Lecture delivered by Mr. Sol T. Plaatje before the "Marsh Street Men's Own"
Literary Society in the Lecture Room of their Institute,
Hoe Street, Walthamstow, on February 26, 1915.
Keep me in chains? I defy you.
That is a pow'r I deny you!
I will sing! I will rise!
Up! To the lurid skies —
With the smoke of my soul,
With my last breath,
Tar-feathered, I shall cry:
Ethiopia shall not die!
And hand in hand with Death,
I shall not curse you. But singing —
My singing fatefully ringing
Till startled and dumb
You falter, the sum
Of your crime shall reveal —
This do I prophesy . . .
O Heart wrung dry,
Startle the world with thy cry:
Ethiopia shall not die!
Otto L. Bohanan. [In the Kalahari language, BOHANAN means: `Be combined'.]
The gentleman whose name forms the title of my lecture is a lawyer, a grand-nephew of the late President Kruger and, till lately, a member of the Union Parliament. He represented the Dutch constituency of Rustenburg, a district whose Burghers were responsible for a kind of administrative native land arrangement in the Transvaal Republic. This arrangement, the result of a petition from Rustenburg, made it compulsory for native landowners in the Republic to register their farms in the names of white people. In accordance with it, Natives who bought land had to register it in the name of the Minister of Native Affairs. But as such Ministers did not always command the trust of the Natives they resorted to the expedient of registering their farms in the names of some European friends, missionaries or otherwise. Some European gentlemen thus became the registered owners of land belonging to Natives, giving the Natives receipts for the money and documents explaining the nature of the transaction. Other Europeans, including missionaries, were not so scrupulous. They gave the Natives no receipt, so that after their death the properties of these Natives passed into the estates of the deceased. The following case is an example.
The native peasants on a Transvaal farm found themselves in such a dilemma after the death of General Joubert, late Superintendent of Natives of the Transvaal Republic. The black "owners" had no document showing that they were the real owners of the farm and that General Joubert's name was only registered to meet the requirements of the Volksraad. In such circumstances they received notice from his executors to leave the General's farm. They appealed to the law-courts and adduced verbal evidence in support of their purchase and ownership of the farm; the sale had been a public one. Besides, according to their ideas, it needed no documentary evidence, since they were legally in possession. The Court, after listening to the evidence concerning the sums paid by individual Natives of the tribe, of the total sum paid for the farm, and of the legal reason why the title bore a white man's name, held that however unfortunate was the position of those Natives if their story was true, it could only give judgment in terms of the title deeds. Thus Natives who were originally dispossessed of their land by conquest, and who swore to having purchased in hard cash land in their own country from the conquerors, were now for the second time, so they stated, dispossessed and turned off that land all owing to the complicated registration under this "Besluit" from Rustenburg.
After the British occupation in 1900, the Courts held that the "Besluit" and its practices did not have the force of law, and Natives took advantage of the ruling to transfer their properties to their own names; but in 1913, Mr. Piet Grobler, M.L.A., moved and succeeded in getting the Natives' Land Act carried in the Union Parliament, which has placed the Natives of the whole country in a more terrible plight than were the Natives of the Transvaal Republic before the war.
Since he took his seat in the Union Parliament, Mr. Piet Grobler, like Mr. Keyter of Ficksburg, has given the Natives no rest. He first made his power felt in 1911, when General Smuts introduced a Bill to consolidate the marriage laws of the four Provinces. Mr. Grobler then moved a fatal colour clause which had the effect of killing the Bill, for the Ministry, on finding that the Bill could only be carried with the assistance of the Unionists, preferred to drop it rather than divide the Boer majority; and hence, thanks to Mr. Grobler, the chaotic confusion still obtains in the South African marriage laws.
This gentleman, in 1913, led the attack in Parliament on Sir Richard Solomon, the Union's representative in London, for not keeping his mouth shut when he is among British foreigners, and for daring to suggest British emigration to South Africa. As stated above, Mr. Grobler demanded, among other things, that the Government should introduce "during this session" (1913) a law to stop the purchase and lease of land by Natives, and the Natives' Land Act of 1913 was the result of the demand — a measure whose destructive severity forced the Natives to sue for Imperial protection against the South African Parliament.
When the present European War broke out, Mr. Grobler was among the Parliamentary clique of representatives whose Christian principles forbade them to vote for an armed expedition against their friendly neighbours, the Germans. They said that, in Deuteronomy 19:14, God specifically warned the Boers against moving the landmarks of their neighbours. But strange to say, the religious scruples of these pious objectors never revolted against removing the landmarks of their native neighbours and of appropriating, not only their land and their labour, but even the persons of these neighbours. The Natives, according to Mr. Luedorf, a German evangelist among the Bechuana, witnessed the Boer trekkers maltreating conquered Natives and taking their children as slaves. Children who were unable to walk to their serfdom being gathered in a heap and burnt alive. This, says Mr. Luedorf, caused the Natives to exclaim: "Mzilikasi, the Matabele King, was cruel to his enemies, but kind to those he conquered; whilst the Boers are cruel to their enemies and ill-treat and enslave their friends." ["The Boer States" (Keane), pp. 137-138.]
Now, Mzilikasi had no Bible, but the Boer has the Bible and professes to honour it. But his Bible, being of a flexible sort, it did not prevent a certain clique of Boers from taking up arms against the Government of which Mr. Lloyd George (a gentleman who staked his reputation and risked his life in his fearless protests against the annexation of the Boer Republics) was a prominent member; and against the Liberal Government, which, as compensation for the mere change of flags, made them a nice little present in the shape of the two old English Colonies of South Africa and the undisturbed permission to rule all that is therein. Mr. Piet Grobler, the author of most of our miseries, reached the climax of his career when, after voting against the Union expedition to German South West Africa, he not only persuaded British subjects not to volunteer for service in the expedition, but himself joined a force, as alleged by the South African papers to hand by the latest mail, to shoot down the King's loyal subjects. He was taken prisoner by General Botha's forces at the head of a rebel commando, presumably whilst on the way to join the Kaiser's forces in the German Colony. He is thus one of the members of the Union Parliament who forfeited their seats by breaking the Parliamentary oath and participating in the recent rebellion.
Mr. Solicitor Grobler's ideas about the sacredness of an oath are curious and original. Every member of the Union Parliament, before taking his seat, has to subscribe to the following oath of allegiance "before the Governor-General, or some person authorized by him", usually a Judge of the Supreme Court:
I, M. . . . M. . . . do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King George V, his heirs and successors according to law. So help me God.
Mr. Grobler, it is said, was caught red-handed in the treasonable act of leading a force of fifty armed rebels against the Government, and for his breach of the oath he was taken prisoner. Last week, whilst his trial was still pending, he applied for bail, and in support of his application, he pleaded that he was anxious TO ATTEND TO HIS PARLIAMENTARY DUTIES. Here is a bit of Boer candour for you!
The honourable and learned member is further stated to have pleaded that his district provided the largest proportion of rebels and he was anxious to be in Capetown when Parliament opens this afternoon, [The S. A. Parliament opened on the afternoon of the same day as the Lecture.] in order to be able to represent their case when the Legislature discusses the rebellion. That is South African logic in a nutshell. The Judge, however, took a rational view of things and dismissed the application.
There may be motives other than those stated by the incarcerated member of Parliament actuating his desire to get to Capetown.
Every member of Parliament who absents himself without leave forfeits 2 Pounds a day out of his Parliamentary emoluments, so that Mr. Grobler's continued confinement in prison would entail a serious financial deficit. This was not the only instance in which anxiety of this kind was betrayed by recipients of Government bounties in South Africa. There are a large number of well-to-do Boers who draw annually hundreds of pounds from the Union Treasury, salaries which a paternal Government taxes the poorly paid labourers of South Africa to provide. This is particularly the case in the Transvaal. There, princely salaries are paid for filling such superfluous posts as that of "Inspector of White Labour", "Field Cornet", and kindred offices. The Field Cornet of each sub-district of the Transvaal is a very important gentleman, as is evinced by the intense labour attached to his office. The duties of this "hard-worked" functionary consist of the checking of the Parliamentary voters list of his ward, once every two years, and of acting as chief canvasser and election agent for the Ministerial candidate, who, however, is usually returned unopposed; and for these onerous duties he is rewarded by an ungrateful Government with the "beggarly" salary of 260 Pounds a year.
Besides these, there are sundry little sinecures, equally remunerative, to which well-to-do Dutch farmers, who are the more generally preferred, aspire; and each fills his role with acceptable dignity and a serious sense of responsibility. Consequently, there is more gnashing of teeth on the farm over the loss of one of these appointments than over the failure of a whole year's crop.
Several of these nominal "members" of the Union Civil Service were said to have taken up arms and joined the rebellion. According to the South African papers, the wife of one of them applied to the defence office for the salary of her husband. When it was pointed out to her that her husband was at that time engaged in fighting against the forces of the Defence Department, she coolly told the official that that had nothing to do with his private affairs, i.e., the income from the Government. In regard to the faithfulness of the class of officials just mentioned, I cannot refrain from drawing the attention of my audience to the fact that, as the electoral supporters of the Cabinet, they guided the policy of the Union Government during the past five years, and they are the type of legislators in whose tender care the Imperial Government would fain entrust the liberties of the voteless Natives without even the safeguard of a right of appeal.
Personally I am not revengeful, and would wish Mr. Grobler every success in his defence; the Transvaal native taxpayer, on the other hand, earns an average wage of 20 Pounds per annum: out of this he pays taxation on the same scale as the white labourer who earns 25 Pounds a month; in addition, he pays a native tax of 3 Pounds 4s. per year, presumably as a tax on the colour of his skin, for no white man pays that. This extra tax, apparently, is in order that Transvaal Field Cornets and members of Parliament should more easily draw their pay. In return for all these payments, and as a result of Mr. Grobler's legislative efforts, the Transvaal native taxpayer got the Natives' Land Act of 1913; and I am afraid that HE will not be very sorry to know that some one else enjoys the 400 Pounds per annum hitherto received by Mr. Grobler, together with his free first-class travelling ticket over the South African railways.
British pioneer officials, in Africa and elsewhere, have for generations been left in charge of mixed communities of white Colonials and black Natives and other immigrants. In spite of occasional human lapses, they have ruled these communities successfully throughout the past century, and maintained the high administrative reputation of the English in Africa, Asia and other parts of the globe. The dominant race in South Africa, on the other hand, may be fit to govern themselves, but their dealings with us show them to be wholly unfit to rule the native races. There is no more glaring illustration of this weakness than the conduct of the rebel Boers and the loyal Boers during the present war. According to my latest information from different centres of South Africa, native peasants were horsewhipped into the enemy's service as soon as the standard of rebellion was unfurled. There can be no reason to doubt the veracity of my information when the Press reports have clearly shown that even a white skin has ceased to be a protection against illtreatment. At least one loyal Magistrate and a postmaster were violently assaulted by General De Wet's Burghers, so the official dispatches say. Those shopkeepers who hesitated to open their stores to the rebels were sjambokked as were the ordinary Natives, and the Mayor of a "Free" State town was also flogged.
After the proclamation of martial law General Botha marshalled the loyal Boers throughout the country. These loyal Burghers, taking advantage of the presence of martial law, committed all kinds of excesses against loyal coloured civilians. These atrocities not only took place away in the Backveld, but sometimes in Capetown and Kimberley, the centres of African civilization; there black men were frequently tied to the wagon-wheels and lashed by the loyal Boers, and some of these coloured victims, I am told, have been cruelly done to death.
Of course, if the particular Burgher who dealt the death-blow can be identified he will be prosecuted, but that will not resuscitate the victims. It will only add misery to the innocent family of the offender. But the fact remains that during the South African War, South Africa was a huge military camp, yet the unarmed Natives, many of whom were then in the enemy's service, suffered nothing but kindness at the hands of Imperial troops, and there never was any conflict between the military and native civilians. And it but reveals the unfitness for self-government of the dominant race out there that the Natives, who sympathize with the Government, should be exposed to violence immediately the loyal Burghers are armed. That is the condition of life under true South African ideals.
Having had the ear of the Union Government since the federation of the South African States, Mr. Piet Grobler and other men of his way of thinking have been largely responsible for the repressive native laws that have found their way into the statute book of the Union. If the Natives of the other three Provinces had votes like those of the Cape Province, they would help to return sober-minded members to Parliament who are not inimical to the public welfare, instead of which they have been represented in the South African Parliament by budding subalterns of the German Army in South-West Africa. But since the Imperial Government in its wisdom when granting a Constitution to South Africa saw fit to withhold from the blacks their only weapon of protection against hostile legislation, viz., the power of the ballot, they surely, in common fairness to the Natives and from respect for their own honour, cannot reasonably stand aside as mere onlookers while self-condemned enemies of the Crown ram their violent laws down the throats of the Natives. The Imperial Government by the obligations of its overlordship and its plighted word to the Natives, at the time of the federation, is in duty bound to free the unrepresented Natives from the shackles of these laws, or otherwise, declare its guardianship of the interests of the Natives to have ceased, and counsel these weaker races to apply elsewhere for relief.