The Empire and the century/The Native Question in South Africa

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2570080The Empire and the century — The Native Question in South AfricaGodfrey Lagden



The year 1905 has seen the position of the Native Question in South Africa brought up to date in the recent publication of a Report by an Interterritorial Commission representative of all the Colonies and Protectorates in South Africa.

The terms of reference to the Commission were wide and comprehensive. The Report itself was exhaustive in general, and, if conclusions were not in all cases finally drawn, the reason may be attributed, not so much to the lack of initiative on the part of the Commission itself, as to the complexity of the question, the divergence of views and conditions in the various Colonies, and the impracticability of urging changes and reforms suitable in one sphere, but manifestly impossible for constitutional reasons in others. The appointment of the Commission was inspired by the desire to marshal facts, to ascertain the true state of affairs affecting the natives, and to promote a common understanding upon native policy. Though the hope was cherished that advantage would result, it was always apparent that no absolute uniformity could be attained without sacrifice of conviction on vital points, which it was neither reasonable to expect nor expedient to demand. The most optimistic realized that uniformity in laws and administration can only be arrived at by stages when common interests and the common peace justify it.

The Report is authenticated by documents and maps of an instructive nature, and is supported by official statistics. The public opinion of South Africa is reflected in the evidence of over 800 witnesses, representative of every shade of thought The Report of the Commission furnishes, therefore, a most useful basis for discussing a subject pregnant with issues upon which public opinion is much divided. It has been criticised, on the whole, with breadth of view by the public and the press, and the magnitude of the question has been fully realized. But there are known to be many serious and experienced thinkers who, in no contentious spirit, dissent from the views of the Commission, some upon the grounds that certain prominent recommendations are illiberal and unworthy, whilst others deem them from the South African aspect to be impolitic and inexpedient.

It is not proposed to traverse this Report in detail, but to deal with salient points which have focussed attention, and are of abiding concern to South Africa, as well as to recognise different views entertained by the public. To discuss the whole group of questions constituting the native problem requires a book instead of a chapter, so that little of a searching nature can be attempted within the space here allotted. To many, the most interesting and attractive side is that which relates to tribal life, the communal system, and the changes in condition which the natives have undergone within the past century.

What is understood as the native problem existing to-day may be divided under a few heads—those which affect aboriginal contact with whites in a country which, formerly inhabited only by aboriginal races, has now been reclaimed by Europeans of higher intellect, with the fixed and determined purpose of permanent occupation and development. When the seashore is reclaimed by civilized enterprise and skilled capacity, it is drained and converted to use, and all that is noxious is swept away. But in the reclamation of soil inhabited by human beings there can be no wholesale sweeping away. Human life is sacred; it must be preserved, however rudimentary the stage of organization; and, after due tolerance for primitive habits, the duty of the superior race is to aid the inferior in the course of its evolution. That evolution, to be sound and healthy, must, following the dictates of Nature, be of slow growth. Unnatural development of the human species creates the same sort of impression as is formed in the mind of the cultivator at the sight of a spurious and weedy plant—the genus does not commend itself for propagation.

The principal elements of racial contact under the circumstances which excite controversy are to be found in questions arising out of the land formerly enjoyed in extenso by the aboriginals, their settlement upon it, and their relations to the superior race. As these issues constitute the matter upon which Colonies and parties will contend in the preliminary effort towards a common understanding prior to federation, it is well to examine more closely some of the features.

A glance at the history of the early condition of the South African aboriginals as a whole reveals them as enjoying large tracts of land upon which they lived in community; that is to say, they were a pastoral people raising their flocks and herds on one commonage, and cultivating scraps of land for food wherever they were immune from the ravages of powerful enemies or marauders. They lived under the rule of chieftainship, had no religion, and were in the true sense of the word savage. The right to hold and enjoy what they possessed was governed only by the power to do so. The ethics of right and wrong were unknown to them. They had no originality.

Their subjection by European races gradually changed this state of things. Conquerors have all the world over claimed the reward of their prowess and sacrifices, and have imposed restrictions and burdens upon the subdued So it was that in South Africa the aboriginals, after fighting to their utmost and inflicting as much havoc as they could upon the invader, succumbed to superior intelligence and came under civilized law and order. The result was to revolutionize their mode of living, and to place a limit upon their spheres of tribal occupation.

The effects of civilization and Christianity in course of time made it manifest to the ruling race that, under the influence of control and guidance, the savages were gently emerging from their barbarous state and putting on the garb of intelligence. By easy stages this process has been going on, until at the present day the progress has been deepened by missionary effort into a knowledge of Christian religion, widened by education, and has established itself in a fairly regular form.

But concurrently with the growth of intelligence has followed a growth of population, lately at a great rate, in consequence of the stoppage of internecine warfare and the promotion of healthier conditions of life. This fact has tended to arrest the attention of the civilized race, and set it thinking.

It was not to be expected that the conquering European race, in view of its resolve beneficially to occupy the country, could, as its numbers increased and wants multiplied, continue to be indulgent in setting apart tracts of land for the aboriginals as they multiplied; nor, indeed, could it be deemed of advantage for an inferior race, struggling upwards, to be brought up in the notion that its only means of subsistence must be land: it narrows the vision of hopeful evolution. In any case, for practical reasons the granting of native territories has latterly been punctuated with a large full-stop; for, in effect, there are no more territories to grant in the South African Colonies, and the pause for reflection has to be taken. There is a demand for land according to the old order, and it cannot be met. Of the several alternatives suggested, there are two of some importance. One is that the aboriginals, who do not and cannot in future subsist on alienated land, should earn their living by other pursuits—should, in fact, be awakened to the knowledge that success in the struggle for existence lies in learning handicrafts and pursuing callings which offer a ready and comfortable return for industry. The other is that they should be enabled to purchase land from Europeans at pleasure, if they can, and live alongside them on equal terms.

It is here that there is a strong conflict of feeling. The opinions of those who hold that, according to the best traditions of the British race, there should be absolute freedom of purchase, and that the fit will always prevail and survive, are entitled to the fullest consideration. But we have to recollect that a European race is dominant in the country, that it is in a large numerical minority, that it has resolved to preserve its ascendancy, and is acutely sensitive of any suggestion of social equality with an inferior race which must takes ages to attain the same degree of intelligence. And it is essential not to overlook the importance to the inferior races of their enjoying the sympathy of their superiors, if they are not to be impeded in their evolution. It is therefore urged with emphasis by a strong section of enlightened opinion, inspired with the best feelings, that it is unwise and inexpedient to countenance and aid aboriginals in doing that which will place them in a position calculated to invite social conflict, such as the freedom to acquire land and occupy it in close proximity to European occupiers would lead to. By such thinkers this method of intermingling is regarded with profound misgivings as being liable, not only to disturb good relations, but to deter European settlement.

The Native Affairs Commission, though not entirely unanimous in respect of this question, passed a clear resolution, recording the opinion that restrictions upon the purchase of land by natives are necessary, and recommending that purchases in future be limited to areas defined by legislative enactment The resolution was opposed by an experienced officer, representing the Cape Colony, for weighty reasons recorded, and it was qualified by a reservation of the Natal delegates, to the effect that the determining factors in the ownership of land by natives should be the degree of civilization attained and the abandonment of native law and polygamy.

In the older Colonies, where there is no bar to the free acquisition of land by natives, it is claimed, by those who advocate the justice and utility of the policy, that no evil results are likely to accrue. That opinion is, however, by no means universal even in those Colonies, whilst a large body of evidence in the new Colonies condemns in no uncertain manner any departure from the prohibition to acquire land which their early laws enacted. If the two sides of the argument are weighed, it will be found that there is against it, in the new Colonies particularly, a profoundly antagonistic feeling ready to ripen into agitation and resistance.

Upon this point, therefore, the cleavage in South Africa is marked, and it becomes impossible to lay down for common adoption a policy acceptable to all Colonies. That of absolute freedom of purchase may be right, but it may not be expedient Between the two schools of thought there is a wide gulf not easy to span. It is a thorny question upon which practice has not had time to yield results positive enough to define as an axiom what course should be followed. If changes were made in respect of some Colonies to bring them into definite line with others, it could only be done at the expense of extreme bitterness and dangerous discontent; and if there is a risk of discord between the European races over the subject, the lesser evil is to let the several Colonies work out their own policy until the time arrives when a common interest draws them into line. There is no royal road to the solution of problems which are parts of a whole, and are best determined when read and construed in connection with each other. It would be an error to commit Colonies to a land policy they resented, with reasonable anticipation that the path would be strewn with opposition and that the ultimate aim might be wrecked. Moreover, in the contest for supremacy of view, the cause of aboriginal development would suffer from the lack of sustained sympathy and support, which are its main buttresses.

There have not been wanting eager reformers, who have watched the trend of native development and advocated changes for betterment in the form of land tenure. The Cape Colonial Government, under the inspiration of Mr. Rhodes, carried out a scheme under which a certain territory, held under communal tenure, should be converted into individual holdings. Reasonable conditions were imposed, subject to which freehold rights were conferred entitling the individual to the free and permanent use of allotments. The general idea of the scheme was that it would tend to infuse into the freeholders a spirit of self-dependence and enterprise to which communal tenure does not lend itself. Some of the objects aimed at have been gained, but the masses have not displayed enthusiasm enough for the change to justify its extension on any large scale.

There is no space in this paper to treat of all the ramifications of the land questions, which affect each Colony so differently. The advantages and disadvantages of communal or individual tenure, of squatting, vesting in trust, etc., are fully argued in the report of the Commission. They are all matters of supreme importance to the different Colonies, and are engaging attention. What is clear is that there is complete disillusionment of the idea that land will any longer be meted out for tribal occupation under the old system of free grants. That is the universal opinion of the South African Colonies, and is the kernel of the question, signifying as it does a sweeping change in the entire land system. It is the parting of the ways. What has been granted or pledged in good faith cannot be withdrawn during good behaviour. But the limit is reached.

Whether, then, in respect of land, or other points where racial impact is concerned, the rational policy in its initial stage is to facilitate the development of aboriginals on lines which do not merge too closely into European life, lest it lead to active enmity and stem the tide of healthy progress. Their advance cannot be stayed, but must be conducted under civilized guidance.

The chief factors that come into operation in the assisted evolution of aboriginals are just and firm treatment conducive to natural and healthy growth, educational help designed to fertilize that growth, and the establishment of auditories for the expression of grievances, and the generation of ideas upon which the superior race can base its policy for promoting welfare and encouraging improvement. If these factors are to be properly and usefully employed as a means to an end, success can only be achieved by the continued maintenance between the two races of mutual confidence and sympathy. Anything partaking of reluctance, through fear of consequences on the part of the superior race to lend itself to the elevation of the inferior, must tend to disturb the process and defeat the purpose. Precisely as children fear and dislike their teachers whilst under necessary discipline, so the aboriginal races must be expected to cherish the same emotions whilst under tutelage. It is manifested by them in various forms, such as in subtle ebullitions of violence or in sullenness. It is a phase of education, and not unnatural in the sequence of cause and effect. It is emphatically necessary to avoid, as far as possible, any course calculated to produce social antipathy between the races, and to shun ill-timed philanthropy, which is fruitful of trouble and saps the foundations of safe and sure progress.

From the early condition of the aboriginals, outlined in a previous page, to their present status is a considerable step. Under paternal Government and civilized guidance they have increased rapidly in numbers, and are living under prosperous circumstances. They enjoy common rights of justice and protection. They are the particular care of magistrates and other officers specially appointed. Education, religion, employment, and regular wages are available to them in most parts, and it is only a question of a short time before, in every Colony, they will have equal opportunities for improvement

It is not necessary to draw comparisons as to whether their advancement was promoted more or less under the British or Dutch administrations. The rate of desirable progress is a contentious point, many holding, for sound reasons, that progress in order to be steady cannot be too slow—so slow, indeed, that those who watch it can scarcely trace it. It is a commonplace that the harvest of missionary labour is seldom gleaned earlier than a generation after the workers have passed away.

The fact remains that great strides have been made, especially in the Cape Colony, and that the aboriginals, as a whole, to-day may claim to have risen considerably in intellectual capacity and attained to a certain degree of civilization. They wear European clothes, cultivate with European implements, consume European goods, and many tens of thousands have passed through the elementary stages of education. Some have attained to standards of excellence, and shown themselves capable of studying with profit the learned professions. It is true that agitations have occasionally been directed against the tendency to keep the masses back. Such agitations have been useful, and have generally been fomented by those who are possessed of exceptional ability to think and express their ideas. Whilst recognising the merit of such individuals, and appreciating the motives which stir them on behalf of their kinsmen, it must be remembered that the great bulk of the communities in the civilized world are not highly educated or endowed with genius, but only with a modicum of plain common-sense sufficient to qualify them for competition in the struggle for place. Examinations and other tests which they undergo are not framed in the expectation of finding unusual capacity in any ranks. Mediocrity is the rule; the national edifice is based upon it, and the law and constitution are drawn in suitable perspective. There is no disposition amongst the Western nations to regulate legislation for brilliant scholars, but rather for the common mass of ordinary intelligence. Similarly, the great bulk of aboriginals who are now gaining a modicum of intelligence require laws and government in form appropriate to the standard sit which they have arrived in bulk, and not according to the standard of those who have proved themselves exceptions. We have rightly assumed the position of guardians over the native races, and must act up to it They cannot develop without the aid of the white race. Class legislation was, and is, necessary for their due protection. Because a few have advanced at an amazing rate, and require help and encouragement, it were neither kind nor politic to give the masses, who are far behind, a status they are not fitted for.

The relations between the two races are, as before said, determinable according to the sympathy and confidence existing between them. An idea of the acute anxiety about these relations may be gathered from the Treaty of Peace which formed the closing incident to the late war. In that document it was stipulated that no political rights should be granted to natives prior to introduction of responsible government in the new Colonies. The meaning of this was unmistakable. It meant, in plain language, that the Dutch settlers, in addition to their repugnance to admit any equality between the white and black races, feared being outvoted. In this fear the Dutch were not singular, for it is shared by the greater portion of British settlers in South Africa.

It is of primary importance to bear in mind—

That the native population is between four and five times as large as the European.

That the natives are advancing under guidance and help, which it is essential not to check.

That the franchise qualification is low, and may soon come within their reach.

That the European race has resolved, for reasons not necessary to recapitulate, to maintain its ascendancy in, and to occupy. South Africa.

As pointed out in the Commission Report, after exhaustive inquiry, the present number of native voters who have attained the qualification in certain Colonies is the merest fringe of the impending mass, and in view of this fact the full magnitude and gravity of the question may be apprehended.

It is idle to ignore that fact, unless there is to be an entire revolution of thought in favour of granting full political rights to all who can qualify—an argument, indeed, which appeals strongly to many in England, and to a few in South Africa, who hold the conviction that it should be followed because it is humanly right. In support of the conviction, an utterance of a great statesman, Mr. Rhodes, has been freely quoted, in which he advocated equal political rights for all civilized people. But Mr. Rhodes considered consequences and was the exponent of South African Colonies when he often expressed the opinion that class legislation. Pass Laws, and Peace Preservation Acts, were essential, and that natives should be regarded as a subject race so long as they continued in a state of barbarism. He did not define what constituted a state of barbarism, nor propound any scheme for the treatment of those who emerged from it in solitary numbers. That he left until solid changes in the mass in the sense of their proved intellectual capacity should be visible, and his successors felt impelled from right motives, and in the fitness of time, to adjust legislation accordingly.

Of the forces which have operated powerfully to stiffen resistance to the granting of equal political rights, the most pronounced, apart from the sentiment so strongly felt, are the belief that natives are not yet mentally or morally fit to have a vote in the affairs of white people, and the conviction that extension of the privilege would eventually lead to organizations upon race lines after a period during which the aboriginal voters might first serve as a prey to parties and party politics, and then by sheer numbers secure the balance of political power. The prospect of such a situation is construed as intolerable by European South Africa, and, so long as that prospect is in view, the education, the advance, and general interests of the natives suffer prejudice.

Of the alternatives suggested, a certain class inclines to the imposition of a higher franchise. But that could only be a temporary shift, to be brushed away abruptly.

To the Commission, as appears from the Report, the question appealed as one of great moment, demanding resolute treatment. The solution it offered took the form of a recommendation to institute in each of the self-governing Colonies, whether they enjoyed any existing form of representation or not, a uniform system providing for separate voting, by native electors only, for a fixed and adequate number of representative members. By such a system it was, inter alia, contended that as a result the natives throughout South Africa would gain a uniform political status; racial strife would be minimized, if not averted; questions affecting their betterment would be freed from considerations of consequent increase in their political power, and from resulting hostility to measures conducive to their progress. It was felt that this could be done without menace to the supremacy of the ruling race.

The proposals of the Commission have been challenged by South Africans of influence, who, with a full desire to do justice to the natives and further their interests in every way, are impressed with the conviction that the cause cannot be usefully served—may, indeed, be frustrated—by giving them direct representation in any form in the elected assemblies. The case of India is cited as an example where the necessity of retaining absolute political power is held to be paramount. The exponents of this view cling to the belief that even limited representation of the character recommended would place native voters at the mercy of intriguers, would give them an entirely erroneous conception of their political power, and lead up to a state of affairs which might culminate in rupture. It is further argued that the government of the natives entails heavy expenditure, provided largely from European taxation; that they enjoy full protection and immunity from tribal warfare without partaking of the cares or sharing proportionately the fiscal burdens which fall upon the white people. It is said, finally, that the native is separated from the white man by a gulf, not of colour or education, but of radical mental dissimilarity, and that to give him the franchise is logically as well as politically indefensible.

As a means of assuring true representation, it has been suggested by this school of thought that in each Colony Councils should be established, composed of influential and representative natives nominated by the Imperial Government, and presided over by an official of high position; that those Councils should be empowered to discuss all questions of moment to the native communities, and their conclusions or suggestions submitted to the Legislative Assemblies. This school is, on the whole, while resolutely opposed to a native franchise, in favour of native land tenure in reserved areas, believing, with Mr. Rhodes, that the possibility of acquiring land is the surest stimulus to outside labour. These views are worthy of all attention, since they are held by some of the most politic and broad-minded of South African Imperialists.

All parties and schools of thought recognise the importance of providing that the natives, who are admittedly improving, and are taxpayers and economic factors in the general polity, be heard in a fitting manner, so that their grievances may not lack expression, nor their interests suffer in consequence. It is abundantly clear, however, that no scheme of representation offered as a solution to this problem will be acceptable to Federated South Africa unless it be limited in character, as recommended by the Commission, or assume some similar form, of which the central idea is limitation.

The mainspring of controversy is centred in questions affecting land and representation. Upon the method of handling them depends more than upon all other questions the future prosperity of the natives, and the common understanding which will enable a Federated South Africa to foster it. The matter of native education is also highly important, underlying as it does the whole structure of development; yet it is subject to the willingness and desire of the governing race to promote it. All are agreed that the character and extent of aboriginal teaching should be such as to afford opportunities for the natives to acquire that amount of elementary knowledge which will benefit them in the walks of life for which in their present state they are fitted. There the matter is hung up, and meanwhile harm arises through the propagation of misleading ideas every day that natives are driven to America to seek from the negroes there the higher education not obtainable in South Africa.

Discussion upon the whole subject would not be complete without some inquiry respecting the true aspirations of the natives themselves as expressed through their leaders. Their leaders are of two kinds—tribal leaders, comprising chiefs and councillors, and men of education who have either become teachers or mission workers, or who have drifted away from the tribe to become newspaper editors or carry on some skilled profession at which they have become expert. The chiefs and councillors are generally astute and intelligent men who may be classed as agriculturists. They are soundly acquainted with tribal affairs, and as a rule are wedded to the old communal system, which they show no desire to change. They are not inclined to express ideas, limiting themselves to requests for more land and education, and, in response to questions, almost invariably insisting that they are content to leave their affairs confidently in the hands of Government.

The educated leaders, on the other hand, converse freely, their views as a rule taking the shape most favourable to the small class in which their education has placed them. They advocate an open franchise for all, free and compulsory education, abolition of the tribal system, which is regarded as retrogressive, and, generally speaking, their aim is equality with the white race. They cannot be said to represent the masses whose ranks they have left. They stand in a grade by themselves, needing all the help and encouragement possible to enable them to live up to the standard they have reached. They are the object of most undeserving attacks from many who dislike to see a native cleanly and well attired, and are compelled to a persistent struggle to maintain the respectable position they have made for themselves and are entitled to.

Their loudest and most emphatic complaints are directed against the restrictions imposed upon their fellows of similar standing everywhere, except in the Cape Colony, where they experience singular privileges, such as the franchise and absolute freedom to purchase and occupy land. These complaints are not unnatural, and are the outpourings of men who have been roused to mental culture and better habits.

Regarded from a general standpoint, the mass of South African natives can only be described as still far backward. They have, it is true, come on a little in late years as education has spread, and they have acquired tastes which necessitated their going out to labour under European direction. Contact with civilization has given them new ideas, which are gradually finding their way into kraal life. The same contact has brought them into touch with the lower order of Europeans, and led to the acquisition of refined vices. Regrettable though this be, it was inseparable from the situation. The native is the unit of work in South Africa. His increasing wants are beginning to make him realize that he must labour to gratify them. As time goes on, population increases, and the thirst for land to cultivate is no longer so keenly felt, they may be expected to become continuously industrious workmen, looking upon their land as mere gardens to supplement the comforts of living. To compel them by legislation to work would be a fatal error. The aim of all who would like to see the native races industriously inclined, so as to avoid the necessity of imported labour, may be best reached, as pointed out so forcibly in the Report of the Commission, by the encouragement of a higher standard of living amongst natives, with a view to increase their efficiency and wants.

The natives have much to learn in adapting themselves to new and changing conditions, and will be well advised to let the current of their thoughts and their attitude be directed in that course which will win the respect of the European race. No weightier counsel can be tendered to them than that offered by the eminent American negro leader, Booker T. Washington, who, in closing his presidential address to the National Negro Business League recently in New York, used the following words:

'Our progress must be permanent, and not artificial, and it must be by natural and logical steps. We must pay the price for everything we get. The day has passed when the great body of the American people win give serious heed to high-sounding resolutions or loud demands. The most potent demand that we can make for fair and just consideration is actual achievement in the locality in which we live.'

The question of what is termed 'the coloured people' is a problem of itself much too intricate to touch upon in any perfunctory way. They are the descendants of white people, and are fast taking up a position which, if it does not beget sympathy, will command respect. Their friends advocate that they should be treated as Europeans. They have advanced rapidly in the scale of civilization, and have practically shaken themselves free of all tribal associations. They have as a body performed good and faithful service to the Crown during periods of war and uneasiness, and are characteristically law-abiding. Allusion is here made to the subject because the Native Affairs Commission considered it well to suggest a definition of the word 'native,' which has a different meaning in every Colony, The object was clear. If persons of off-colour were to be given in perpetuity the status of white people, a deplorable incitement would be given to open prostitution between the races in order to gain the status. For that reason the Commission held that a moment would come when the State should declare that the product of an aboriginal woman should henceforth take the status of its mother.

In closing this paper, which only purports to cover a small portion of the area open to discussion, it may be recapitulated that the great abiding question of all is the cultivation of good relations between the white and black races, in which sympathy is an essential factor. The great issue before the Europeans in South Africa, in so far as matters relating to the natives are concerned, is to aim at mutual understanding on a basis satisfactory to the white population, yet not inimical to the rights and interests of the aboriginals.

The task is a great one involving much give and take. No precedent is available, because no such conditions have prevailed in any other country. The federation of the Australian Commonwealth and the Canadian Dominion were, however, not accomplished without sacrifice and compromise, problems being overcome of equal weight, though dissimilar in feature. Meanwhile the fullest and most temperate-minded discussion is of the highest importance.

The whole course of discussion will be clogged by the tendency to be governed by feelings rather than reason. This tendency can only be moderated by patience and the determination to fend off the clamour for heroic measures and hasty results. The consequences of all legislation require to be considered, and as far as possible calculated.

The State has its duty to the natives as well as to the Europeans, and that duty is, not to extend to either race treatment too harsh or too kindly, but to give to both sane and adequate administration.