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Perfidious Albion: Britain’s shameful role in blocking a non-racial franchise in the Union of South Africa

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‘Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” Vanity asks the question, “Is it popular?” But, conscience asks the question, “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right’
Martin Luther King Jr

Professor Keith Somerville reviews ‘Promise and Despair. The First Struggle for a Non-Racial South Africa’, a new study detailing the failed attempts to establish a non-racial franchise in the Union of South Africa, and how Britain’s acquiescence in the face of Afrikaner intransigence set the precedent for the progressive disenfranchisement of non-white South Africans and established the institutional and legal foundations on which apartheid could be built.

Perfidious Albion is a phrase that was much used in the late 18th and early 19th century to describe Britain’s reputation in Europe for bad faith, reneging on agreements and to back up accusations of outright treachery in her diplomacy and treaty-making.

Its origins are obscure. A 17th century French Catholic bishop and theologian wrote of Perfidious Albion in a poem attacking England (Jacques Bénigne Bossuet, ‘Sermon pour la fête de la Circoncision de Notre-Seigneur’ in: Oeuvres complètes, Volume 5, Ed. Outhenin-Chalandre, 1840, p.264).

The phrase, perhaps picked up from the French Catholic theologian, was used by Irish Catholics to describe England’s decision to renege on commitments to Catholic rights in Ireland made in the Treaty of Limerick in 1691, at the end of the war between English Protestant forces loyal to William III and Catholic Jacobites. The treaty promised favourable terms to the Irish Catholics, including freedoms to worship, own property and carry arms.  The provisions were reversed by the Penal Laws introduced in 1695.

The expression was picked up again by French revolutionary writers in the 1790s, when Britain opted to join the old, autocratic monarchies of Europe in fighting the new revolutionary government and then Napoleon. Much more recently it was used by Ian Smith, prime minister of the white supremacist settler minority government in Southern Rhodesia. In his book, The Great Betrayal, he bewails Britain’s supposed treachery towards the whites of Southern Rhodesia. And it is said he viewed the British Conservative foreign secretary as the embodiment of Perfidious Albion (The Independent, 22 November 2007).

It is ironic that Ian Smith thought Britain treacherous because of its demand that the franchise be extended to black Africans, as the main subject of this article is an earlier example of British perfidy in reneging on promises to black and coloured South Africans of a non-racial franchise when the Union of South Africa was negotiated after the second South African (Boer War) war, which ended with the 1902 Treaty of Vereeniging.

This example of gross bad faith helped lay the foundations of apartheid by legitimising the exclusion of non-whites from the new Union’s legislatures, denying them the franchise in the old Boer republics that became part of the Union and establishing the means by which the black and coloured voters could be eventually disenfranchised in the Cape.

THNon-racial imageHow this happened is narrated in Martin Plaut’s meticulously researched and crisply written Promise and Despair. The First Struggle for a Non-Racial South Africa. It is a new study of the failed attempts by a coalition of black, coloured and white leaders to establish a non-racial franchise in the Union settlement and protect black and coloured Cape voters, which has been published at an interesting time.

Politicians and academics in South Africa, notably Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters and Professor Patrick Bond, director of the Centre for Civil Society at University of KwaZulu-Natal, have been criticising the 1996 ‘Mandela’ constitution for limiting restitution of land and other resources to the black majority following the dismantling of apartheid (detailed by Justice Edwin Cameron of the South African Constitutional Court in a lecture at South Africa House, London, 21 July 2016).

Constitution making is a complex, long, drawn-out process involving much political horse-trading and legal argument, as Martin Plaut’s very clear narrative emphasises. If there were some faults or failures in the 1996 constitution – Justice Edwin Cameron said the failings have not been in the constitution in itself, but in the failure of the ANC government and civil society to exploit its untapped potential for change and restitution of expropriated land – then the 1910 Union constitution’s failings were legion. They were the result of a desire by the British government to not simply reconcile with the Afrikaner republics they had just fought, but to forge an alliance. And there were global strategic reasons for this, as Plaut succinctly identifies: ‘The British government, threatened by the rise of German military power and determined to have a united South Africa as part of its Imperial defences, was keen to press ahead with Union.’ (p.113)

The British fear of impending war in Europe and the need to bring South Africa, with its all-important control of sea routes round the Cape and possession of ports at Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban, into the union of Britain and its foreign dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Newfoundland) that could be called upon to supply men and material to support the war effort, should it come to that.

Promise and Despair sets out very clearly that, not only did the British government not want to antagonise the Afrikaner members of the projected union by pressing for a union-wide, non-racial franchise and for the right of non-white to sit in legislatures, it was also aware of Australia’s ‘colour bar’ and the opposition of the dominions to interference by London in what white settlers saw as their domestic affairs. This is detailed and sourced convincingly by Martin Plaut.

He provides a clear, very well-illustrated and sourced narrative of the attempt by a delegation of black, coloured and white politicians who travelled to London in the summer of 1909 to try to protect the non-racial franchise in the Cape and to enshrine the principle of a non-racial franchise based on property and educational qualifications, rather than race, on the constitution of the planned Union of South Africa.

As one of the delegation, the political activist and Xhosa newspaper editor John Tengo Jabavu, wrote: ‘They (the black people of South Africa) were assured by governors, governors’ agents, officials and missionaries of the absolute justice, freedom and liberty, with discrimination of color, they would enjoy under the British government.’ (Plaut, p. 123). He was supported by other leaders of the delegation the former Cape premier, William Schreiner, Cape coloured leader Dr Abdbullah Abdurahman, the teacher and black rights activist Dr Walter Rubasana. They also had backing from Mahatma Gandhi, who was in London representing the interests of South African Indians. The delegation tried to press the case for a non-racial franchise with support from the British Labour Party under Keir Hardies, radical liberals such as Sir Charles Dilke and the progressive press.

But the arguments for justice and equality could not compete with political expediency and the desire to bring Afrikanerdom into the imperial fold for strategic and also economic reason, the latter based on the lucrative mining industries. The intransigence of Jan Smuts, Louis Botha and John Merriman over the refusal of a union-wide non-racial franchise, the prevention of non-whites becoming members of elected legislative bodies and the provision for a future removal of voting rights in the Cape triumphed. It led to the adoption of a constitution for the Union of South Africa that was discriminatory and denied political rights to the vast majority of its population.

What is amazing – beyond the cold-blooded expediency of British politicians – is how little of this detailed and very valuable narrative has appeared before in histories of South Africa. Barely a mention, for example, in James Barber’s otherwise excellent South Africa in the Twentieth Century, or Leonard Thompson’s fine work, A History of South Africa.

As the author points out at the start of the second chapter, ‘Ask almost any South African when the vote was extended to black people and the answer will invariably be 1994…Inside and outside the country almost no one questions the assumption that 27 April 1994 marked the moment when the first non-racial election was ever held in South Africa. This is clearly incorrect.’ (p.14)

The book then details how, from 1836, any person with sufficient property could vote in the Cape, and was later enshrined in the non-racial franchise established in the Cape in 1853. Natal had a far more limited franchise, while the Afrikaner republics in Transvaal and the Free State denied political rights to non-whites.

Britain’s acquiescence in the face of Afrikaner intransigence set the precedent for the progressive disenfranchisement of non-white South Africans and established the institutional and legal foundations on which apartheid could be built. It also gave impetus to the establishment of a national African movement pledged to fight for political, social and economic rights – the African National Congress, which would include among its leader members of that unsuccessful delegation, John Tengo Jabavu and Walter Rubasana.

Professor Keith Somerville teaches at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent, is a senior research fellow at the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies and edits the Africa – News and Analysis website. His latest book, Africa’s Long Road Since Independence. The Many Histories of a Continent, was published in December 2015. He led the BBC World Service news programme team covering the elections in South Africa in April–May 1994.

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