29 The Union Convention
From Dutch Ruled South Africa Part 3 of Grey Steel by H.C. Armstrong

THE Convention met in the Town Hall. It was strictly South African. Even the High Commissioner, Lord Selborne, was not present. De Villiers from the Cape presided, helped by Steyn from the Free State. The population of Durban and the surrounding country crowded the streets and the town was on fiesta. To show its approval and good wishes—but with no intention of taking any part, for this was something for South Africans to decide for themselves—the Imperial Government sent two cruisers, which fired a salute of welcome.

The large majority of the delegates came without even the vaguest notions of what they wanted. They came to discuss and argue and to beat out some general ideas, which they could take away and ponder over. A few understood that immediate decisions were vitally necessary. But one man and one man only knew exactly and in detail what he wanted, and that man was Jan Smuts.

As soon as the debates began, many difficulties appeared. The vast majority of the delegates had come because they had been forced to come, not because they wanted to come. For many any centralisation meant the end of their careers as politicians; most had relations in the various civil services and on the railways and customs staffs; some of these would be put out of employment: they were not prepared to make such personal sacrifices. Some came to procrastinate: they would avoid making final decisions; they remembered conventions of this sort before which had lasted for years and produced no results.

Smuts himself was a queer mixture. Men like Botha and de la Rey and Kruger were great because in their aims and their characters they were essentially simple. Smuts was very complex. It was always hard to understand the reasons for his actions or to follow the turns and twists and the subtle weavings of his brain. He loved South Africa with a great passion. He worked for South Africa with a spirit of idealism akin to fanaticism. He believed that Union was not only essential, but that it was able to lift South Africa up to greatness. Yet he did not forget his own interests. He loved power. He had ruled the Transvaal. He was determined to rule on the large scale of all South Africa united into one. His opponents said that he loved South Africa and wished to make her great, provided that Jan Smuts and only Jan Smuts had the guiding. One wit wrote a piece of doggerel, which ran:

Jannie is for South Africa
One and great and free.
"But," he says, "if you want it so
You must leave it all to me."

This mixture of personal interest and idealism gave him a tremendous driving force and a sense of the practical.

When he had the power to enforce his will, Smuts was over-. bearing and autocratic and trampled roughshod over opposition, but when he had not the power he would be accommodating and ready to persuade, and once he had set out to persuade, he became almost hypnotic in his ability to convince. He had persuaded the obstinate burghers at Vereeniging to agree to peace terms. He had persuaded solid old Campbell-Bannerman, who was prepared to be critical and even suspicious of him, that if he gave immediate self-government to the Transvaal he would not be taking an undue risk. He had come to Durban to get the four colonies to give up their separate parliaments and reduce them into provincial councils, to unite and to transfer the work of ruling to a central parliament and a central executive. He could not force them to agree; so he set to work to persuade them.

It was October when the Convention met and the summer had come. The gardens of Durban were full of flowers, great tropical blooms and palms, and along every wall, where the lizards hunted, there were scarlet bougainvilleas. The broad streets glared up between the white houses in the eye-piercing white sunlight. From the Indian Ocean the wind drifted in heavy with damp; occasionally a storm of rain which the sun licked up as a mist; so that all the air was languorous and for men every movement was a weary effort.

The delegates felt the effects. They became languid, often liverish and irritable, querulous, and unable to make up their minds. But Smuts was unaffected. He took more care of his appearance than the average Dutchman: his moustache clipped, his beard cut to a point. He wore a .dark suit, with a hard-fronted shirt and a wing-collar, and a waistcoat with a gold chain across it, and he made no difference because of the heat, for it did not seem to affect him or at any rate to distress him as it did the other delegates. While the others became woolly in thought and speech he remained clear, lucid, and forceful.

He had everything ready and thought out. As he had his plan clear cut, and the rest of the delegates had only vague notions, his plan became the basis of the discussion. He remained always at hand and behind him was a staff of nineteen advisers, all experts on their own subjects, so that when any difficult arose he was ready to handle it.

His line of action was to get the general principles fixed and to leave the future Union Parliament to discuss difficulties of details. To get his end he was prepared to make promises, even if those promises could not be carried out: for him the end justified the means. He promised that Union would reduce taxation and government expenses, but he took no steps to see it was done. Each colony was suspicious that once its parliament had been reduced to a provincial council its power would disappear. Smuts promised that the provincial councils should in practice be provincial parliaments. This could not have worked into the general plan, and a few months later he told Piet Grobler that they ought never to have been left.

Through those hot days he never relaxed. He had an object— Union—and his mind kept down that track without looking to the right or to the left. He worked with unabated energy and at top pace. He was always ready, propelling the Convention in the direction he wanted it to go, and yet not too obtrusively or enough to raise opposition to his methods. With infinite patience he kept the delegates away from details. One wanted women to have a vote. Smuts agreed, but suggested that they should wait until the women asked for votes. There were frequent deadlocks on the big essential principles, and then he would ask for time, discuss the difficulty overnight with his staff, and by the morning meeting have found a solution. Often the solution was a piece of clever wording, a piece of draughtsmanship only, but it satisfied the delegates. There was the problem of a capital for United South Africa. Each colony wanted the capital. Smuts wanted it at Pretoria, but realising that he could not get that, he persuaded the delegates to have three capitals: the Legislative Capital at Cape Town, where the Parliament would sit six months of the year; the Executive Capital in Pretoria, where the government offices would be centred; and the Law Courts in the Free State at Bloemfontein. On the questions of the official language and of the rights of the natives, the Convention became so heated that it seemed about to break down. Smuts begged for delay. Steyn and the English representatives from the Transvaal came to an agreement. Between them they persuaded the delegates to make Dutch and English equal and to leave the native problem to the future Union Parliament.

Smuts acted as spokesman for the Transvaal delegates, but Botha was always behind him, backing him whole-heartedly. Smuts, with his agile brain and his quick manner, made men suspicious of him. Botha gave those round him a sense of trust and confidence in what he said and did. Smuts, they felt, was "slim "and crafty; Botha was sound and reliable. Many a time the delegates took Botha's word and agreed to a proposition which, had Smuts been alone, they would have refused with suspicion. The two men held the whip hand, for they controlled the wealth that the Transvaal could offer. Botha promised that when Union was complete he would pool the wealth of the Transvaal. That promise, coming from him, carried more weight than any other argument before the Convention.

Many of the delegates were difficult to handle, but by far the most difficult were the Dutch delegates from the Free State—Steyn, de Wet, and Hertzog, in particular. Steyn was the influence behind them. He was half blind and half paralysed since the war, physically a wreck of a man, but he was as bitter and salty and as unbroken in hostility as ever. Every South African Dutchman was by nature constitutionally jealous of any other Dutchman who succeeded. With this queer inherent jealousy Steyn and every Dutchman in the Free State envied their brother Dutchmen in the Transvaal and resented the position taken up by Botha and Smuts. Steyn felt that Botha and Smuts were taking too much upon themselves.

Against Botha, de Wet had a personal grudge. He had been annoyed, like many of the older men, that a young man had been put over him in the war. De Wet was loud and boastful—the Baboon, they called him—and he had boasted often of his raids. Botha had criticised the value of his raids, and he had brooded over those criticisms. When Botha went to the Imperial Conference, he had attacked him openly, and when Botha came back, he had said that he had become anglicised, had been fooled and ruined by the English.

Hertzog, Steyn's particular favourite and the most capable of the Free State delegates, was opposed to both Botha and Smuts. He was an attorney with weak gestures and wearing gold-rimmed spectacles, but as full of jealousy as Steyn himself. As Smuts' ideas were large and expanding, his were small and contracting. He had the mentality of the old-time Dutchman. He believed that South Africa was for the Dutch alone. He hated the English. He believed in small states and not in union or centralisation. He had criticised Botha and Smuts for making peace at Vereeniging. and claimed that he would have fought on, if they had not forced his hand. As soon as the Free State was given self-government, he had ejected all Milner's officials wholesale and at once, and criticised Smuts for not doing the same. When Smuts made English compulsory and Afrikaans voluntary in the Transvaal, be made them equal in the Free State and, urged on by the Dutch Reformed Church, had accused Smuts of injuring Dutch interests. While Smuts had preached that English and Dutch must live together and eventually unite into one nation, Hertzog had preached with equal energy that they must live apart. The two men were in many ways alike— both lawyers, both hard workers, with no relaxation or outside interests to give them a little of the milk of human kindness and understanding of human weaknesses. Both were ambitious and determined to have power. But in all else, in their outlook, mentality, and their objects, they were antagonists. They irritated each other to distraction. Though with the other delegates Smuts was able to force himself to be patient, with Hertzog, when they disagreed, as they did frequently during the Convention, he grew hot and angry.

The Free State delegates were against Union, but they were afraid of being isolated, and they could do nothing but agree.

Gradually the difficulties were overcome, side-stepped, or postponed, and the delegates turned towards Union, and Union such as Smuts proposed. Smuts made an appeal to them. Despite the practice and experience of the last few years he was still on ordinary occasions a poor speaker, stilted in his wording, awkward in his gestures, his voice high-pitched, monotonous, and nasal, and he was unable to grip his audience. Now, as at Vereeniging, he was so convinced, so intense in his conviction that Union was right, that as he spoke the words came easily and convincingly, and his awkwardness fell from him as if it had been a tight waistcoat suddenly ripped off, giving him freedom to expand.

He spoke out clearly and decisively to the attentive delegates. He begged them to think only of principles and to forget the material difficulties. "The passage of time will destroy the value of material things," he said, "but principles will remain." He begged that the constitution should, be made flexible and not rigid. He quoted from half a dozen other constitutions, from that of the United States of America and of Australia, of England and Canada, to illustrate his points and to prove that Union was better than any Federation. He urged them to decide now and at once and warned them that any drifting would mean disaster in the near future. His voice dropped a tone from its high pitch to a fuller note and rang out decisively. "Think well on into the future. Make a constitution under which South Africa will live for generations . . . a constitution which will stand and weather the storms that will burst over South Africa . . . a constitution which will be the final pact, the final treaty of peace between the white races. . . . Let us trust each other and in that trust work for the future and the greatness of South Africa."

The delegates of the Convention agreed to Union. A number of committees on which Smuts was the important member prepared the draft in legal terms. The Convention moved to Cape Town and Bloemfontein and decided on the final form. This was sent to the four local parliaments. The Cape, the Transvaal, and the Free State passed it. Natal, not satisfied that the whole thing had not been engineered by a few politicians for their own ends without the knowledge and consent of the people, held a referendum, but by a great majority the people voted for Union. A delegation of all the leading men, headed by Botha and Smuts, took it to London. The Imperial Parliament debated the draft and gave its consent. King Edward VII signed it, and in December 1909 it became law.

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