, “that so much time was devoted to it.”6
The protectorate issue
Within South Africa’s multiple components were three British protectorates. Basutoland (today’s Lesotho) and Bechuanaland (now Botswana) were established after the First Boer War (1880-81). Swaziland (renamed Eswatini in 2018) became a protectorate after the Second Boer War (1899-1902). All three, governed by native chiefs, proved a major bone of contention. For almost a century, South Africa would demand their annexation. Britain, including Churchill, found one excuse after another not to agree. Finally, in the heyday of Apartheid, Britain granted all three independence.
Churchill declared “a general principle.” British support of a future South African state must include “our right to be consulted effectively upon the native policy. I would not do anything for them without a sufficient return for the benefit of the native….” Nor should Britain jump to hand over the protectorates. “Wherever there was positive cruelty…where Africans were exploited for gain, the government should not be deterred from speaking our mind….”7 Lord Crewe agreed. “The Basutos,” he wrote. had “asked to be allowed to lay their case before the King, and they cannot be refused.”8
“Majestic, beneficent, far-reaching…”
The natives’ best security, Churchill told Crewe, was “our power to delay” handing over the protectorates. A few years would surely make a difference:
…the Government of United South Africa will take a broader and calmer view of native questions…. [And] the real security the natives are gaining in education, civilisation and influence so rapidly that they will be far more capable—apart from force altogether—of maintaining their rights, and making their own bargain…. [W]e should assert our intention to hand over the Protectorates…the more South Africa will swallow the better for House of Commons—and should then play steadily for time with all the cards in our hand. [Let us try] to get as much as we can for the natives….
Churchill feared a quarrel over native affairs between South Africa and the British Parliament. Still, there was room for hope. The Liberal Party, he told Crewe:
…is much attracted by the idea of unification and reconciliation, and fully alive to the credit which we derive from its achievement. The horse will draw the cart, if both are tied together. But do not let them get separated. Confront Parliament with a complete scheme, majestic, beneficent, far-reaching. Prove to them that you have done your best for the natives.9
The drift toward Apartheid
The Union of South Africa, uniting Cape Colony, Natal, the Transvaal and Orange Free State, was declared on 31 May 1910. Apartheid was not a word in use then. In the mainly British Cape and Natal, qualified males retained the vote regardless of race. Of course, “qualified” then required minimum income or property ownership. White women were granted the vote in 1930. By then, as Elgin had predicted, the black franchise in the Cape and Natal had dwindled. Successive governments of the white supremacist National Party (often known as “Nationalists”) chipped away at it, and few blacks or Cape Coloureds were still voting in the 1930s.
Two world wars kept Churchill far from South African affairs. There is no comment in his ‘tween-wars writings on the drift toward segregated societies. South Africa reasserted its claim to the protectorates. Britain had pledged that natives would be consulted and their “full acquiescence sought,” wrote Edwin Smith in 1938. “Would anyone seriously maintain that the people of this country should keep the one pledge and not the other? A promise given to Africans is just as sacred as a promise given to Afrikaners.”10
Churchill’s two best Afrikaner friends were former Boer War enemies. Louis Botha (1869-1919), was the country’s first prime minister. (It was rumored, erroneously, that young Winston was once engaged to his daughter Helen.) Botha succeeded in making South Africa a self-governing Dominion, like Canada and Australia. During World War II, Prime Minister Jan Christian Smuts (1870-1950) became one of Churchill’s closest confidants. He was the last prime minister before Apartheid.
Malan and the Apartheid campaign
Smuts was no egalitarian, but in the South Africa of his day he was considered progressive. He believed both in the government by whites and “the inherent stability and good faith” of blacks. He was against “breaking down their local tribal customs,” and opposed “the artificial half-baked white ideas we are foisting upon them.” In 1929, Smuts said: “If we could evolve and pursue a policy which will promote the cause of civilization in Africa without injustice to the African, without injury to what is typical and specific in the African, we shall render a great service to the cause of humanity.”11
In 1946 the Fagan Commission on native laws recommended easing restrictions on natives in urban areas. It was self-serving, since it contemplated improving the supply of native labor. Still, it was not Apartheid. It would have helped ease the poverty in which blacks were forced to live outside white urban areas. Smuts’s support for this modest reform outraged the National (aka “Nationalist”) Party, led by Daniel François Malan, an ardent racialist. Malan fought the May 1948 election on color lines, and for the first time was heard the word Apartheid.
Smuts’s United Party ran in part on racial reconciliation—and lost. It was as surprising as Churchill’s defeat in 1945, and Smuts never got over it. He derided the Nationalists for calling his chosen successor Jan Hofmeyr a “kaffir boetie” and “gogga.”12 In grief and despair, he died two years later.
Smuts and Churchill
Churchill saw himself in Smuts’s defeat. “A great world statesman [was] cast aside by the country he led through so many perils and for whose independence he fought with such valour in bygone days, and for whose revival he worked with so much perseverance over long years, raising South Africa to a level of repute and influence in the world never known before.”13
Smuts was depressed by Malan’s drive for Apartheid.14 The Population Registration Act of 1950 formalised identity cards specifying one’s race. The Group Areas Act ended mixed races living side by side, allotting each race its separate areas. The 1951 Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act demolished poor black neighborhoods within white enclaves. White employers had to pay for housing of any black workers allowed to reside in white cities. Laws proscribed mixed marriages. The 1953 Reservation of Separate Amenities Act reserved to whites such public facilities as beaches, buses, hospitals, schools and universities. “Whites only” signs appeared, even on park benches. Apartheid seemed at least as severe as American Jim Crow laws, which Britons once proudly claimed “don’t exist here.”
Smuts saw his country “moving into a dark period of totalitarian politics.”15 India’s moves toward republic status, he told Churchill, would only encourage the Nationalists. A republic was the “halfway house towards complete secession from the Commonwealth (which is their goal).” South Africa would go the way of the Holy Roman Empire, becoming “nothing but a name, and lose all meaning and reality.”16
In 1950, Malan’s government disenfranchised Cape Coloured (mixed-race) citizens. Non-white affairs were handed over to government bureaus. Malan, Smuts told Churchill, could not “control his republican extremists. [Their propaganda] will influence racial feeling here as no other issue can.”17
In 1958 Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd further advanced Apartheid. He set up twenty “bantustans” or black homelands, nominally independent, but recognized by no other government. Churchill had thought “repudiating the Crown” inconceivable. He was wrong. In 1961 Verwoerd proclaimed a republic and left a British Commonwealth that was increasingly critical of Apartheid. Churchill’s reaction is unrecorded, though I once asked his daughter. “He was shattered,” said Lady Soames. “He always hoped all would come right.”18
Before he died, Smuts warned Churchill that Malan would make another claim to the protectorates.19 When it arrived in 1954, Churchill was again prime minister. It gave him a final opportunity to stand for justice:
There can be no question of Her Majesty’s Government agreeing at the present time to the transfer of Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland to the Union of South Africa. We are pledged, since the South Africa Act of 1909, not to transfer these Territories until their inhabitants have been consulted [and] wished it. [South Africa should] not needlessly press an issue on which we could not fall in with their views without failing in our trust.20
Within fourteen years, Britain would grant all three protectorates independence. Today, Botswana is one of the most prosperous and democratic countries in Africa.21
“The oneness of the human race”
Back to Nelson Mandela’s triumphant presidency and speech to Congress. He did not quote Churchill. I preferred to think his request for Churchill’s speech meant that he shared the Churchillian spirit. There a distinct echo of this when Mandela spoke of “the uneasy road to victory” for human rights…
Principal among these was, on the one hand, the willingness of the erstwhile minority rulers to concede political power without first resorting to such resistance as would reduce our country to a wasteland. On the other was the ability of the oppressed majority to forgive and accept a shared destiny with those who had enslaved them. That both black and white in our country can today say we are to one another brother and sister…constitutes a celebration of the oneness of the human race.22
A half century before, Winston Churchill had told the House of Commons:
…when the ancient Athenians, on one occasion, overpowered a tribe in the Peloponnesus which had wrought them great injury by base, treacherous means, and when they had the hostile army herded on a beach naked for slaughter, they forgave them and set them free, and they said: “This was not because they were men; it was done because of the nature of Man.”23
Ever since he asked for Churchill’s speech, I have regarded Nelson Mandela as a Churchillian. I am sure he would not approve of Churchill’s every act toward South Africa over the years. But I have no doubt that he shared two famous Churchill qualities: “In Victory, Magnanimity. In Peace, Goodwill.”
Did everything come right in South Africa? “Not everything,” I’m told by an ex-pat: “The heady days of Mandela are long gone.” The country has struggled against corruption, crime, poverty. “The best thing is that post-Apartheid it is not a racialistic country.” It is predominantly a two-party parliamentary system with open elections. The white population retains its economic power, but there are many black entrepreneurs, intellectuals and professionals. They are contributing much to the country.”24
Was Churchill everywhere right during the development of South Africa? Certainly not, but his efforts and motivations deserve consideration. Was his attitude paternalistic? “Of course, and you can quote Abraham Lincoln, and most of America’s founders, in precisely the same sense,” writes Hillsdale College’s President Larry Arnn:
The remarkable thing is that Lincoln, for the slaves, and Churchill, for the Empire, believed that people of all colors should enjoy the same rights, and that it was the mission of their country to protect those rights….
We spend a lot of time arguing that Churchill was remarkable. Then when something comes along that we do not like, we excuse it or explain it as typical of the age. I do not think Churchill was typical of the age on this question, if the age was racist. Another thing to remember is that Lincoln and Churchill were political men. Also they were democratic men. They needed, and thought it was right that they needed, the votes of a majority. If they lived in an age of prejudice (and every age is that) then of course they would be careful how they offended those prejudices.25
1 “Apartheid: made in Britain: Richard Dowden explains how Churchill, Rhodes and Smuts caused black South Africans to lose their rights,” The Independent, 18 April 1994.
2 Elgin to Winston S. Churchill, 25 September 1907, in Randolph S. Churchill, ed. The Churchill Documents, vol 4, Minister of the Crown 1907-1911 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2007), 681.
3 Ronald Hyam, Elgin and Churchill at the Colonial Office 1905-1908 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968), 369-70.
4 Ibid, 369, 371.
5 James Bryce, Impressions of South Africa (London: Macmillan, 1897), 361-62.
6 Hyam, 379-80
7 WSC to Elgin, 4 October 1907, Documents, vol. 4, 685.
8 Lord Crewe to WSC, 28 December 1908, ibid., 859.
9 WSC to Lord Crewe, 3 January 1909, ibid., 865-66.
10 Edwin W. Smith, “The South African Protectorates,” Journal of the Royal African Society Vol. 37, No. 147 (Apr., 1938), 199.
11 J.C. Smuts (son), Jan Christian Smuts (London: Cassell, 1952), 306-07.
12 Smuts, 509. “Kaffir boetie” (Kaffir brother) is an Afrikaans racist slur for a white person who sympathized with the black community. “Gogga” is Afrikaans for a frightening insect.
* * *
13 WSC, Perth, Scotland, 28 May 1948, in Martin Gilbert & Larry Arnn, eds., The Churchill Documents, Vol. 22, Leader of the Opposition, August 1945-September 1951 (Hillsdale College Press, 2019), 647.
14 Leopold Amery to WSC, 14 April 1949, in Leader of the Opposition, 847.
15 Jan Christian Smuts, 514-15.
16 Smuts to Churchill, 21 May 1949, Leader of the Opposition, 857.
17 Ibid., 858.
18 Mary Soames to the author; private conversation.
19 Smuts to Churchill, 16 March 1950, Leader of the Opposition, 1027.
20 WSC, House of Commons, 13 April 1954, in Martin Gilbert & Larry Arnn, eds., The Churchill Documents, Vol. 23, Never Flinch, Never Weary, October 1951-January 1965 (Hillsdale College Press, 2019), 1538.
21 The first president of independent Botswana was Sir Seretse Khama, whom the Labour government exiled in 1951. In 1956 returned to lead his nation to freedom and prosperity. The film A United Kingdom incorrectly drags Churchill into his exile.
22 Nelson Mandela to a Joint Session of the United States Congress, 6 October 1994, C-Span Inc., accessed 18 May 2020.
23 WSC, House of Commons, 18 January 1945 in Richard M. Langworth, Churchill by Himself (London: Ebury, 2008, rev. 2012), 71.
24 Dr. Cyril Mazansky to the author, 12 May 2020.
Larry P. Arnn & Martin Gilbert, eds., The Churchill Documents, vol. 22, Leader of the Opposition, August 1945-September 1951 (2019).
Larry P. Arnn & Martin Gilbert, eds., The Churchill Documents, vol. 23, Never Flinch, Never weary, October 1951-January 1965 (2019)
Randolph S. Churchill, ed. The Churchill Documents, vol. 4, Minister of the Crown 1907-1911 (2007).
J.C. Smuts, Jan Christian Smuts (1952).