BOTHA and Smuts were the rulers of the Transvaal and the almost absolute rulers, for they had a large majority. Behind them on the Government benches in the Parliament sat row upon row of the commando leaders from the war, mostly those who had not surrendered until the end of the war, "bitter-enders" some, with a sprinkling of young Afrikander lawyers amongst them, and beyond these the whole active organisation of Het Yolk, which was stretched out over the Transvaal like a small-meshed net and controlled far out in the veld down to the smallest township; and all looked to Botha and obeyed as if he was still the Commandant-General of the active force in the field.
Smuts rushed eagerly to work, to his old offices, to rule where the Republic used to rule, hurrying, to push out the English officials imported by Milner, his "kindergarten" of supercilious young men, and to put right all the things Milner had done wrong.
He had a free hand, for almost at once Botha went to attend an imperial conference in London and Smuts acted as Prime Minister. But he was surprised to find that the organisation of the young English officials and the principles on which the English administration were run were excellent.
The administration was, however, too top-heavy, and he sorted out the surplus officials and bundled them back to England. Milner had dissolved the commando system, by which each ward was placed under a field-cornet and made responsible for its own police duties, and had created a large constabulary mainly officered by Englishmen. Smuts reduced the constabulary down to a small police force and reconstructed part of the old system.
Thinking that the good old family days of President Kruger had come back, relatives and friends of important people, political supporters, helpers in the election, all manner of hangers-on came flocking in looking for jobs, for pickings, and scraps.
Smuts with money and with jobs was utterly honest: honest beyond any question of compromise, even beyond allowing his party organisers to do what he would not do himself while he looked the other way. It would have been politic to keep supporters friendly with gifts of a few government appointments: such things were accepted as part of the tactics of politics. Smuts would not countenance it. He packed the job-hunters roughly off: he was not going to have a repetition of the old scandals of Kruger's cronies from which he had suffered in the old days; he was not going to allow the work of the Government to be held up and made less efficient by job-holders. He told the job-hunters brusquely to move off and find work for themselves elsewhere, the Government had nothing for them; and instead he cut down expenses in all directions.
He worked with prodigious energy, a fury of energy, a release of all the energy which had been corded and locked down since the war. He spent long hours in his offices, up to the ears in books, papers, documents. He left little to his subordinates—he was as ever distrustful of delegating work to subordinates.
Excepting Botha, none of his colleagues was of great value, and he took over all he could, doing everything that came his way, and equally ready to handle the unpleasant with the pleasant; so that it seemed to be always Smuts who was up in the House answering questions, replying to the Opposition, and piloting through bills: the government seemed to be Smuts.
The quantity of the work he undertook and the persistent strain—for he never relaxed, never stopped working, or turned to play for a while—told on his temper—his impatient temper—and on his nerves. He was young and inexperienced in parliamentary procedure. The long speeches, the complicated and aimless formalities, the questions, the talk—very soon the parliament was called Praatfontein, the Talking Shop—drove him to fury. He wanted everything done there and then and at once, without wasting of time. He was as a result often tactless, even ill-natured, in public. On one occasion the leader of the Opposition complained to the Speaker that Smuts was discourteous. Smuts half apologised but denied his discourtesy and added a piece of sarcasm as caustic as the original discourtesy. A little later he turned on one of the Opposition saying he had done some "dirty work." The Speaker forced him this time to apologise, and then he was aggrieved and eventually lost his temper because his speech was interrupted.
As he handled more responsibility he became more imperious, and with power he became impatient of opposition, of any sort of opposition, whether in his office or in the parliament. He would compromise with no one. He had strong views and held them boldly, for he was convinced that he was right. Only now and again he became doubtful. He told another politician that he was nervous of taking office, for he had had little experience. But when such doubts came creeping up through him, some of the old doubts he had as a boy suffering from an acute inferiority sense—that perhaps he was wrong, that perhaps he was on the wrong road—he crushed them down and pushed all the more fiercely to get his way, and by his very violence forced himself to know that he was right. He did not care what enemies he made, so long as he got his ends and got things done. Kruger and Rhodes had been his first instructors. Both had been autocrats. He would be as masterful as they had been.
Almost at once he faced up to the Dutch Reformed Church. Milner had used the schools to spread English ideas and to teach English. To prevent this attempt to make their children English, the Dutch had formed the Christian National Education League, which had set up private and religiously run schools of its own. The League was holding its annual congress in Pretoria. The delegates consisted largely of pastors and had the full support of the Dutch Reformed Church behind them. The Dutch, especially the country folk who were stout and sour Calvinists, were solidly religious. The pastors and the Church were the most important things in their lives, and the pastor's word was as strong as law.
The delegates at the congress demanded of the new Dutch Government that their schools should be given grants by the State, that religion, and religion as laid down by the Dutch Reformed Church, should be taught in all schools, and that the learning of Afrikaans, their national local Dutch language, should be made compulsory.
Smuts did not agree. He had his own ideas on education. As a boy and at Stellenbosch he had been religious and he had intended to be a pastor. That stage had passed. Religion had ceased to be the overriding principle in his life. In moments of deep feeling or emotion, sometimes at a critical juncture, he used the name of God in a speech, but often it was to impress a religious audience. He was accused by the extremists of being irreligious. The pastors said that he was a free-thinker. Before one political meeting in a distant township he was warned by his supporters that he would be heckled about his religion. He opened the meeting with a prayer and avoided the heckling. Of one thing he was sure, he was not going to allow any pastors or any Church to dictate. He stumped down to the congress and told the delegates briefly that he would be no party to any reactionary Dutch move: English and Dutch must live together; their schools would not get grants, nor would the schools of any one section of the community; and he said that" the educational system of this country shall not be run by the Churches." The Dutch Church and the pastors did not forget this or forgive him. Later he passed an Education Bill which put all education under government control, made English compulsory—for he looked on English as the language of commerce and expansion— and Afrikaans optional.
He had no more respect for the mine-magnates and the millionaires of Johannesburg. His own opinion of Johannesburg was low. A Cape politician had called it "a moral cesspool." He agreed and added it had "an atmosphere entirely devoid of culture." As soon as he returned from England Botha gave orders to commence the repatriation of the Chinese. The mine-magnates protested: they said it would ruin the mines; they fought the question in the parliament; they threatened to close the mines. It was a fight between the government and the rich mine-magnates of Johannesburg, almost a repetition of part of the fight between Kruger and the Uitlanders: whether there should be two powers in the State or one; whether the rich men or the government should rule.
Smuts cut straight in. He would not discuss it. The government should be the only power to rule in the Transvaal. He threatened to take over the mines and run them himself. The mine-magnates withdrew their opposition and the Chinese were sent home by degrees, but the mine-magnates bore Smuts a grudge. The Johannesburg newspapers disliked him. The Rand Daily Mail marked him down as "the dangerous man of the Cabinet."
As time went on he became more and more irritated by opposition. At meetings he answered interruptions very sharply. Twice Lord Selborne disagreed with his recommendations, and Smuts forced him angrily to give his consent. His own supporters criticised his manner, saying that he was as brusque and short with them as he was with the Opposition, and even when they asked for information on the estimates he did not reply except very curtly; and that he almost ignored them.
He had fought the mine-magnates. He also fought the miners, who were largely Englishmen. There was much unemployment on the Rand. A deputation asked to see Smuts. He saw them and refused their proposals. The Government gave 3s. 6d. a day for unemployed men: they could take it or leave it. "I cannot agree to any socialism," he said in reply to a question. The deputation came again, dissatisfied. He turned them away, saying that he had no time to waste on them, and that the Government would do no more. He made little attempt to understand their views, though they were prepared to be reasonable. The miners, in anger, struck. It was the first time they had combined and struck as one body. Six thousand of them came out. Smuts—now Milner's constabulary was dissolved— had nothing with which to hold them. He called out two regiments of the English garrison still in the country and forced the miners back to work. The miners, and with them the whole Labour organisation of South Africa, marked Smuts down as their worst enemy.
One problem, for all his energy and drive, and despite his masterfulness, defeated Smuts. Large numbers of Indians, British subjects from India, had come flocking into the Transvaal. Numbers more kept coming. They were small traders. They took the trade of the white men and they lived on a lower standard, so that they could outbid the white man, and would, if left alone, reduce the standard of living of the whole population down to their own. The white men were determined that this should not be so. Kruger had reduced their immigration. It had been one of his quarrels with the British Government—that it had backed the Indians. Milner had been as strict as Kruger. Smuts was even stricter than either of them. He found that Indians were being smuggled into the Transvaal. By severe regulations he prevented this. The Indians protested. They were led by a lawyer practising in Natal, an Indian named Gandhi. Smuts was angered by the protest and was highhanded. Gandhi gently opposed him with passive resistance" — he refused to give way or to resist. Smuts understood force and how to use it, but "passive resistance" destroyed force, it absorbed force. It was the old trick of the boxer, to withdraw from a blow and so absorb the punch and damage in the blow.
All South Africa—for the struggle affected not only the Transvaal but all South Africa —watched. India and England were watching also, and Australia was interested. The two men faced each other. Smuts, with the power to damage his opponent, obstinate, his jaw set, his eyes almost grey-blue with anger, impatient, becoming heated and irritated. Gandhi, small and dark, apparently helpless, quiet and placid, but as obstinate as Smuts, and his obstinacy had the quality of water in a pool: if beaten with a steel rod the water would move, but it was not destroyed and came back always to the same level.
Smuts tried threats and brow-beating. Gandhi remained placid. Smuts imprisoned some of the Indians. They, with Gandhi leading, went gladly to prison. When released, Gandhi gently asked to see Smuts. Smuts lost his temper and refused to see him, sent his secretary out to him with a curt dismissal, and then wrote to him in stilted official language that "he was not aware that any useful purpose would be served by the proposed interview."
Then suddenly he realised that he was faced by something he did not understand and something he could not break by his usual method, by forcing it to his will. Doubts as to whether he was on the right line weakened. He compromised, saw Gandhi, treated him pleasantly and with respect, and made him promises.
He was twitted and laughed at by his opponents, caricatured and made fun of in the newspapers. Smuts could not bear to be laughed at. It touched him on the raw: hurt his personal dignity. He angrily explained the man who cannot climb down is a small and contemptible man. . . . I do not mind climbing down. . . ." but to satisfy his pride he added, "I have at the same time secured my object."
When the time came to carry out his promises, he said that Gandhi had made a mistake: he had made Gandhi no definite promises. Gandhi replied, as Conyngham Greene had replied after his talks with Smuts in Pretoria before the war, that he had "a personal promise from Smuts." Smuts denied that, saying, as he had said of Greene, that he had given no promises, only carried on a general discussion. Gandhi did not argue with Smuts, but returned to his previous methods. Smuts, hoping that time would find a solution, tried to shelve the issue, but Gandhi and the Indians kept steadily on, and the cartoonists and the Opposition papers and all his opponents laughed once again at Smuts.
But, as a whole, Smuts got his own way and established the government of the Transvaal against all who challenged it. He did it at the cost of making a host of enemies. The Dutch Reformed Church and the extreme Dutchmen in both the Transvaal and the Free State were bitter against him for his Education Bill and his liking for English. The mine-magnates and the rich men, the miners and organised labour, even some of his own political supporters, and the wire-pullers, job-hunters, with their relatives and friends, all detested him. He had ridden roughshod over them all and they watched for a chance to get him by the heel.
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