Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Hofmeyr, Jan Hendrik

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HOFMEYR, JAN HENDRIK (1845–1909), South African politician, born at Capetown on 4 July 1845, was eldest of the five children of Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr, a farmer in the Cape Peninsula. The family came from the Netherlands to South Africa in the eighteenth century. Educated at the South African College at Capetown, he left school at the age of sixteen, meaning to enter the government service; but having no interest and no money he became a journalist in the colony. He started on the staff of the 'Volksvriend,' which he bought. In 1871 he amalgamated it with the 'Zuid Afrikaan,' and gave the combined journal the title 'Ons Land.' At one time he also edited the 'Zuid Afrikaansche Tijdschrift.'

In 1878 he formed the Boeren Vereeniging or Farmers' Association, with headquarters at Capetown. The original aims of this association were purely agricultural, but, the Afrikander Bond having been started in 1882 with less loyal and more political objects, Hofmeyr in 1883 amalgamated the Farmers' Association with it, modified its programme, and secured control of its working. He acted as chairman of the Bond till 1895, when he resigned, but resumed the office after 1902, when the South African war was over. Meanwhile he had in 1879 entered the Capo parliament as member for Stellenbosch. He remained in parliament for sixteen years, till 1895, and filled the position of leader and spokesman of the Dutch party in the colony. He was a member without portfolio of Sir Thomas Scanlen's ministry for six months in 1882, and was offered the premiership in 1884, but he held aloof alike from office and from distinction of any kind. At the same time he was a member of the executive council of the Cape Colony, and represented the colony on important occasions. He was one of the Cape delegates to the first colonial conference held in London in 1887, and moved a memorable motion: 'To discuss the feasibility of promoting a closer union between the various parts of the British empire by means of an imperial tariff of customs, to be levied independently of the duties payable under existing tariffs, on goods entering the empire from abroad, the revenue derived from such tariff to be devoted to the general defence of the empire.' He contended 'that the British empire should have some other consolidating force in addition to mere sentiment, that it should have the force of self-interest.' His scheme 'would produce revenue for imperial purposes and at the same time would leave the various fiscal tariffs of the different parts of the empire, of the colonies as well as England, untouched.' His proposal implied the creation of some kind of fiscal parliament for the empire, and was put forward at once as a unifying and as a revenue measure. It is noteworthy not only on its merits but also as the suggestion of the leader of the Dutch-speaking population of South Africa (Proc. Colonial Conference of 1887, C. 5091, 2 vols., July 1887, i. 463-8).

In 1889 Hofmeyr was a member of the South African customs conference. In 1890, when Sir Henry (afterwards Lord) Loch [q. v. Suppl. I] was governor of the Cape and high commissioner for South Africa, he negotiated with President Kruger the Swaziland convention between the British and the Transvaal governments. Neither to the more extreme section of the Afrikander party in South Africa nor to President Kruger was Hofmeyr's part in the negotiation quite congenial. Between Hofmeyr, who became 'the leader of constitutional Afrikanderdom,' and Kruger, who was 'the leader of militant Afrikanderdom,' difference of view was inevitable (The Times Hist. of War in South Africa, i. 291). In 1894 Hofmeyr again represented the Cape Colony at the colonial conference held at Ottawa to consider the question of trade and communication among the different colonies and between the colonies and the mother country.

Until the Jameson Raid of 1895 Hofmeyr was a close friend and supporter of Cecil Rhodes [q. v. Suppl. II]. 'People have disputed,' Rhodes is reported to have said, 'whether I led Mr. Hofmeyr or Mr. Hofmeyr led me' (Edmund Gabrett, The Story of a South African Crisis, 1897, pp. 158-9). Mr. Schreiner, in his evidence before the select committee on British South Africa, stated that Hofmeyr 'has been during the six years of Mr. Rhodes's tenure of office as prime minister his constant confidant on every matter of pubhc importance' (Second Report from the Select Committee on British South Africa, H. of C. paper 311, 13 July 1897, 'Minutes of Evidence,' p. 177). From the date of the raid Hofmeyr's relations with Rhodes were permanently broken off. At the time of the raid Hofmeyr urgently advised the high commissioner. Sir Hercules Robinson (afterwards Lord Rosmead) [q. v. Suppl. I], to issue the proclamation of 31 Dec. 1895, which disowned and condemned the movement (The Times History, i. 169). Hofmeyr, who had been the adviser and friend of British governors and ministers in the Cape Colony, and was at the same time the powerful and trusted leader of the Dutch party, was placed in a difficult position by the bitterness which thenceforth divided the British and the Dutch. In May 1899 he was largely responsible for initiating the Bloemfontein conference between Lord Milner and President Kruger (C. 9345, June 1899, p. 239), and at the beginning of July in that year, on the eve of the Boer war, he went to Bloemfontein and Pretoria in the hope of promoting a peaceful settlement. During the earlier part of the war he was in South Africa, and acted as chairman of the committee of the fund for the relief of Boer widows and orphans and of wounded Boers. During its later stages he was absent from South Africa on the ground of health, but was in South Africa again at the time of Mr. Chamberlain's visit, and at a deputation to Mr. Chamberlain at Capetown in February 1903 he made a speech in favour of conciliation. He took no very prominent part in advocating the South African Union. He was more in favour of federation than of unification, for he was essentially a citizen of Cape Colony and much concerned to maintain the position of the colony in a united South Africa. He was, however, one of the delegates who came to England in 1909 to effect the final settlement. After seeking medical treatment at Nauheim he died of angina pectoris in London on 16 Oct. 1909. Hofmeyr married twice : (1) in 1880, Aleda Hendrikz (d. 1883) of Somerset West ; (2) on 1 Sept. 1900, her sister, Johanna Hendrikz. He left no children. He was buried among his wife's people in the Dutch reformed churchyard at Somerset West.

Hofmeyr had no gift of eloquence, but was on occasion an effective speaker. He wrote English well, had an excellent memory for both books and men, encouraged games, and was wide in^his sympathies in normal times. He is credited with having helped through the Cape parliament an Act desired by the leaders of the Anglican church of South Africa, which was not his own communion (Wirgman's History of the English Church and People in South Africa, 1895, p. 273). He was not rich, and coveted neither money nor distinction. Disinterested, and seeking no personal aggrandisement, he exerted very great personal influence on behalf of his people as a diplomatist and organiser behind the scenes. 'Mr. Hofmeyr,' said Mr. Schreiner in July 1897, 'is practically the leader of something very like half the popular house, although he is not now in the house' {Second Report from the Select Committee an British South Africa, as above). By means of the Afrikander Bond, which he moulded and controlled, he educated the Dutch of South Africa, and more especially of the Cape Colony, gave them pohtical cohesion, and made them a political force. His Dutch fellow-countrymen felt unbounded confidence in his leadership and cherished strong personal affection for 'Onze Jan.' Despite the racial rancours which the Boer war aggravated and which for the time coloured his political views, Hofmeyr was a conspicuous advocate of the doctrine that nationalism within the empire is compatible with and not antagonistic to cohesion of the whole.

A bronze bust of him stands in the Parliament Buildings at Capetown, and when he retired from the legislature he was presented by his fellow members with a life-size portrait. A fund for a memorial to him is now being raised in South Africa.

[Blue Books; Anglo-African Who's Who, 1907; The Times History of the War in South Africa, 7 vols. 1900–9; The Times, 18 Oct. 1909; South Africa, 23 Oct. 1909.]

C. P. L.