Promises, promises. There’s good reason people don’t trust politicians. Black South Africans were promised time and again by the British they would be rewarded and empowered in exchange for their support, and time and again from the 18th century on, those spent promises led to their despair.

But what path led away from their enfranchisement – which was once a matter of record (males only, of course)?

It’s a question that former BBC journalist, Cape Town-born and educated Martin Plaut, asked himself while taking a group of “bright-eyed Rhodes scholars” around the British parliament during a working stint there.

When did black South Africans first get the vote, he asked them? Their answer was predictably 1994.

Not so, he pointed out: that occurred when slavery was abolished and all “men” lawfully living in the Cape Colony were entitled “to all and every rights, privileges and benefits of the law to which any other of His Majesty’s subjects are entitled”, a right further enshrined when the Cape Colony was granted representative government in 1953.

Men such as Dr Abdullah Abdurahman sat on the Cape Town City Council for 40 years, as a result. What went wrong?

At the heart of it lay differing and opposing understandings of what the (British) Empire actually meant, and Plaut warns in his book, Promise and Despair: The First Struggle for a Non-Racial South Africa, that it is a complex story with no glib answers – not a popular position but certainly an accurate one.

This book concentrates particularly on the converging journeys to London in 1909, after the bitter Boer War was over, to form the Union of South Africa. Britain was rejoicing in the new-found friendship with General Louis Botha and his brilliant right-hand man, Jan Smuts – both former foes who were considered “magnanimous” by the British public after the cruel treatment of Boers in that war. The “Union” was offered to them, only a few short years after they had lost power, for a simple and urgent reason: impending war with the Empire’s “real” enemy, Germany.

It was clear to British-educated Smuts, who had struggled to reunite “Boer and Brit” after the war of 1899-1902, that he could never persuade the Transvaal and Orange Free State to join the Union and, at the same time, preserve black rights: franchise came with a land/money qualification, and this would disempower Boers currently enfranchised but impoverished by the war they had not sought. He felt this would be undemocratic.

The alternative, of sacrificing franchise for black citizens, was opposed by the former prime minister of the Cape, Will Schreiner (brother of Olive), who travelled to Britain in 1909 to lobby the opposing position with a delegation of distinguished black leaders including John Jabavu, Abdurahman, and Walter Rubusana. Schreiner took pains to ensure these distinguished men spoke on their own behalf to audiences about the injustice they were facing.

They did not succeed. Union was a done deal; in return, Botha and Smuts had promised help to Britain in fighting the Germans, in particular in “clearing them out” of what is today Namibia, then a German stronghold.

Also present in 1909 was another lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi, setting up networks and figuring out just how power functioned in the imperial circles, an experience that would benefit him enormously when he returned to India’s own struggle for independence.

Plaut’s book recognises the women who played significant roles in this era’s struggle for non-racial rights in South Africa. We know of Olive Schreiner’s robust views – Plaut’s book ends with her famous lines insisting that this must be a “free country” for all.

More recently, the valuable lobbying of Betty Molteno, daughter of the former governor of the Cape, has come to light through her letters to her lover, Alice Green (Plaut acknowledges his considerable debt to Kathy Corder in deciphering them).

There were British women too, who took up the non-racial struggle – Emily Hobhouse, Lady Violet Cecil (whose affair with Lord Milner later turned into marriage), and Helen Clark.

I asked Plaut whether he thought these well-connected women were able to sympathise because of their own struggle for emancipation? Yes, he said: “They were also bound under the injustice of their own lack of franchise.”

Most had been pro-Boer during the war; only when the realisation dawned that the “Act of Union” had also become an “Act of Separation” for black South Africans, with worse to come, did general attitudes begin to slowly change, shifting support to black South Africans in their continued struggle.

Promise and Despair is rich in detail; though not a sunny read (as its title suggests) it is a valuable contribution to our understanding to just how extremely complex South African history is, and what unexpected consequences flowed from decisions that were taken for expedient rather than rightful processes. A lesson we would do well to remember.

* Promise and Despair by Martin Plaut is published by Jacana