Britain’s shameful role in blocking a non-racial franchise in South Africa

A new book lays bare England’s treachery and connivance in denying black South Africans the vote.

Perfidious Albion is a phrase that was used a great deal in the late 18th and early 19th century to describe Britain’s reputation in Europe for bad faith, reneging on agreements and outright treachery in her diplomacy and treaty making.

Its origins are obscure. A 17th century French Catholic bishop and theologian wrote of Perfidious Albion in a poem attacking England in Oeuvres complètes. The phrase was later used by Irish Catholics to describe England’s decision to renege on commitments to Catholic rights in Ireland (1691 - 1695). And the expression was picked up again by French revolutionary writers in the 1790s when Britain opted to join the old, autocratic monarchies of Europe in fighting the new revolutionary government and then Napoleon.

Much more recently it was used by Ian Smith, Prime Minister of the white supremacist, settler minority government in then Southern Rhodesia. In his book, The Great Betrayal, he bewails Britain’s supposed treachery towards the whites of southern Rhodesia. It is said he viewed the British Conservative Foreign Secretary as the embodiment of Perfidious Albion .

It is ironic that Smith thought Britain treacherous because of its demand that the franchise be extended to Africans. An earlier example of British perfidy was evident in its reneging on promises to black and coloured South Africans of a nonracial franchise when the Union of South Africa was negotiated after the Second South African War. The war ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging in 1902.

This example of gross bad faith helped lay the foundations of apartheid. It legitimised the exclusion of “nonwhites” from the new Union’s legislatures. They were denied the franchise in the old Boer republics that became part of the Union. They established the means by which the black and coloured voters could be eventually disenfranchised in the Cape.

How this happened is narrated in the meticulously researched and crisply written new study of the failed attempts by a coalition of black, coloured and white leaders to establish a non-racial franchise in the Union settlement – Martin Plaut’s Promise and Despair. The First Struggle for a Non-Racial South Africa.

The making of a constitution

The book has been published at an interesting time. Some politicians and academics in South Africa have been criticising the 1996 “Mandela” constitution for limiting restitution of land and other resources to the black majority after the dismantling of apartheid. Most notable among the critics are Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters and Professor Patrick Bond.

Plaut’s very clear narrative emphasises that constitution-making is a complex, long, drawn-out process that involves political horsetrading and legal argument. If there were some faults or failures in the 1996 constitution, then the 1910 Union constitution’s failings were legion.

These failings were the result of the British government’s desire to reconcile with the Afrikaner republics they had just fought, as well as to forge an alliance. There were global strategic reasons for this. The British government, threatened by the rise of German military power and determined to have a united South Africa as part of its Imperial defences, was keen to press ahead with Union.

Black and white South Africans queue to vote in the 1994 democratic elections. Reuters

The British feared impending war in Europe and needed to bring South Africa into the union of Britain and its foreign dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Newfoundland). They could all then be called upon to supply men and material to support the war effort. Importantly, South Africa controlled sea routes round the Cape and owned the ports at Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban.

The book sets out very clearly that the British government did not want to antagonise the Afrikaners in the projected union by pressing for a union-wide, nonracial franchise and for the right of “nonwhites” to sit in legislatures. It was also aware of the colour bars in Australia and the opposition of the dominions to interference by London in what white settlers saw as their domestic affairs. This is detailed and sourced convincingly by Plaut.

Failed mission

He provides a clear, very well-illustrated and sourced narrative of the attempt by a delegation of black, coloured and white politicians who travelled to London in the summer of 1909 to try and protect the non-racial franchise in the Cape. They also sought to enshrine the principle of a nonracial franchise, based on property and educational qualifications rather than race, on the constitution of the planned Union of South Africa.

As one of the delegation, the political activist and isiXhosa newspaper editor John Tengo Jabavu, wrote:

They (the black people of South Africa) were assured by governors, governors’ agents, officials and missionaries of the absolute justice, freedom and liberty, without discrimination of colour, they would enjoy under the British government.

He was supported by other leaders of the delegation. These were the former Cape premier, William Schreiner, Cape coloured leader Dr Abdbullah Abdurahman as well as black rights activist Dr Walter Rubasana. They also had backing from Mohandas Gandhi, who was in London representing the interests of South African Indians. The delegation had the support of the British Labour Party under Keir Hardie, radical liberals such as Sir Charles Dilke and the progressive press.

But the arguments for justice and equality could not compete with political expediency and the desire to bring Afrikanerdom into the imperial fold for strategic reasons. Economic reasons also played a role because of the region’s lucrative mining industries.

The nonracial delegations’ active representation of “nonwhite” rights came to nothing. What triumphed was the intransigence of Jan Smuts, Louis Botha and John Merriman over the refusal of a union-wide nonracial franchise, the prevention of nonwhites becoming members of elected legislative bodies and the provision for a future removal of voting rights in the Cape. This led to the adoption of a constitution for the Union of South Africa that was discriminatory and excluded the vast majority of its population from political rights.

History of non-racial elections

What is amazing – beyond the coldblooded expediency of British politicians – is how little of this detailed and very valuable narrative has appeared before in histories of South Africa.

As the author points out at the start of the second chapter

Ask almost any South African when the vote was extended to black people and the answer will invariably be 1994. Inside and outside the country almost no one questions the assumption that 27 April 1994 marked the moment when the first non-racial election was ever held in South Africa. This is clearly incorrect.

The book then details how any person with sufficient property could vote in the Cape from 1836. This was then enshrined in the nonracial franchise established in the Cape in 1853. Natal had a far more limited franchise while the Afrikaner republics in Transvaal and the Free State denied political rights to non-whites.

Britain’s acquiescence in the face of Afrikaner intransigence set the precedent for the progressive disenfranchisement of nonwhite South Africans. It established the institutional and legal foundations on which apartheid could be built. It also gave impetus to the establishment of the African National Congress, a national African movement pledged to fight for political, social and economic rights. It would include among its leader members of the unsuccessful delegation, John Tengo Jabavu and Walter Rubasana.