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 Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.
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.