Monday, June 1, 2015

South African Constitutional Convention Meets

Featuring an excerpt from an article first published shortly after the event in American Political Science Review by Stephen Leacock.

Introduction to our series Union of South Africa Formed:
Within ten years of the end of one of the bitterest wars in Africa’s history, the Boer War, the leaders of the south African colonies united into one Dominion under the British Crown. The ablest and most dreaded of Britain’s enemies of that war was General Louis Botha. When he became the first Prime Minister of the new Union of South Africa, it would have been as if General Robert E. Lee had won the Presidential election of 1872. Even more impressive was his policies of racial equality, never achieved but hoped for. Those policies was to be trashed when the opposition party devoted to apartheid won the elections of 1948 but that sad event is for another of another post.

This series is from the pen of Professor Stephen Leacock, head of the department of Political Economy of McGill University in Montreal, Canada. A distinguished citizen of one great British federation may well be accepted as the ablest commentator on the foundation of another. And now, Stephen Leacock.

Time: May 31, 1910
Place: South Africa

First Union Cabinet.  PM Botha sits at table in middle.
Public domain image from Wikipedia.

On May 31, 1910, the Union of South Africa became an accomplished fact. The four provinces of Cape Colony, Natal, the Orange Free State (which bears again its old-time name), and the Transvaal are henceforth joined, one might almost say amalgamated, under a single government. They will bear to the central government of the British Empire the same relation as the other self-governing colonies--Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, and New Zealand. The Empire will thus assume the appearance of a central nucleus with four outlying parts corresponding to geographical and racial divisions, and forming in all a ground-plan that seems to invite a renewal of the efforts of the Imperial Federationist. To the scientific student of government the Union of South Africa is chiefly of interest for the sharp contrast it offers to the federal structure of the American, Canadian, and other systems of similar historical ground. It represents a reversion from the idea of State rights, and balanced indestructible powers and an attempt at organic union by which the constituent parts are to be more and more merged in the consolidated political unit which they combine to form.

But the Union and its making are of great interest also for the general student of politics and history, concerned rather with the development of a nationality than with the niceties of constitutional law. From this point of view the Union comes as the close of a century of strife, as the aftermath of a great war, and indicates the consummation, for the first time in history, of what appears as a solid basis of harmony between the two races in South Africa. In one shape or other union has always been the goal of South-African aspiration. It was "Union" which the "prancing proconsuls" of an earlier time--the Freres, the Shepstones, and the Lanyons--tried to force upon the Dutch. A united Africa was at once the dream of a Rhodes and (perhaps) the ambition of a Kruger. It is necessary to appreciate the strength of this desire for union on the part of both races and the intense South-African patriotism in which it rests in order to understand how the different sections and races of a country so recently locked in the death-struggle of a three years' war could be brought so rapidly into harmonious concert.

The point is well illustrated by looking at the composition of the convention, which, in its sessions at Durban, Cape Town, and Bloemfontein, put together the present constitution. South Africa, from its troubled history, has proved itself a land of strong men. But it was reserved for the recent convention to bring together within the compass of a single council-room the surviving leaders of the period of conflict to work together for the making of a united state. In looking over the list of them and reflecting on the part that they played toward one another in the past, one realizes that we have here a grim irony of history. Among them is General Louis Botha, Prime Minister at the moment of the Transvaal, and now the first prime minister of South Africa. Botha, in the days of Generals Buller and the Dugela, was the hardest fighter of the Boer Republic. Beside him in the convention was Dr. Jameson, whom Botha wanted to hang after the raid in 1896. Another member is Sir George Farrar, who was sentenced to death for complicity in the raid, and still another, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, once the secretary of the Reform League at Johannesburg and well known as the author of the "Transvaal from Within." One may mention in contrast General Jan Smuts, an ex-leader of the Boer forces, and since the war the organizing brain of the Het Volk party. There is also Mr. Merriman, a leader of the British party of opposition to the war in 1899 and since then a bitter enemy of Lord Milner and the new regime.

Yet strangely enough after some four months of session the convention accomplished the impossible by framing a constitution that met the approval of the united delegates. Of its proceedings no official journal was kept.

Continued on Wednesday, June 3rd.

More information here.

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