41 Back-Veld Voters
From The New Nation Falters Part 4 of Grey Steel by H.C. Armstrong

Botha returned to South Africa as a conqueror. His had been the first Allied victory over the Germans. The newspapers made much of him. Smuts met him at Cape Town, and they were given a great reception. At many towns, including Johannesburg and even Stellenbosch, they were feted as heroes. They lived in a glow of satisfaction, and they spent much of their time slapping each other on the back in mutual admiration. Smuts issued an official dispatch congratulating Botha; Botha said how proud South Africa ought to be to have as one of its sons a man so marvellous as Smuts.

The life of the Parliament was nearly at an end. The elections were to be held in October. With this feeling of satisfaction that they had done a fine piece of work, Botha and Smuts prepared for the election.

Smuts was warned by his friends, and even by Merriman, that there was big trouble ahead. He ignored the warnings, but already from all over South Africa came a growl which rapidly grew into a snarl, and a savage, evil snarl. The newspapers, especially the Dutch newspaper Die Burger, edited by Dr. Malan, published bitter cartoons of Smuts. Postcards showing coffins and the heads of Beyers, de la Rey, and Fourie were sold in large quantities and buttons with Republican colours were worn in all towns where there were Dutchmen.

There were many German agents at work, for the Germans had realised the importance of this election. As Merriman said in a speech at Stellenbosch, "Make no mistake, this is a vital election. It depends on the electors . . . for as sure as the sun rises to-morrow, if they make a mistake, there will be civil war again in South Africa." Civil war would help the Germans. They worked to eject Botha and Smuts and to put in an anti-English Government and so give the British Empire a smashing blow. They worked persistently. They spent money freely. They approached and bribed men in high positions as well as in small posts and bought all the votes they could. They had printed in Holland pamphlets to show that Botha and Smuts were traitors to South Africa, and distributed these secretly all over the country.

Smuts was attacked in Parliament. His record as Minister of Finance was closely scrutinised and he came badly out of the scrutiny. He had no interest in money or money-making. "Money would be a nuisance to me," he said once to a questioner. "I should always have to be wasting my time thinking how to use or invest it....Why should I burden myself with money? Besides, I don't find it interesting." He had never been short of money or had to count the pennies and so to realise their value. His personal finances and his accounts were haphazard and usually neglected. They bored him. So did his work in the Treasury.

The methods of taxation and of expenditure in South Africa were untidy, unscientific, and wasteful. He made no vigorous attempt to reform them, because he looked on his post of Minister of Finance as only temporary. He was casual and indifferent about expenditure because this meant the constant checking of details, and in everything he undertook he disliked and avoided detail. He was useless at all detail. Detail irritated him into a lather of impatience. He had the flair, the genius, to conceive the big, bold ideas and to see far ahead. Others must supply the details, and he would put in the energy and the drive which carried all to completion.

To understand some scientific theory he could memorise and. manipulate figures, but figures used for the practical affairs of every day wearied him to distraction, and he could neither grasp them nor did he know how to handle them.

His financial statements were always brief and often unsatisfactory, and when cross-questioned he frequently refused to supply more information. On one occasion the Nationalist Opposition asked the cost of supplying the expedition to German South West with remounts. Smuts gave them a figure at random out of his head, and told a friend, "The Nationalists will take a month to check that figure and by then they will have forgotten all about it." Such tactics were mere tricks and brought him no credit, but only made people suspicious of his veracity and accuracy.

When Botha left for German South-West Smuts had given up the Treasury, but he had still to present the budget, and the Members of the House now took their revenge and heckled him until it became clear that the Treasury under his control had been full of muddle and waste. The word went out round the country that Smuts had wasted the money of the people.

As the campaign of the election started, a massed attack was concentrated on Botha and Smuts, but particularly on Smuts. He went electioneering vigorously in his own constituency of Pretoria West, and also in many others. Almost everywhere he was met with hostility. Either his meetings were boycotted or they were packed with opponents, who shouted him down.

His past was raked up. He was cursed for deporting the Labour leaders in the 1914 strike, and once again called the "Oriental Despot." All the bitterness of the rebellion was revived and worked up. He was openly accused of having deliberately arranged to murder de la Rey, and of being responsible for Beyers' death. He was called the "assassin of Japie Fourie." To anger the farmers, it was recalled how he had tried to levy a tax on land, but Parliament had refused to sanction it. When he tried to make capital out of the campaign in German South West the Opposition jeered at it as a trumpery little affair in which it had taken fifty thousand troops to round up a handful of Germans, and the word was sent round that Smuts meant to suppress the Constitution, impose martial law, and conscript Dutchmen to fight for the English in Europe.

In everything the opponent was Hertzog. Since his ejection from the Cabinet he had been steadily establishing a position as representing the Dutchmen, especially of the back-veld. It was not so much that he understood the mentality of the back-veld Dutchmen, but that he had the same mentality as they had. He represented their views. They were afraid of Smuts, of being dragged off to fight in Europe to help the English. They did not want to be forced to become a great people: they preferred the narrow isolation of a small community shut away from the world.

There were always two Hertzogs. Hertzog the private individual, quiet, a little scholarly, interested in Latin and books, pleasant in manner, and pedantic; and there was Hertzog the politician, who was spiteful and relentless.

Hertzog had become not the leader of the majority of the Dutch of South Africa, for he had not enough in him to be a leader, but he was their spokesman, or rather their "mascot"; and in politics he attacked Smuts on every possible occasion with intense virulence, and eventually declared himself to be an out-and-out Republican and against Smuts and his English friends.

As the elections came near, the attacks became fiercer and more personal. The Dutch Church pastors egged on Smuts' enemies. The women took a part and brought in a fierce, unreasoning emotionalism, so that the contest became vitriolic. Every device was employed. De la Rey's and Fourie's wives were used to arouse sympathy. The story was spread that Fourie's body had been refused to his widow—which was true— and had been buried after his execution in lime in the prison yard—which was untrue.

At meetings Smuts was attacked with the grossest personal abuse. He was called "Judas, traitor, bloodhound, murderer." The crowd shouted, "You've cheated us too often. . . . We want not you, but a member with a white man's heart." More than once he was pelted with bad eggs and tomatoes. At a meeting in his own constituency in a suburb called Newlands, an organised attempt to kill him was made.

He was due to go with Ewald Esselen, an enormous man, who was leader of the Transvaal Bar. Esselen tried to persuade him not to attend the meeting—it was called a" social "—but nothing could frighten Smuts, and he would go. The meeting was packed with roughs, who howled at him. He sat on the platform and stared at them contemptuously, which annoyed them. A woman held up the child of a man shot by the soldiers in the rioting in the 1913 strike in Johannesburg. The crowd began to throw bricks and stones, and broke the lamps. They tried to rush the platform. Suddenly Smuts lost his self-control. He blazed up, as Beyers had blazed up when hit with a stick, into a fury, went berserk, lashed out. Esselen caught hold of him. Smuts fought with Esselen, shouting, ." Let me get at the devils." As suddenly he was calm and controlled again.

The party tried to get back to the car. The crowd closed round them. Two men caught Smuts by the neck. A third tried to brain him with the handle of a pick. Smuts fought back like a fury. A miner close beside him was knocked out by the pick handle. The police got Smuts to the car. The chauffeur was trying to start up. Someone in the crowd fired twice at Smuts at a few paces and missed him; but he was standing quietly, apparently absorbed in thought, apparently noticing nothing. "That reminds me," he said to a man beside him, "I must get that new bull down to the farm." He was playing a part, acting, to keep those round him from becoming hysterical and shooting and so from tragedy. As he drove away he turned to Esselen. "So that's what you call a social?" he asked.

Usually Smuts faced the hostile crowds without showing much emotion. He was always ready to fight them back, to answer their taunts with sarcasm and their challenges with counter-challenges. He made little attempt to hide his contempt, his aristocratic contempt, for them. To him they were a rabble, "a miserable mob." Insults he ignored. One thing alone threw him off his guard and made him angry. If anyone questioned his veracity, he became furious and denounced his opponent.

At first Botha and Smuts had looked on the hostility as ordinary election fever, but as it increased and became direct personal hatred they were taken aback, especially as it came from the Dutch—from their own people.

Smuts, in particular, had not realised it, and the full-blast attack staggered him. He did not understand it. He worked for the country and the people, not for himself. No man could say he worked for himself. Yet they hated him. He became depressed. At times, the fighting spirit oozed out of him as he wondered whether he was wrong; the old doubts, the old inferiority sense of his boyhood returned, and sometimes, when driving long distances from meeting to meeting, he would examine those with him for the causes of this hatred. He would debate why he was "the worst-hated man in South Africa." He saw that he had no personal following. He was a prophet without disciples. He talked of retiring. "I would like nothing better than to be out of this hell . . ." he said, and he told his wife that all he wanted was "to come home and spend my time on the farm." At that minute, in the weariness of his disillusionment, he meant it; but he could not voluntarily have given up any power. That was contrary to his nature, for he loved power.

For a time he found it hard to throw off the depression. The day after the attack on him at Newlands he wandered about, quite unlike himself. He was to speak at a meeting. He came muffled up in a big khaki coat, the collar turned up, spoke badly and absent-mindedily, his voice hoarse. He was completely deflated. On polling day he visited the booths, but without any optimism to cheer his supporters. He walked round, gloomily, his face drawn and haggard. He had no energy. He was sure he was going to be beaten. But none the less he was elected with a fair majority.

The election put Botha and Smuts back in power, but their own people, the Dutch, had very largely voted against them and for Hertzog. There were two other parties, an English Party and the Labour Party, mainly English too, and led by Creswell, an English engineer. These decided to support Botha so long as the war lasted, and they gave him his majority. Botha and Smuts had been placed in power by the English vote.

That the Dutch should have deserted him hurt Botha desperately. It all but broke his heart, and he never was the same happy, genial soul again. He wanted to resign, but was persuaded to carry on for the good of South Africa.

Smuts was equally deeply hurt, but he was more buoyant and recovered more rapidly. He could discuss, especially if he was depressed, whether he was wrong, but ultimately he could never believe that he was wrong. He had very little respect for the brain-power of others, and eventually he always convinced himself that his opponents were either foolish, obstinate, and ignorant, or just perverse. He at any rate knew that he was right; and he took up office again with renewed energy.

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