The Lion and the Springbok: Britain and South Africa since the Boer War 
by Ronald Hyam and Peter Henshaw.
Cambridge, 379 pp., £45, May 2003, 0 521 82453 2
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This book begins with real passion as Ronald Hyam and Peter Henshaw lash into those historians who they believe have made unwarranted assumptions about the links between Britain and South Africa: to wit, that Britain fought the Boer War to get its hands on the gold and that economic considerations remained the motivating force in its difficult relationship with South Africa thereafter. Early on, they single out their adversaries as, pre-eminently, Shula Marks, Geoff Berridge and Jack Spence. ‘For some scholars, no doubt, archival work is logistically too difficult or temperamentally uncongenial. Such must survive by their theorising, and hope to invent a concept which catches on. But history is too important to be left to the stay-at-home theorisers.’

This is fighting talk, but The Lion and the Springbok soon subsides into a conventional but illuminating archival study, aimed above all at showing that British policy towards South Africa was guided by more than mere economic concerns, and that despite the many occasions on which it has drawn condemnation – the granting of self-government to a whites-only regime; the exiling in 1950 of Seretse Khama, then the heir to the Bangwato chieftaincy and eventually the first president of Botswana, for marrying a white woman; the refusal to take a tougher line against apartheid – it has been essentially vindicated by the current harmonious relationship with an ANC-ruled South Africa, back within the Commonwealth. If the book has a hero it is Sir John Maud, the British high commissioner who advised in 1960 that since a black government must come to power one day, Britain must ‘keep faith’ with the black majority, while at the same time not antagonising the National Party government to no good purpose: we must, he said, walk a tightrope through civil war, revolution and any other form of mayhem, and be waiting at the end to embrace the winner.

‘Some sort of war might well have broken out in 1899 even if gold had never been discovered in the Transvaal in 1886,’ Hyam and Henshaw write, but it is in the nature of counterfactuals that they can’t be settled beyond doubt. Indeed, the authors’ sustained attempt to suggest that Britain’s attitude to South Africa was never primarily motivated by its being the world’s largest gold producer is rather like insisting that the US attitude towards Iraq never had anything to do with oil. Why in any case would it be wrong for Britain to have such a motive? Why be shy of acknowledging economic considerations as part of a defensible national interest? Hyam and Henshaw appear not to be interested in these questions, yet gold production was of legitimate concern to Britain, the world’s banker in 1900, with a gold standard to maintain, just as oil supplies are a legitimate concern for an American president. Imagine what would happen if George W. – or any other American president bent on intervention in the Middle East – not only said he wasn’t concerned with America’s oil supplies but actually meant it.

Hyam and Henshaw write sensitively and with great perspicacity about the pretend reconciliation between the British and the Boers after the Boer War, while both were privately determined to win the peace. In a confidential memorandum in 1906, Churchill acknowledged that the British could hardly count on the goodwill of the Boers ‘when we remember that twenty thousand of their women and children perished in our concentration camps’, and so there ‘absolutely’ had to be ‘a numerical majority of a loyal and English population’ in South Africa. Later, he was so alarmed at having given the game away that every single official file which ought to contain a copy of this memo now has a note reading ‘removed by Mr Churchill’ – a unique instance. Unfortunately, his son Randolph found the original in Churchill’s private papers, and filial impiety did the rest. British politicians’ real mistake, however, was to believe that English-speaking voters would behave with the same solidarity as Afrikaners. There was never the slightest chance of this, for British immigrants to South Africa had brought with them the differences of opinion and allegiance which had divided them in Britain, and they were anyway too individualist to be whipped conveniently into line like the jingoes Westminster politicians imagined them to be. Afrikaner leaders were therefore immediately back at the helm: with the death of Rhodes there was no English-speaking politician to rival their sharp-eyed vision and visceral determination. ‘We have great influence; but power has passed,’ Churchill soon realised.

By 1910, British politicians were facing a fait accompli: an all-white national convention had agreed on the form and constitution of the new South Africa. The UK government was well aware that to grant full self-government to the Union was to expose the African majority to all the rigours of white supremacy. They felt uncomfortable about this, but consoled themselves with the fact that Britain still controlled the three protectorates, Swaziland, Basutoland and Bechuanaland: at least these could be kept free of Boer control. Hyam and Henshaw’s main interest is to show how much this mattered – looking after the protectorates became a way of erasing a bad conscience over the betrayal of South Africa’s black majority.

White South Africa had a remarkable territorial appetite. Jan Smuts, who, well before becoming a Boer general, let alone the great statesman of Anglo-Boer reconciliation, was making it plain that the conquest of the interior by Boer trekkers should be seen as merely a beginning. Ahead lay a greater South Africa, encompassing not only the three protectorates but South-West Africa, Southern Rhodesia and southern Mozambique. Even this was not enough. South Africa was, he pointed out, connected by a single mountainous plateau to East Africa: the ‘broad backbone’ of a future white superstate. For this, he said,

is one of the richest parts of the world and only wants white brains and capital to become enormously productive. But the present tendencies seem all in favour of the native and the Indian, and the danger is that one of the greatest chances in our history will be missed. The cry should be ‘the highlands to the whites’ and a resolute white policy should be pursued. The fruits of such a policy will be a white state in time more important than Australia . . . a chain of white states which will in the end become one from the Union to Kenya.

This explains why Smuts and Louis Botha were willing to risk a full-scale Boer rebellion by declaring war on Germany alongside Britain in 1914: it would give them a pretext to invade German South-West Africa, which they duly did in 1915. The colonial secretary of the day, Lord Harcourt, tried to warn the cabinet that ‘we could never take the bone out of the dog’s mouth’ – and indeed, Namibia remained South African until 1990. For Smuts this was just a start. From the early 1920s on, he tried to coax Rhodesia into the Union and dispatched missions to report on the situation in Kenya and Tanganyika. He brushed aside as merely ‘stupid’ the 1930 White Paper which declared the paramountcy of African interests in East Africa, deploring ‘the somewhat negrophilistic temper which is about today’ and enthusing that the white settlers in East Africa were of ‘an extraordinarily good type’.

Smuts, rather than Nelson Mandela, was South Africa’s man of the century: from 1895 to 1948, his enormous energy was brought to bear continuously on the shape and future of the country. It is only when one realises this, and knows what Smuts was thinking, that one understands why South Africa is the only country in the world to bear such a presumptuous name, as though it represented half a continent. Botha and Smuts intended to make that a reality: one day – the sooner the better – the country would incorporate the whole continent south of the equator, for if they had established their white settler ‘backbone’ stretching all the way to Kenya, it’s hard to imagine that the Congo and Angola would have escaped.

Such a settler state, including not only most of the planet’s gold, diamonds, platinum, copper and uranium but also vast reserves of oil, gas, coal and much else besides, would undoubtedly have become a major player in world history. What the 21st-century mind struggles to understand seemed natural in the early 20th century: that a handful of whites could thus incorporate many times their number of subject Africans in the confident expectation that demography alone would never count for anything. Hyam and Henshaw point out that for the first fifty years of South African independence, Afrikaners wondered what on earth to do with the South African English; and for the next forty years whites debated what to do about the blacks. Only jokers suggested that there might be a time when blacks debated what to do with the whites.

Although the 1922 Rhodesian referendum rejecting union with South Africa put an end to Smuts’s continental aspirations, he saw it as only a temporary setback, and the moment he joined Britain’s war effort in 1939 – at the cost of another Boer rebellion – he demanded Swaziland as his price, with the implication that a great deal more would follow. The Nationalists’ appetite for territorial gain was just as strong, and when they succeeded Smuts in 1948 it was fed by two further considerations: a furious resentment that Britain should so obviously not trust them not to behave barbarously to any black population they took over; and a keen perception that the three protectorates would fit perfectly into the scheme for a ring of satellite Bantustans, even allowing South Africa to decant some of its own black population into them. Successive British governments, concerned that a flat refusal to hand the protectorates over to Pretoria might trigger a confrontation and an act of force majeure which London would be unable to resist, decided to play the South Africans along, never quite ruling out the possibility that the protectorates might become part of a greater South Africa, but always refusing to let it happen in practice.

British politicians regarded Smuts with a respect tinged with awe: he was a doughty opponent who had become Britain’s strongest supporter and a member of the imperial war cabinet in both world wars. Within Tory ranks, indeed, there was always a group which felt that should some mishap befall Churchill, Smuts, not Eden, would be the leader to turn to. But other South African politicians inspired the deepest contempt. When Hertzog replaced Smuts in 1924, Lord Selborne, previously the high commissioner, wrote that he intended to build an Afrikaner state ‘no more advanced than Elizabethan England’, which would treat every African as a ‘helot of the chosen people’. Forty years later, Sir John Maud said that Afrikanerdom had somehow ‘managed to miss the spirit of the century. To a Western European it seems to owe more to the 17th century than the 20th century – though there is an ominous Hitlerian smell about it.’ Maud particularly loathed South Africa’s foreign minister, Eric Louw: ‘an unprepossessing and neurotic figure, so disturbingly reminiscent of Dr Goebbels’. He advised Macmillan that Verwoerdism was bound to fail ‘for the simple reason that it is not only evil but cannot be made to fit the facts: it is a policy for putting back in their shells eggs which were broken long ago when South Africa first began to become industrialised.’

It was, however, an exaggerated respect for Smuts that led Britain into its worst blunder, the Seretse Khama affair (see below). ‘If there is one thing on which all South Africans are agreed, it is . . . that racial blood mixture is an evil,’ Smuts warned when it was first suggested that Khama wished to marry Ruth Williams, a white woman. This was enough to panic the postwar Labour government, and when Churchill returned to power Smuts advised him that the Khama case was ‘full of dynamite’. The affair has come to look steadily worse. British politicians tried every ruse to persuade Khama out of his marriage: they convinced themselves that South Africa might leave the Commonwealth; they prevented Khama from returning home; they flatly lied to the Commons in saying that they had taken no account of South African (white) sensitivities about mixed marriages; they persuaded themselves that Khama would make a hopeless leader of his country, when he was in fact the best leader that any African country then had – and so on. Patrick Gordon-Walker emerges with the most discredit. Pretty much the only man to keep his head was Attlee himself, who remarked on the absurdity of the case from the outset: ‘It is as if we had been obliged to agree to Edward VIII’s abdication so as not to annoy the Irish Free State and the USA.’ Hyam and Henshaw are so keen to sympathise with imperial policy-makers that they effectively side with Gordon-Walker; they even say of other studies of the episode that they are ‘marred’ by too much sympathy with Khama’s resentment at the treatment he received. Yet the wonder is that Khama did not lead Botswana straight out of the Commonwealth, cursing London’s hypocrisy and racism as he went.

The supposition behind the Khama case was wrong from the start. When the Nationalists came to power, liaisons across the colour line were ten a penny: the government were not going to break off relations with Britain over a mere symbolic divide. Severance from the sterling area had effectively brought down the first Nationalist government in the 1930s: it had been a bitter lesson and they were determined not to repeat the mistake. What mattered far more were the looming signs that Britain might grant self-government to its African colonies. In 1955 Louw tried to bully Alec Douglas-Home, then a minister at the Commonwealth Relations Office, into joining with South Africa in an all-African conference of white powers, threatening that he would take South Africa ‘into isolation’ if Douglas-Home would not agree. Douglas-Home, to his credit, sent him away with a flea in his ear. To be sure, Britain shielded South Africa from the ever growing opposition to its policies at the UN, but this was largely a matter of self-interest: with many colonies still in Africa, Britain had a great deal to lose should the UN have been allowed to intrude into the internal affairs of African countries.

Managing the relationship with apartheid South Africa was a tough test of British politicians. If Gordon-Walker egregiously failed it, so did Churchill, who nourished many fond illusions, among them that in the event the Nationalists were to throw the Royal Navy out of its base at Simonstown, it might retreat to Durban, secure within Natal, the ‘loyal Ulster of South Africa’. It has long been assumed that Macmillan, with his ‘wind of change’ speech to Parliament in Cape Town, was master of the situation, but Hyam and Henshaw’s examination of the fateful 1961 Commonwealth conference, when Verwoerd withdrew South Africa’s membership, reveals a weak and fretful Macmillan, regretting his own speech: ‘The wind of change has blown us away,’ he lamented to Maud.

Two men alone kept their cool. The idea of a Central African Federation, dreamed up with the best intentions, was a goner from the start, but it attracted many passionate Labour and Tory supporters. As early as 1952, Attlee visited central Africa and, while admitting that the scheme was fine in principle, came flatly down against it because it would start ‘under bad auspices and with bad feelings’, seeking as it did artificially to freeze the pace of African political development. Had such horse sense only been listened to, a decade of rejection, repression and failure might have been averted. The second was Douglas-Home, who in 1959 addressed a strong personal minute to Macmillan, arguing – two years before the event – that the Commonwealth ‘would undoubtedly be happier and closer-knit were the ugly duckling out of the nest’. Sad though it might be, he argued, Britain had to start taking a tougher line against South Africa at the UN because it had become ‘a liability to the West’. In effect, Douglas-Home pushed Macmillan into making the ‘wind of change’ speech, but Macmillan lacked the steel to stand by it. At the 1961 conference, the great fear was that the Ghanaian leader, Kwame Nkrumah, would lead a radical charge against South Africa: in fact, he was the soul of moderation and compromise and sought ways to keep South Africa in. The two hard men were both conservatives – Canada’s John Diefenbaker and, above all, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa of Nigeria – with Douglas-Home applauding discreetly in the background.

Hyam and Henshaw effectively end their study with South Africa’s exit from the Commonwealth, adding only a short epilogue to bring the story up to its 1994 re-entry. Their frontispiece shows Nelson Mandela on his 2001 visit to Hyam’s Cambridge college, when he talked happily of the ‘unbreakable bonds’ between the two countries. While they certainly show that a great deal more was at stake in the relationship – Britain’s concern for the three High Commission territories in particular – than a simple economic determinism might allow, there are two large holes.

First, there is no assessment of Britain’s relationship with the exiled ANC. Just consider: from the early 1960s on, its headquarters were in London while it was conducting a campaign of sabotage and terror against the Pretoria government, not scrupling to blow up and mutilate civilians. To do this it worked with the active co-operation of Cuba, the USSR, East Germany and the rest of the Soviet bloc, ferrying large numbers of guerrillas in one direction for training, and receiving equally large consignments of weapons and ‘trainers’ in the other. All this to carry out a campaign against a country with more than 750,000 British citizens and many billions of pounds of British investment. There was no precedent for Britain allowing such a movement to operate, certainly not against targets where it had such large interests at stake. To put it mildly, this is a subject worthy of more consideration.

Second, it would be folly to assume that Britain really feels comfortable with an ANC government which has sent hundreds of thousands of its people scurrying to the security of British shores, which claims to see Cuba as the world’s most perfect democracy, and which has supported Mugabe à l’outrance. Thabo Mbeki has made it clear that he believes there is an Anglo-American conspiracy to overthrow the ANC, while Blair, for his part, has treated Mbeki with contempt in insisting that on the crucial issue of Zimbabwe, the South African president is no longer to be taken seriously. And yet, no sooner has the ANC been re-elected with 70 per cent of the vote than the British government is quick to profess how delighted it is and how much it looks forward to working with Mbeki again. The point is not to argue who is right, but merely that history didn’t stop in 1961 or 1994. The relationship between South Africa and Britain is difficult and densely textured – then and now.

Seretse Khama

Seretse Khama, the heir to the Bangwato chieftaincy, was sent to Oxford to study by the Bangwato elders. Balliol completely messed up his education – they devised a special course for him only to discover that he couldn’t get a degree that way – so he went to London to study law instead. Here he met Ruth Williams, a clerk in a Lloyds’ underwriter’s office. They married in 1948. After the marriage, the British government tried to persuade Khama to give up the succession to the chieftaincy. Patrick Gordon-Walker, then parliamentary under-secretary for Commonwealth relations, suggested that a rule be made that no chief could have a white wife. The minister for Commonwealth relations, Philip Noel-Baker, was planning a period of direct administration, and Khama was not allowed to take up the chieftaincy. In July 1949, the government set up a judicial inquiry into the matter under Justice Sir Walter Harrigan. Harrigan found that allegations that Khama was both a heavy drinker and corrupt were wholly untrue, and that his prospects for success were ‘as bright as any native we know’, but because of his ‘unfortunate marriage’ he was ‘not fit in present circumstances’ to be chief. He should be recognised as chief, however, in the event of ‘changed circumstances’ – i.e. if he were to agree to divorce.

Khama was summoned to Britain, leaving Ruth pregnant in Bechuanaland. Noel-Baker and Gordon-Walker offered him £1100 a year if he would relinquish his claim to the chieftaincy and live in Britain. He refused: ‘I can’t, my tribe has elected me.’ Gordon-Walker, who had by now replaced Noel-Baker as minister, got the cabinet to agree that since Khama was being ‘irresponsible’, he must be formally forbidden to return home for five years. Khama was furious and told the press. Gordon-Walker denounced him. The Tories made a fuss in Parliament, and Churchill questioned whether Seretse was being treated fairly ‘as between man and man’. When Gordon-Walker said there had been no contact with South Africa over the matter (in fact there had been strong and continuous pressure from South Africa), Churchill called it ‘very disreputable’. Quintin Hogg argued that ‘our long-run future’ in Africa ‘depends on the confidence with which we are regarded by Africans’. Seven Labour MPs, led by Fenner Brockway, voted with the Tories. Sir Arthur Lewis resigned in disgust from the Colonial Economic Development Council; Leary Constantine joined the Seretse Khama Fighting Committee; Krishna Menon denounced the British government for racism. Gordon-Walker announced that he ‘was more convinced than ever’ of the rightness of his policy. He had persuaded himself that recognising Khama as chief would lead to South Africa grabbing all three High Commission territories and quitting the Commonwealth, which would ‘inestimably weaken us in any war with Russia’.

When the Tories came to power they consulted Smuts and decided in their turn that Khama was ‘not a fit and proper person’ to be a chief. In the end he was allowed to return to Bechuanaland with Ruth in 1956, as a private person. He founded the Bechuanaland Democratic Party in 1962, became prime minister in 1965, and the first president of Botswana in 1966. He and Ruth had four children, one of whom, Ian, is now vice-president of Botswana and will be the next president. After Seretse’s death in 1980, Ruth continued to live in Botswana until she died two years ago. Khama is remembered as a great and good man. Botswana, one of the world’s ten poorest countries when he became president, has now overtaken South Africa in GDP per capita and aims to achieve European levels of income and welfare by 2016. I know of no other African country in which a former president is held in such genuine affection.

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Vol. 26 No. 12 · 24 June 2004

R.W. Johnson twice says that Churchill consulted Smuts about the Seretse Khama ‘problem’ when he returned to power after the war (LRB, 6 May). Churchill returned to power in October 1951; Smuts died on 11 September 1950.

Michael Wright

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