Bloemfontein is the city in the heart of the Free State where opposing white political forces traditionally met to shape South African history. Eight years after the Boer War, the city hosted a conference resulting in the two Boer republics and the two British colonies forming the Union of South Africa.
The Act of Union signed in Bloemfontein in 1910 absolved Britain of any further responsibility for the country’s future, dashing black hopes that England would eventually extend her liberal tradition in the Cape Colony – where blacks and mixed-race people known as coloureds were able to vote – to the other three provinces.
Under the Union constitution, blacks in the Cape could lose their franchise if a two-thirds majority of both houses of parliament sitting in joint session ruled against it. The few educated, politically conscious Africans in the country were appalled at the Union constitution. They immediately formed a delegation which sailed to England to protest against their exclusion from South Africa’s parliament. But after pleading passionately for a rethink in London they realised that their long journey had been in vain: the British government’s only concern was to secure white unity in South Africa. Historian DDT Jabavu, the country’s first black professor, noted: “The colour-bar clause struck the death-knell of native confidence in what used to be called British fair play. That cow of Great Britain had gone dry, and they must look to themselves for salvation.”
In the same year, 1910, a young Zulu relative of the Swazi royal family, Dr Pixley ka Izaka Seme, returned to Johannesburg from London. Seme was a newly qualified advocate, called to the bar at the Middle Temple after studying at Columbia and Oxford universities. He was energetic, proud and a little snobbish, a descendant of the Zulu warrior kings who had been defeated by whites 30 years earlier.
Seme had already distinguished himself as a speaker, delivering a prize-winning address on his hopes for African liberation when he graduated from Columbia University in 1906: “The giant is awakening,” he told a startled New York audience. “From the four corners of the earth, Africa’s sons are marching up to the future’s golden door, bearing the record of deeds of valour done… The brighter day is rising upon Africa. Already I seem to see her chains dissolve, her desert plains red with harvest, her Abyssinia and her Zululand the seats of science and religion, reflecting the glory of the rising sun from the spires of their churches and universities… Yes, the generation of Africa belongs to this new and powerful period…”
Donning his top hat, morning coat and spats, Dr Seme set forth to establish a legal practice in Johannesburg, but he soon discovered how few opportunities were open to him as a black lawyer. The fact that Africans were not allowed to walk on pavements and were expected to raise their hats to whites infuriated Seme, who put away his dreams of rebuilding the Zulu nation and decided to unite blacks in defence of their rights. He began by summoning a meeting with three lawyers from different tribal origins, who together wrote a manifesto for publication in an African journal called Imvo. “The demon of racialism, the aberrations of the Xhosa-Fingo feud, animosity that exists between the Zulus and the Tongas, between the Basuthu and every other native must be buried and forgotten,” Seme and his colleagues concluded. “We are one people.”
In 1912 he called for a conference of African leaders. Many blacks harboured ancient grievances from wars fought among themselves half a century earlier, yet several hundred from all four provinces responded enthusiastically to Seme’s call.
They met in a dilapidated shed in Bloemfontein, some wearing Edwardian frock coats, others in the leopard skins that marked their status as chiefs. They were teachers, clergymen and clerks, businessmen, journalists and builders, all educated in missionary schools in the nineteenth century.
“Chiefs of royal blood and gentlemen of our race,” bellowed Dr Seme in his opening address. “The white people of this country have formed what is known as the Union of South Africa – a union in which we have no voice in the making of the laws and no part in the administration. We have called you, therefore, to this conference so that we can together devise ways and means of forming our national union for the purpose of creating national unity and defending our rights and privileges.”
The conference ended with the formation of the South African Native National Congress, later renamed the African National Congress (ANC), which aimed to agitate for the removal of racial discrimination in parliament and in the public administration, schools and factories of South Africa. To further the interests of what it called “the dark races of the subcontinent”, the ANC planned to use “peaceful propaganda” in the first instance and then “passive action” or “continued movement” along the lines advocated by Mahatma Gandhi, who had lived in South Africa since 1893.
Dr Seme was elected treasurer. Dr John Dube, a cautious Zulu headmaster from Natal and recipient of an honorary University of South Africa doctorate for his efforts towards establishing the first industrial school for blacks, won the presidential vote. The secretary was Solomon Plaatje, an interpreter from Kimberley who, despite a Standard Three education, had translated five Shakespearian plays into Setswana and was the first African to have written a novel in English.
The following year brought confirmation of the Union government’s resolve to halt the advancement of blacks and exploit their labour. Included in a barrage of repressive laws was the Natives’ Land Act, stripping blacks of their right to own or lease land in “white” areas. It left the black population in possession of only about eight percent of the entire country, forcing it into wage labour. Sol Plaatje wrote: “Awakening on Friday morning, June 29, 1913, the South African native found himself not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.” Black families were evicted from white farms in their thousands. Loading their belongings on to their heads, they trudged for days and nights in the middle of winter, driving small herds and carrying children from one white farm to the next as they begged for shelter. “It looks as if these people are so many fugitives escaping from a war,” said Plaatje.
The ANC decided to send a petition protesting against the Natives’ Land Act and other legislation to the prime minister, General Louis Botha, in Cape Town, and to appeal once again to the British. President Dube, who sported a sweeping walrus moustache, led his hopeful delegation across the seas shortly before the declaration of war in Europe. But their journey again proved fruitless.
When the war began in 1914, the ANC put aside its disillusionment with the British and voted unanimously to support London’s war effort. Offering his government the services of 5 000 black soldiers, Dube received a stinging rejection from the defence minister. “Apart from other considerations,” the minister wrote, “the present war is one which has its origins among the white people of Europe, and the government is anxious to avoid the employment of coloured citizens in warfare against whites.” Though not allowed to carry arms, thousands of blacks were to be recruited to dig trenches and perform menial tasks for white soldiers, a humiliation which the ANC received in stunned disbelief. Africans had continued to hope that English-speaking whites in South Africa would prevail politically over Afrikaners, who were a largely uneducated, backward race, more threatened by black advancement than the English population. But the extent of the prejudice blacks faced in their struggle for equality was brought home when Jan Smuts, an internationally respected former Boer commander in Louis Botha’s cabinet and a man who identified with English speakers in the Union, declared himself in favour of a racially divided society.
Addressing a conference at the plush Savoy Hotel in London, Smuts announced: “It has been our ideal to make South Africa a white man’s country, but it is not a white man’s country yet. It is still a black man’s country.” He was warmly applauded in the British capital.
Shocked by Smuts’ statement, Dube sent a reply to London: “The natives of this continent are loyal subjects of His Majesty King George V, and most emphatically deny that either General Smuts or the Union government have any right to rob the natives of their human rights and guarantees of liberty and freedom under the Pax Britannica.”
When the war ended, Sol Plaatje led another ANC delegation to London, where he was warmly received by Britain’s premier Lloyd George and the Archbishop of Canterbury. But his pleas for British intervention on behalf of black South Africans came to nothing: the British officials assured him that they could not interfere in the affairs of a self-governing country.
Plaatje went on to the peace conference at Versailles, where he encountered another South African delegation led by one of Botha’s ministers, General Barry Hertzog, who was busy trying to lobby support for an Afrikaner republic.
For several years after the war, drought ravaged the kraals in South Africa and thousands of blacks streamed into the cities in search of work. The ANC, with fewer than 3 000 paid-up members, continued meeting annually to arrange polite deputations and petitions.
Then, as the black urban population’s prospects steadily deteriorated, a new militancy began to surface in its dignified deliberations. Sol Plaatje, who had turned down an offer of the presidency the previous year, first noticed the change after an executive committee meeting in 1918.
Describing it in a letter to the mining company De Beers, he wrote: “The ten Transvaal delegates came to the Congress with a concord and a determination that was perfectly astounding to our customary native demeanour at conferences. They spoke almost in unison, in short sentences, nearly all of which began and ended with the word ‘strike’.”
Encouraged by these early trade union rumblings, the ANC organised its first public protest in 1919 to condemn the restrictive pass laws that had been used to regulate the lives of blacks since the nineteenth century. Gathering in their thousands behind the central pass office in Johannesburg, the demonstrators sang God Save the King and raised cheers to the British Crown. They planned to surrender the pass documents that blacks in the city were obliged to carry by law, but squads of police arrived to baton-charge the crowd and arrest those who had already relinquished their passes.
Rioting broke out and 700 demonstrators were taken to prison.
The ANC recoiled. The government was clearly in no mood to tolerate protest, however peacefully expressed. Two years later, blacks were again horrified to hear that an army of white soldiers had been deployed to shift black members of a religious sect after they refused to vacate white land at Bulhoek in the Eastern Cape. The soldiers massacred 163 of the worshippers. By 1922 protest was coming from a different racial sector: white workers.