HARDLY had Botha and Smuts taken over control of the Transvaal from the English administration and begun to deal with its problems and to establish themselves against all opposition than they realised that the Transvaal could not stand alone. Every problem in the Transvaal was inextricably interlocked with similar problems in the rest of South Africa. The country had been split by history and circumstances into four self-ruling colonies, the Transvaal, the Free State, Natal, and the Cape, each independent and linked only by the vague and little-interested Government in England, but it was an indivisible whole. The divisions were artificial and unnatural and could not exist for long.
Milner had recognised this fact. To stave off immediate trouble he had made a temporary Customs and Tariff Convention. His policy had been to hold the colonies steady while he educated each separately: to create in each slowly and steadily a sense of fellowship with the other; to make their leaders think in terms of South Africa as a whole; to teach them loyalty to the Empire, and, when they were ready, to make them by one Act of the Parliament in England into one country.
The Liberal Government had changed this policy. They had decided that all four colonies must be self-governing and free of any supervision or even guidance from England and that they must work out their own salvation in their own way and as best they could.
Between the four colonies there had always been friction. Left now to themselves, this friction increased. With four legal systems, four governments, four railway systems, four customs systems, they disagreed hotly. The Transvaal was rich and in the centre, but shut off from the sea. All goods came to it by the ports and railways of the Cape and Natal. The Cape and Natal wished to make money by high freight rates. The Transvaal wanted low rates on commodities imported so as to keep the price of living down, but high tariffs on agricultural produce so as to protect the Transvaal farmers against the Cape. The Free State wanted high tariffs, and Natal low tariffs. Between them were growing up tariff barriers and competition. The Transvaal, though for the minute sending and receiving its goods through the Cape and Natal, saw that it would be cheaper and more convenient to use the Portuguese railway and the Portuguese port of Lourenco Marques to their east. The Portuguese offered good terms.
Again and again, from the making of the peace at Vereeniging onwards, representatives of the four colonies met in conference, but with little result except to increase the friction and to emphasise the difficulties. It was clear that the railways could be run more efficiently and cheaply if under one control; that markets could be better utilised; that tariff barriers were folly and would ruin them all; that education, justice, defence, and the handling of the natives and of the Indians would be best done from one centre and by one policy; but no one would agree. It entailed sacrifices all round which they were not prepared to make.
The friction increased. Irritation between the colonies became more pronounced. A crisis was at hand. Milner's Customs and Railways Convention was coming to an end. A conference called to discuss how to replace it failed completely. Lord Selborne with his staff made an extensive study of the situation and was dismayed to find that unless there was some form of centralisation there would be civil war, for tempers were rising. He issued a bold report emphasising the danger, the vital necessity for centralisation, and that this must be done by South Africans themselves and not by any action from England.
That report brought the crisis to a head, for it forced South Africans to realise what before they had only known. On every side the leaders began to discuss the plan: in the Cape the Prime Minister, Mr. Merriman, and the Chief Justice, de Villiers; in Natal, the leader of the government and the head of the Opposition. The Free State was "lukewarm and difficult" and, being poor, was afraid of being overlaid by the Transvaal, but at last Steyn, de Wet, and Hertzog were persuaded to agree. Some of the officials left by Milner organised societies all over the country for "closer union." The newspapers had leaders on Union across their front pages. At every public meeting and in each of the four parliaments it became the main topic. Steadily the massed sentiment of the South Africans was concentrated on Union.
Botha accepted the necessity for centralisation. He knew that the Transvaal might profit by an agreement with the Portuguese to use their ports, but he would have none of it, though he was prepared to utilise it as a pawn with which to bargain, and even as a threat. He decided to take the lead and invited the representatives of the other three colonies to meet in his house in Sunnyside. The discussions were amicable. The leaders were ready to consider Union. In May 1908 he called an Inter-Colonial Conference on Railways and Customs to Pretoria. It was a complete failure, but before it broke up it issued a strong report advising centralisation and the calling of a general conference to discuss it at once.
What to Botha was practical and sound politics was to Smuts far more. It was the realising of a dream, and a dream that he had dreamed since he was a youth. It was his philosophy of life, his guiding principle, to see everything as part of a greater whole, each part developing and coalescing into the greater whole, which in turn was but a part of some greater whole. Each colony was but a part of South Africa, as South Africa was but a part of Africa as a whole. Jan Hofmeyr had taught him this. Rhodes with his immense vision had inspired him with it. Kruger had some of the same conception, but he had interpreted it in his own way. The big, the large conception always attracted Smuts, caught his imagination, fired him. He found it hard to be patient with detailed humdrum things. In dealing with petty things he was often petty, even mean-minded, so that an American once said of him that "he was often looking at the stars and so stumbled in the earth ruts." But a great conception brought out of him the greatness that was inherent in him. It changed his whole mentality and his whole manner. He saw Union not as a mere joining together for political and economic advantages, but the coalescing of all the white men and of the colonies in South Africa and the creation, the birth, of one great South African Nation.
Circumstances had given him the power to realise that dream. With a queer inevitableness everything played for him, and with his usual ferocious energy Smuts worked towards his object.
The first thing was to get the Transvaal behind him. This was not easy. To attain Union it would be the Transvaal which had to make the greatest sacrifices. It was rich. The other three colonies were poor and nearly bankrupt. The wealth of South Africa lay in the gold mines in the Transvaal. The other three colonies would want a share of their wealth. The mine-magnates, the miners, the farmers, and the townspeople were none of them ready to give up their advantages. There was one group of politicians who suspected that in some or other way this was a scheme made in England to take advantage of South Africa, and they stood in the way. Another, led by a young advocate, named Tielman Roos, disliked the whole conception. The Dutch disliked uniting with the English colonies of the Cape and Natal. The English suspected Smuts.
Many asked why they should unite. It was sufficient, they said, to make agreements and, if necessary, to pool railway and customs receipts.
"This is no time for patchwork arrangements," replied Smuts. "There is no alternative to Union but Separatism. We must go the whole hog one way or the other.... Separatism means to revert to barbarism. . ... . Parties and policies will disappear, but a constitution well made will last a hundred years."
He spoke earnestly in Parliament. Fired with his convictions, he toured up and down the country, arguing and speaking. He was no longer on edge, the departmental head being heckled over his bills. He was patient and prepared to reason and he showed great powers of convincing opponents.
"We must have Union," he said at one meeting. "Two such people as the Dutch and the English must unite to try to exterminate each other. There is only one road to salvation . . . the road to Union . . . to a South African Nation."
The farmers demanded more protection and tariffs. He replied "I will not build a ring fence round the Transvaal . . . to exclude our brother South Africans."
To the leaders of Het Volk: "Our road is to form a great South African Nation.... We must build up a new great nation."
His dream had become more than a dream. It had become an article of faith. In speeches and letters he preached his faith. "Ay!" he repeated. "When on the bloody battlefield I saw Dutch and English dead, my old ideal came back to me. These men who had been killed by each other should have stood together and fought together for one cause, a great South Africa." To de Villiers he wrote: "You approach the subject from the broadest standpoint, but many others approach it from a purely material or selfish point of view—and just there the danger lies. For from a purely selfish point of view the Transvaal has little to gain from Union. Economically the strongest factor in the South African situation, it is also largely independent of any particular colony, and can therefore view the situation with comparative equanimity. Hence the chief danger and opposition will always come from the Transvaal....But I do not despair. We who love South Africa as a whole, who have our ideal of her, who wish to substitute the idea of a United South Africa for the lost independence, who see in breadth of horizon and in a wider and more embracing statesmanship the cure for many of our ills and the only escape from the dreary pettiness and bickerings of the past, we are prepared to sacrifice much; not to Natal or to the Cape, but to South Africa."
The Convention of all the Colonies was summoned to meet in Durban. Smuts cleared his mind and studied all the Union and Federal constitutions available, American and English. He decided exactly what he wanted—Union; to get a national parliament and a national executive in place of the present four, and leave them to deal with all questions. He prepared his scheme. For details he employed the best brains he could find, mainly the officials Milner had left behind, such men as Mr. Patrick Duncan, Mr. Philip Kerr, who conceived many of the ideas and organised much of the propaganda, and Mr. Lionel Curtis, who was a combination of a dreamer and a man of action, and who was the driving force behind the whole move towards Union. He had all ready down to the smallest details, with facts and figures and illustrations and parallels to be quoted and with answers, and alternative compromises to meet every possible objection. From these he prepared a general memorandum, which he sent round to the leaders in all the other colonies, asking for comments, and from these again he completed his final scheme and discussed it with the principal leaders such as Merriman and de Villiers and obtained their approval, so that by the time the Convention opened he was primed and ready.
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