R.W. Johnson

  • The Lion and the Springbok: Britain and South Africa since the Boer War by Ronald Hyam and Peter Henshaw
    Cambridge, 379 pp, £45.00, May 2003, ISBN 0 521 82453 2

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.

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