Churchill, Smuts and Apartheid: Questions and Answers

Churchill, Smuts and Apartheid: Questions and Answers

I read your arti­cle about bust­ing four myths about Win­ston Churchill from The Fed­er­al­ist. Here is an arti­cle I’d like you to read and hear your feed­back: “Apartheid, made in Britain: Richard Dow­den explains how Churchill, Rhodes and Smuts caused black South Africans to lose their rights.” (The Inde­pen­dent, 19 April 1994.)  —David E., Ohio

Jan Chris­t­ian Smuts (1870-1950). Wikimedia

Accurate, But Not Dispositive

Mr. Dowden’s arti­cle seems to me broad­ly accu­rate, but not dispositive.

It is true that Britain dropped its oppo­si­tion to mak­ing South Africa a “white man’s coun­try” in 1909 by pass­ing the Union of South Africa Act. Win­ston Churchill sup­port­ed that Act because he saw it as the way to ease lin­ger­ing ten­sions with the Boers. He jus­ti­fied his sup­port by say­ing explic­it­ly that it was the best pos­si­ble solu­tion, but he did not like it.

Churchill was a polit­i­cal man. He need­ed, and thought he need­ed, the votes of a major­i­ty. If he lived in an age of prej­u­dice (and every age is that) then of course he would be care­ful how he offend­ed those prej­u­dices. See “Churchill and Racism.”

Apartheid and Smuts

It is quite true that Smuts believed in a “white man’s coun­try” and in seg­re­ga­tion in his ear­li­er years. But the arti­cle doesn’t men­tion that when the pro-Apartheid Nation­al Par­ty won the 1948 elec­tion, it defeat­ed Smuts, who had run in sup­port of the Fagin Com­mis­sion, which had rec­om­mend­ed relax­ing segregation.

Ear­ly on, Churchill and Smuts expressed very unfash­ion­able atti­tudes toward races their soci­eties gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered infe­ri­or. In 1899, Churchill tells his Boer cap­tors that blacks are enti­tled to the same rights as any oth­ers in the British Empire.* In 1939, Smuts writes an essay for a com­mem­o­ra­tive book on Gand­hi’s 70th birth­day. Although Churchill and Smuts were Gand­hi adver­saries at times, they had a mutu­al respect and even admi­ra­tion for each oth­er. See “Wel­come, Mr. Gand­hi.”

*Pretoria, 1899

Churchill’s Boer cap­tor: “No, no, old chap­pie, we don’t want your flag; we want to be left alone. We are free, you are not free.”

Churchill: “How do you mean ‘not free’?”

Boer: “Well, is it right that a dirty Kaf­fir should walk on the pave­ment [sidewalk]—without a pass too? That’s what they do in your British Colonies. Broth­er! Equal! Ugh! Free! Not a bit. We know how to treat Kaffirs….We know how to treat Kaf­firs in this coun­try. Fan­cy let­ting the black filth walk on the pavement!….Educate a Kaf­fir! Ah, that’s you Eng­lish all over. No, no, old chap­pie. We edu­cate ’em with a stick. Treat ’em with human­i­ty and consideration—I like that. They were put here by the God Almighty to work for us. We’ll stand no damned non­sense from them. We’ll keep them in their prop­er places.”

Churchill: “Prob­ing at ran­dom I had touched a very sen­si­tive nerve. What is the true and orig­i­nal root of Dutch aver­sion to British rule?… British gov­ern­ment is asso­ci­at­ed in the Boer farmer’s mind with vio­lent social rev­o­lu­tion…. The dom­i­nant race is to be deprived of their supe­ri­or­i­ty; nor is a tigress robbed of her cubs more furi­ous than is the Boer at this prospect.”

—From Win­ston S. Churchill, Lon­don to Lady­smith via Pre­to­ria (1900), 59-60.

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