“The Art of the Possible” (1): Churchill, South Africa, Apartheid

“The Art of the Possible” (1): Churchill, South Africa, Apartheid

Excerpts from “Churchill, South Africa, Apartheid” 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), whose Churchillian mag­na­nim­i­ty was a mod­el for his time—and even more for ours.

Part 1: 1902-1909

In “Apartheid: Made in Britain,” Richard Dow­den argued that Britain not South Africa cost black South Africans their rights. His account is fac­tu­al as far as it goes, but there is more to say about Churchill’s effort to achieve jus­tice in South Africa.

By the end of the Sec­ond Boer War, Britons were as weary as Amer­i­cans are today over Afghanistan. Both British polit­i­cal par­ties fought the 1906 elec­tion promis­ing peace in South Africa. From 1906 Churchill, now Under-Sec­re­tary for the Colonies, rep­re­sent­ed colo­nial affairs in the House of Com­mons. (His chief, the 9th Earl of Elgin, sat in the Lords.) Churchill declared their hope to build upon “rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and not upon the rival­ry of races.” It was tall order.

Churchill and the Africans

Churchill’s views about the rights of British sub­jects of all col­ors marked him as a dan­ger­ous rad­i­cal. In 1899, impris­oned in Pre­to­ria, he argued with a Boer jail­er who mocked Britain’s racial poli­cies:

Well, is it right that a dirty Kaf­fir should walk on the pavement—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…. Ah, that’s you Eng­lish all over. No, no, old chap­pie. We edu­cate ’em with a stick…. Insist on their prop­er treat­ment will you! Ah, that’s what we’re going to see about now.

“Prob­ing at ran­dom,” wrote Churchill “I had touched a very sen­si­tive nerve.” Boer aver­sion to British rule was “the abid­ing fear and hatred of the move­ment that seeks to place the native on a lev­el with the white man…. 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.” He would learn lat­er the depth of that feroc­i­ty.

South Africa: spinning top of diversity

In 1907, Churchill made a tour of British East Africa. From the East Africa Pro­tec­torate (lat­er Kenya) Churchill wrote the King: “There can be no ques­tion of our hand­ing over this beau­ti­ful Pro­tec­torate upon which we have spent so much, with its 4 or 5 mil­lions of Your Majesty’s native sub­jects, to the con­trol of the first few thou­sand white men who hap­pen to arrive in the coun­try.”

Though Churchill respect­ed Boer agron­o­my and fight­ing prowess, South Africa posed a knot­ty prob­lem for any peace­mak­er. Natives out­num­bered Boers and British by five to one. Cape Colony con­tained sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of “Cape Coloureds” and Jews.  There were also Indi­ans, on whose behalf Mohan­das Gand­hi was promi­nent. Years lat­er, Gand­hi remem­bered: “I have got a good rec­ol­lec­tion of Mr. Churchill when he was in the Colo­nial Office and some­how or oth­er since then I have held the opin­ion that I can always rely on his sym­pa­thy and good­will.”

Churchill favored a gen­er­ous set­tle­ment with the Boers. A war-weary pub­lic agreed. South Africa was quite dif­fer­ent from oth­er British African ter­ri­to­ry. So many peo­ples who cor­dial­ly deplored each oth­er sug­gests the enor­mi­ty of Churchill’s task. Yet he was con­fi­dent of the right tac­tic. Make the Boers “one of the foun­da­tions of our posi­tion in South Africa.” Then “we shall be build­ing upon the rock.”

“Equal rights irrespective of colour”

Pro-native, Churchill was on the “rad­i­cal wing” of the Lib­er­al Par­ty, but even that wing had its prej­u­dices. He favored “par­ty government…upon racial lines. It is so at the Cape.” In the British Cape Colony, qual­i­fied blacks vot­ed.

Noth­ing more unit­ed the whites, Churchill declared, than politi­ciz­ing natives. In the war it was “a name­less crime on either side to set the black man on his fel­low foe.” Yet Churchill rec­og­nized Britain’s respon­si­bil­i­ty:

We will endeavour…to advance the prin­ci­ple of equal rights of civ­i­lized men irre­spec­tive of colour. We will not—at least I will pledge myself—hesitate to speak out when nec­es­sary if any plain case of cru­el­ty of exploita­tion of the native for the sor­did prof­it of the white man can be proved.

Pleas­ing Gand­hi, he promised “a prop­er sta­tus for our Indi­an fel­low sub­jects.” He demand­ed “good, well-watered land” for natives to “dwell seclud­ed and at peace.” Exam­ples of the lat­ter were three British pro­tec­torates admin­is­tered by native chiefs, Bechua­na­land, Basu­toland and Swazi­land. Britain resist­ed peri­od­ic attempts by South Africa to annex these ter­ri­to­ries. In the 1960s they became the inde­pen­dent nations of BotswanaLesotho and Eswa­ti­ni.

“Terminological inexactitude”

Churchill had also to address the prob­lem of Chi­nese coolies, inden­tured work­ers in the Rand gold­mines. The Lib­er­als cam­paigned in 1906 against what they called “Chi­nese slav­ery.” Churchill abjured the term, since they were paid wages, not bought or sold, and free to return home. He famous­ly quipped this could not be called slav­ery “with­out some risk of ter­mi­no­log­i­cal inex­ac­ti­tude.”

Churchill’s con­tentions on behalf of the Chi­nese brought him into con­flict with lead­ing con­ser­v­a­tives like Bal­four and Joseph Cham­ber­lain. But the South Africa High Com­mis­sion­er, Lord Sel­borne, under­stood Churchill’s posi­tion. The Boers were sim­ply bemused. Boer leader Jan Smuts remarked: “Winston’s pity for the Chi­nese-flog­ging [Trans­vaal Gov­er­nor] Mil­ner is no less Olympian than that for the benight­ed rad­i­cal who thought the Chi­nese inden­tures par­took of the nature of slav­ery.”

Ulti­mate­ly, white and native labor grad­u­al­ly replaced the coolies, and a vex­a­tious prob­lem van­ished. The greater chal­lenge was: who would run the Boer colonies in the future?

The Transvaal constitution

Through­out 1906, Churchill pressed for Respon­si­ble Gov­ern­ment in the Trans­vaal and Orange Free State. He also denounced Natal courts’ treat­ment of blacks. Elgin and Churchill hoped Boer ter­ri­to­ries would allow native gov­ern­ing coun­cils, as in the British pro­tec­torates. But both agreed that “harsh laws are some­times bet­ter than no laws at all.” With­out Boer col­lab­o­ra­tion there would be “more injus­tice and tyran­ny on the natives.” Elgin believed that forced equal­i­ty would “prej­u­dice the just expec­ta­tions of natives.” The right time was when “the two races stand more on an equal foot­ing.”

Churchill insist­ed that “our respon­si­bil­i­ty to the native races remains a real one.” The Union of South Africa, he hoped, would final­ly place “treat­ment of native races upon a broad and secure plat­form….”

The Trans­vaal elect­ed its first par­lia­ment in Feb­ru­ary 1907. Churchill thought a Boer major­i­ty  “quite impos­si­ble.” He was wrong. The Boer Het Volk Par­ty won a major­i­ty of five, and Churchill’s only con­so­la­tion was that his friend Louis Botha became prime min­is­ter. In Decem­ber, the Oran­gia Unie (Orange Union) took twen­ty-nine of thir­ty-eight seats in the Orange Free State. Black vot­ing was thus pro­scribed. Yet no one believed this was worth reopen­ing the Boer War.

Pros and cons

Prime Min­is­ter Sir Hen­ry Camp­bell-Ban­ner­man con­grat­u­lat­ed Churchill over the Trans­vaal con­sti­tu­tion: “The finest and noblest work of the British pow­er in recent times.” Ran­dolph Churchill, writ­ing his father’s biog­ra­phy, praised his “urgency and assiduity…the cogency of his argu­ments, his mas­tery of the task.”

But Camp­bell-Ban­ner­man was writ­ing in 1907, Ran­dolph Churchill in 1967. That was then but this is now. In 2014, Christo­pher Beck­vold wrote: “The British Gov­ern­ment was part­ly respon­si­ble for Apartheid and…Churchill was just as respon­si­ble as a mem­ber of the Gov­ern­ment. [But] his­to­ri­ans do not want to slan­der a great man.”

Not exact­ly. Richard Dowden’s “Apartheid: Made in Britain” appeared twen­ty years before Mr. Beckvold’s the­sis.

Let us add up the score. From his first encounter with South Africa in 1899, Churchill stood up for native rights. That was an uncom­mon thing among Vic­to­ri­an Eng­lish­men. After the Boer War, he pub­licly and pri­vate­ly empha­sized fair play for black Africans. In Par­lia­ment he pro­mot­ed “good, well-watered land” for native cul­tures. With­out Boer coop­er­a­tion, noth­ing could be done. Churchill hoped, vain­ly, that the Boer colonies might merge into a more lib­er­al union. As late as 1954, as we shall see, he denied South Africa the British pro­tec­torates. One of them is now among Africa’s most pros­per­ous coun­tries.

“The Art of the Possible”

It is quite true, as Mr. Dow­den wrote, that Churchill’s poli­cies in 1906-07 abet­ted Boer pow­er. That pow­er waxed with the Union of South Africa in 1910 and the elec­tion of Louis Botha as its first prime min­is­ter. Under lat­er Nation­al (aka “Nation­al­ist”) Par­ty gov­ern­ments, the black vote in the Cape and Natal grad­u­al­ly with­ered. So did Churchill’s hopes for more mod­er­ate evo­lu­tion. But as Bis­mar­ck said, “Pol­i­tics is the art of the pos­si­ble.”

Mr. Dow­den end­ed his 1994 arti­cle with “half a cheer” for Churchill’s chief, Sec­re­tary of State for the Colonies Lord Elgin. In 1906, he wrote, Elgin hoped “that Afrikan­ers would, ‘in some time to come’ see the good sense of grant­i­ng ‘rea­son­able rep­re­sen­ta­tion to the natives.’ I sup­pose you could say his wish has come true—at last.”

In 1907, Elgin wrote Churchill: “I am not sat­is­fied that a com­pro­mise is impos­si­ble.” Churchill favored just such an arrange­ment. “I would not,” he replied, “do any­thing for them with­out a suf­fi­cient return for the ben­e­fit of the native.”

Per­haps we might offer half a cheer for Win­ston Churchill, too.

Con­clud­ed in Part 2: From 1910 to the Age of Man­dela.

One thought on ““The Art of the Possible” (1): Churchill, South Africa, Apartheid

  1. I appre­ci­ate read­ing about Churchill and the posi­tion he took on S.Africa. FYI, the­O­r­ange Free State’s name came from the Dutch House of Orange. Het Volk = The Peo­ple. Apartheid is also a Dutch word = Sep­a­rat­ed. And the word Boer is Dutch for “Farmer.” The Dutch, who were pre­dom­i­nant­ly from the Dutch Reformed Church, played a big part in slav­ery in Africa and also in slave ship­ping. Not a hap­py his­to­ry.

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