The Art of the Possible (2): Churchill, South Africa, Apartheid, Mandela

The Art of the Possible (2): Churchill, South Africa, Apartheid, Mandela

 Excerpt­ed from “Churchill, South Africa, Apartheid,” part 2 of an arti­cle for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, June 2020. For the com­plete text with end­notes, please click here. 

This arti­cle is ded­i­cat­ed to the mem­o­ry of Nel­son Man­dela (1918-2013), below with François Pien­aar after the Spring­boks won the 1995 Rug­by World Cup. (See videos at end of arti­cle.) Not only did he sup­port and inte­grate the nation­al sport; he com­bined Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfri­ka and Die Stem van Suid-Afri­ka as a joint nation­al anthem. His Churchillian mag­na­nim­i­ty was a mod­el for his time. And even more for ours.


“Almal sal regkom” 

Con­tin­ued from Part 1.

In 1994 Pres­i­dent Nel­son Man­dela’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives asked me for the text of Churchill’s third speech to Con­gress. He was to address a Joint Ses­sion soon after end­ing Apartheid (racial seg­re­ga­tion). I assumed he want­ed the 1952 text because it was deliv­ered (for once) in peace­time. There were no Churchill quotes 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. The truth is more com­pli­cat­ed. Churchill had his faults, and some stemmed from his stub­born opti­mism. “Almal sal regkom,” he often remarked in Afrikaans: “All will come right.” Much has since come right in South Africa, and Churchill made his contribution.

Apartheid did not begin when Britain unit­ed Natal, Cape Colony, the Trans­vaal and Orange Free State in 1910. It devel­oped grad­u­al­ly, not tak­ing legal form until 1949. Blacks were not every­where dis­en­fran­chised. As Britain approved the Trans­vaal con­sti­tu­tion in July 1906, Churchill and Colo­nial Sec­re­tary Lord Elgin strove to expand lib­er­ties against stub­born resistance.

“No cause for present apprehension”

Elgin and Churchill intend­ed to lay the ques­tion of native rights before the cab­i­net. They faced sev­er­al chal­lenges. First, “noth­ing could be done for Africans involv­ing the spend­ing of British tax­pay­ers’ mon­ey.” Sec­ond, there was the feel­ing: 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, Britons told each other.

Elgin, with no expe­ri­ence of African Soci­ety didn’t share Churchill’s views on the rights of sub­jects of all col­ors. 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 thought 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.”

The protectorate issue

In April 1908 Lord Crewe replaced Lord Elgin as Colo­nial Sec­re­tary. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, Churchill became Pres­i­dent of the Board of Trade. This did not pre­vent Churchill from con­tin­u­ing to strive for native interests.

Churchill declared that a future South African state must con­cede “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. What were these?

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.

“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…. 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.

The drift toward Apartheid

On 31 May 1910 the Union of South Africa, unit­ed Cape Colony, Natal, the Trans­vaal and Orange Free State. 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 received 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. Natives should be con­sult­ed and their “full acqui­es­cence sought,” answered 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.”

Botha and Smuts

Smuts and Churchill at the British Embassy, Cairo, 5 August 1942. Stand­ing behind: Air Chief
Mar­shal Sir Arthur Ted­der (left) and Sir Alan Brooke. (War Office, Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Churchill’s two best Afrikan­er friends were for­mer Boer ene­mies. Louis Botha (1869-1919), was the country’s first prime min­is­ter. Botha suc­ceed­ed in mak­ing South Africa a self-gov­ern­ing Domin­ion. Prime Min­is­ter Jan Chris­t­ian Smuts (1870-1950) became one of Churchill’s clos­est confidants.

Smuts was no egal­i­tar­i­an, but in his day he was con­sid­ered mod­er­ate. He believed in the gov­ern­ment by whites and “the inher­ent sta­bil­i­ty and good faith” of blacks. He resist­ed “break­ing down their local trib­al cus­toms,” and opposed “the arti­fi­cial half-baked white ideas we are foist­ing upon them.”

Malan and the Apartheid campaign

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 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 reform out­raged the Nation­al Par­ty, led by Daniel François Malan, an ardent racial­ist. Malan fought the May 1948 elec­tion on col­or lines, and for the first time we 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.” 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.”

Malan’s dri­ve for Apartheid depressed Smuts. The Pop­u­la­tion Reg­is­tra­tion Act of 1950 for­mal­ized 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.” In 1950, Malan’s gov­ern­ment dis­en­fran­chised Cape Coloured (mixed-race) cit­i­zens. Gov­ern­ment bureaus ran non-white affairs. Malan, Smuts told Churchill, could not “con­trol his repub­li­can extrem­ists. [Their pro­pa­gan­da] will influ­ence racial feel­ing here as no oth­er issue can.”


Before he left office, Malan made anoth­er claim to the pro­tec­torates. Churchill was Prime Min­is­ter when it arrived in 1954, His response stood foursquare 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.

With­in four­teen years, Britain would grant all three pro­tec­torates inde­pen­dence. Today, Botswana is one of the most pros­per­ous and demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­tries in Africa.

In 1958 Malan’s suc­ces­sor Hen­drik Ver­wo­erd set up twen­ty “ban­tus­tans” or black home­lands, nom­i­nal­ly inde­pen­dent, but rec­og­nized by no oth­er gov­ern­ment. Churchill had thought South Africa’s repu­di­at­ing the Crown incon­ceiv­able. He was wrong.  In 1961 Ver­wo­erd pro­claimed a repub­lic, leav­ing a British Com­mon­wealth increas­ing­ly crit­i­cal of Apartheid.

“The oneness of the human race”

Back to Nel­son Mandela’s 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 was an echo when he 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.

A half cen­tu­ry before, Churchill 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.”

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? An ex-pat friend says: “Not every­thing. The heady days of Man­dela are long gone.” Cor­rup­tion, crime and pover­ty still exist. “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.”

Was Churchill every­where right on South Africa? No, but his efforts 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…. 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.


South Africa’s dual nation­al anthems, Rug­by World Cup, 1995: Click here.

Spring­boks’ Cap­tain François Pien­aar looks back: Click here.

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