The White man's task

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Before the country had time to set t le down under Union, South Africa was fighting in the Great War. After the conquest of both German South West and East Africa, General Smuts proceeded to London to join the Empire War Cabinet and to render brilliant services to the Allies. One of his most notable and prophetic speeches on African problems was delivered at a dinner given in his honour under the chairmanship of Lord Selborne at the Savoy Hotel on May 22, 1917. In it he gives some of the guiding principles of our native policy.


I am deeply grateful to you for the reception you have given me here tonight. I am thankful to you. Lord Selborne, for what you have said. Your words tonight carry me back to that period in our history when I was serving under you and was a fellow-labourer with you in what will probably remain the greatest creative epoch in the history of South Africa.

The various South African societies, together with the Imperial Institute, have combined in order to do me this honour, and I am very glad to have you all together on this occasion. I know that there are many here tonight who have, at one time or another, differed from me. Sometimes the differences have been very acute, but tonight all these differences have been swallowed up and forgotten in the great constructive tasks in which we are all engaged. It is a matter of great gratification to me to think that after all, notwithstanding all those differences in the past, you can say tonight to me: "You have not done so badly after all,"

This function, of all the various functions I have so far attended, appeals most to me, because it is really not in honour of me, but in honour of that far-away, dear land, which most of us have served and with which most of us have been associated in the past. Tonight we are really met together here as members of the South African family; some born into it, some married into it, some old servants who have grown grey in her hard service and who have given the best years of their lives to that service here we can all sit together, forgetting Europe, forgetting the storms raging outside, and our minds can travel back to the sun-filled spaces of Southern Africa, to its amazing history, and its immense tasks. A great historian has said:

"On those whom the gods love they lavish infinite joys and infinite sorrows." On that principle surely South Africa must be a special favourite of the gods. She has known joys and sorrows; she has known the deepest abasement and she has known the highest exaltation. The history of South Africa is in many respects one of the true and great romances in modern history.

When I look around tonight and I see all who are sitting here at this table, I feel, and you all feel, that we are lifted out of the world of commonplace into a strange world. We feel that whatever the past has been, whatever mistakes we have made and we have all made mistakes whatever services we have been able to render to our South Africa, a kind Providence has intervened and has woven all those mistakes and all those services into a strange and wonderful texture which we call the history of South Africa and of which we are very proud. When we look at that wonderful history we are all cheered and encouraged to move forward in the hope that as our task has not been too difficult for us in the past it may not prove entirely beyond us in the future.

There are very grave questions before South Africa, and these questions will probably increase in magnitude after this war. Now the Ten Plagues are being poured over Europe in this war, and they will be followed by the Exodus in due course. You will see very large numbers of people, after this war, sick of the Old World and looking to the young countries for a new home where they may find peace. I am sure that many of you will find in our large country, our wide spaces, just that repose for body and soul that you desire. We look forward to great times, to great developments in South Africa, and it will be the task of our Governments in South Africa to make the best use of the unique opportunities for a forward move that will be presented by the times that will follow the war.

But in South Africa we always feel that there is something more. With us it is never a question of merely material progress and of prosperity, although we are always very eager to have those good things too; we always feel that under our peculiar historical and racial conditions there are very large political problems in the background which always press for solution. And that is what gives profound interest to life in South Africa. We have made very great progress in recent years. If you remember that it was within seven years of the Boer War that we had all the British Colonies of South Africa united in one great Union you will see how great and rapid that progress has been. But although we have achieved political union, our aim has always been far greater; we have aimed not only at political union, but also at national unity; and when you have to deal with very hard-headed races, such as our people in South Africa, both English and Dutch, you can well understand that it takes more than seven years to bring about that consummation. We have grave difficulties in this respect. We have different racial strains, different political tendencies.

We have people in South Africa who prefer isolation, who prefer to stand aside from the great currents that are carrying South Africa to her new and greater destiny. These are not merely Dutch, many of them are English. We have English fellow-citizens who will always remain English; to whom even the sunshine and the wide spaces of South Africa are not sufficient to bring about the great transformation of soul. We look forward patiently in such cases to the next generation. We have also a large section of my own people, the Dutch people in South Africa, who think that the best policy is for them to stand aside and to remain, in isolation. They think that in that way they will be better able to preserve their language, their traditions, and their national type, and that they will in that way not be swallowed up and be submerged by the new currents. They point to the precedent of Canada, where French-Canadians are also standing aside from the general current of Canadian life and national development for the same reasons. Now, you know, that is the issue which is being fought out now in South Africa, and has been fought out in recent years more acutely than ever before.

The policy General Botha and his associates have stood for is that we must have national unity in South Africa as the one true basis of future stability and strength - and that national unity is entirely consistent with the preservation of our language, our traditions, our cultural interests, and all that is dear to us in our past. The view we have taken is this that the different elements in our white populations ought really to be used to build up a stronger and more powerful nation than would have been possible if we had consisted of purely one particular strain. All great Imperial peoples really are a mixture of various stocks. Your own history is one of the completes proofs of that doctrine, and it is only in recent years that this remarkable doctrine of the pure race has come into vogue, and largely in Germany. The man who has preached the doctrine most eloquently is a Germanised English man, Houston Chamberlain. The doctrine is to the ef f ect that the governing races of the world are pure races, and that they simply debase themselves and become degenerate if mixed with alien blood. They must remain pure, and in so far as they do so they will play a great part in the world. It is more than hinted at that the German race must guide the world because it is one of these pure races. What arrant nonsense!

We do not pretend in South Africa to listen to these siren voices. We want to create a blend out of the various nationalities and to create a new South African nation out of our allied racial stock, and if we succeed in doing that we shall achieve a new nationality embracing and harmonising our various traits and blending them all into a richer national type than could otherwise have been achieved. The ideal of national unity means a continuous effort towards better relations, towards mutual respect and forbearance, towards co-operation, and that breadth of view and character, which will be the most potent instrument for dealing with our other problems. Although in South Africa our national progress is marked by the ox-waggon and not by the train or aeroplane, I am sure in the end we shall achieve success and a new nationhood.

And this is more important because in South Africa we are not merely a white man's country. Our problem of white racial unity is being solved in the midst of the black environment in South Africa. Whether we shall succeed in solving that other larger question of the black man's future depends on many factors on which no one could feel very much assurance at present. We know that on the African Continent at various times there have been attempts at civilisation. We read of a great Saracen civilisation in Central Africa, and of the University of Timbuctoo, to which students came from other parts of the world. Rhodesia also shows signs of former civilisation.

Where are those civilisations now? They have all disappeared, and barbarism once more rules over the land and makes the thoughtful man nervous about the white man's future in Southern Africa. There are many people in South Africa - and not very foolish people either - who do not feel certain that our white experiment will be a permanent success, or that we shall ever succeed in making a white man's land of Southern Africa; but, at any rate, we mean to press on with the experiment. It has now been in progress for some two hundred and fifty years, as you know, and perhaps the way we have set about it may be the right way. Former civilisations in Africa have existed mostly for the purpose of exploiting the native populations, and in that way, and probably also through inter-mixture of blood, carried in them the seeds of decay.

We have started by creating a new white base in South Africa and today we are in a position to move forward towards the North and the civilisation of the African Continent. Our problem is a very difficult one, however; quite unique in its way. In the United States there is a similar problem of black and white with the negro population. But there you have had an overwhelming white population with a smaller negro element in the midst of it. In South Africa the situation is reversed. There you have an overwhelming black population with a small white population which has got a footing there and which has been trying to make that footing secure for more than two centuries.

You will therefore understand that a problem like that is not only uncertain in its ultimate prospects, but is most difficult in the manner that it should be dealt with. Much experience has been gained, and there are indications that we have come to some certain results. You remember how some Christian missionaries, who went to South Africa in the first half of the Nineteenth Century in their full belief in human brotherhood, proceeded to marry native wives to prove the faith that was in them. We have gained sufficient experience since then to smile at that point of view. With us there are certain axioms now in regard to the relations of white and black; and the principal one is " no intermixture of blood between the two colours." It is probably true that earlier civilisations have largely failed because that principle was never recognised, civilising races being rapidly submerged in the quicksands of the African blood. It has now become an accepted axiom in our dealings with the natives that it is dishonourable to mix white and black blood.

We have settled another axiom, and that is that in all our dealings with the natives we must build our practice on what I believe Lord Cromer has called the granite bedrock of the Christian moral code. Honesty, fair-play, justice, and the ordinary Christian virtues must be the basis of all our relations with the natives. We don't always practice them. We don't always practice that exalted doctrine, but the vast bulk of the white population in South Africa believe sincerely in that doctrine as correct and true; they are convinced that they must stick to the fundamental Christian morality if they want to do their duty to the natives and make a success of their great country. Of course, this doctrine applies to other countries besides South Africa.

If you ask me what is wrong with Europe - although no wise man would express an opinion on such a great matter - I should say the moral basis in Europe, the bedrock of the Christian moral code, has become undermined and can no longer support all that super-structure of economic and industrial prosperity which the last century has built up on it, and the vast whole is now sagging. The same argument applies much more to the natives of Africa. Natives have the simplest minds, understand only the simplest ideas or ideals, and are almost animal-like in the simplicity of their minds and ways. If we want to make a success of our native policy in South Africa we shall have to proceed on the simplest moral lines and on that basis of the Christian moral code. I think we are all agreed on those two points on what I have called the racial and moral axioms.

I wish we had made more progress and also dis­covered some political axiom and knowledge how to deal politically with our immense native problem. But although in this regard nothing can be taken as axiomatic, we have gained a great deal of experience in our history, and there is now shaping in South Africa a policy which is becoming expressed in our institutions which may have very far-reaching effects in the future civilisation of the African Continent. We have realised that political ideas, which apply to our white civilisation largely, do not apply to the administration of native affairs. To apply the same institutions on an equal basis to white and black alike does not lead to the best results, and so a practice has grown up in South Africa of creating parallel institutions - giving the natives their own separate institutions on parallel lines with institutions for whites. It may be that on those parallel lines we may yet be able to solve a problem, which may otherwise be insoluble.

More than twenty years ago, as many of you re­member, an experiment in native self-government was begun by Cecil Rhodes in the old Cape Colony which gave local institutions to the natives in Glen Grey reserve. That principle has been extended over a large part of the old Transkeian territories, and so successful has it been that when we came to framing the Act of Union an Appendix was added about the future administration of the Protectorates when they should become incorporated into the Union. This Appendix was largely the work of our chairman. Lord Selborne. He fought with extraordinary tenacity for that Appendix, and I am not sure, although I did not see the importance of the matter in those days, whether in the distant future the South Africa Act will not be remembered as much for its Appendix as for its principal contents. This Appendix laid down that the native territories in South Africa should be governed apart from the Parliamentary institutions of the Union and on different lines which would achieve the principle of native self-government. Subsequently Commissions have been appointed in South Africa to inquire into native questions, and more and more the trend of opinion has hardened in the same direction. We have felt more and more that if we are to solve our native question it is useless to try to govern black and white in the same system, to subject them to the same institutions of government and legislation. They are dif­ferent not only in colour but in minds and in political capacity, and their political institutions should be different, while always proceeding on the basis of self-government. One very important Commission had, I believe . Sir Godfrey Lagden as chairman, and as a result of that and other Commissions we have now legislation before the Parliament of the Union in which an attempt is made to put into shape these ideas I am talking of, and to create all over South Africa, wherever there are any considerable native communities, independent self-governing institutions for them.

Instead of mixing up black and white in the old hap­hazard way, which instead of lifting up the black degraded the white, we are now trying to lay down a policy of keeping them apart as much as possible in our institutions. In land ownership, settlement and forms of government we are trying to keep them apart, and in that way laying down in outline a general policy which it may take a hundred years to work out, but which in the end may be the solution of our native problem. Thus in South Africa you will have in the long run large areas cultivated by blacks and governed by blacks, where they will look after themselves in all their forms of living and development, while in the rest of the country you will have your white communities, which will govern themselves separately according to the accepted European principles. The natives will, of course, be free to go and to work in the white areas, but as far as possible the adminis­tration of white and black areas will be separated, and such that each will be satisfied and developed accord­ing to its own proper lines. This is the attempt which we are making now in South Africa to solve the juxtaposition of white and black in the same country, and although the principles underlying our legislation could not be considered in any way axiomatic, I am sure that we are groping towards the right lines, which may in the end tend to be the solution of the most difficult problem confronting us.

As I have already said, we have started in previous times to civilise Africa from the North. All these attempts at civilisation from the North have failed. We now try to proceed from the other end from South Africa. We have built up a stable white com­munity in the south of the Continent and given them a training for two hundred years, and they have learned the ways of Africa, which are not the ways of other parts of the world. And now we are ready to go for­ward, and, as you know, in the last few decades enormous progress has already been made in this expansion towards the North. All our people in South Africa, English as well as Dutch, have taken part in this great movement towards the North, which is proceeding ever farther, and the time is coming when it will be almost a misnomer to speak of " South " Africa, because the northern limits of our civilisation will have gone so far that it will be almost impossible to use the word " South " any more except in reminder of our original starting-point.

Great developments have taken place not only in Southern Africa, but in Central Africa in our day. You will remember that only fifty or sixty years ago Central Africa was a place for the explorer and discoverer, a land of mystery, of pigmies and other wonders of which we read in the books of Stanley and others. In a couple of decades Central Africa has marched right into the centre of world politics, and tonight in this great assembly we are not only interested in Southern Africa, but also those other enormous territories farther north, which our troops from South Africa and other parts of the Empire have conquered and occupied. What the future of that country will be no one knows.

I must say that my experience in East Africa has opened my eyes to many very serious dangers that threaten the future, not only of Southern Africa, but also of Europe. We have seen, what we have never known before, what enormously valuable military material lay in the Black Continent. You are aware of the great German scheme which existed before the war, and which no doubt is still in the background of many minds in Germany, of creating a great Central African Empire which would embrace not only Cameroon and East Africa, but also the Portuguese Colonies and the Congo - an extensive area which would have a very large population and would not only be one of the most valuable tropical parts of the world, but in which it would be possible to train one of the most powerful black armies of the world.

We were not aware of the great military value of the natives until this war. This war has been an eye-opener in many new directions. It will be a serious question for the statesmen of the Empire and Europe whether they are going to allow a state of affairs like that to be possible, and to become a menace not only to Africa, but perhaps to Europe itself. I hope that one of the results of this war will be some arrangement or convention among the nations interested in Central Africa by which the military training of natives in that area will be prevented, as we have prevented it in South Africa. It can well be foreseen that armies may yet be trained there, which under proper leading might prove a danger to civilisation itself. I hope that will be borne in mind when the day for the settlement in Africa comes up for consideration.

You will have further questions in regard to the territorial settlement of Central Africa, which will follow the war. We are now, after the conquest of the Ger­man Colonies, in the happy position of having a through land route from Egypt to the Cape. We are in the secure position of having no danger on the Atlantic seaboard or on the Indian seaboard to our very essential sea communications as an Empire. What will happen to these communications after the settlement will depend on that settlement itself, but I hope it will be borne in mind that East Africa gives us not only this through land communication from one end of the Continent to the other, but that East Africa also ensures to us the safety of the sea route round the Cape and the sea route through the Red Sea to the East. It is a matter of gratification to us South Africans here tonight that South African troops have taken such a large and leading share in securing these extremely valuable results. I sincerely hope that, whatever settlement is come to, these larger considerations which I have referred to will be borne in mind.

We shall always have a difficult question not only in Central but in Southern Africa. Unlike other British Dominions, our future as a white civilisation is not assured for the reasons, which I have given. Many thoughtful people are in doubt about our future, and in any case no cheap and easy victory will be scored in South Africa.

We know we have tremendous problems to contend with. We know we have tremendous tasks before us, and in dealing with these problems and in trying to fulfil these tasks one generation of South Africans after another will brace its nerves and strengthen its intellect and broaden its mind and character. Although these difficulties may seem to us, and indeed are, grave perils to our future, I trust that in the long run these difficulties may prove a blessing in disguise and may prove to have afforded the training school for a large-minded, broad-minded, magnanimous race, capable not only of welding together different racial elements into a new and richer national type, but capable of dealing as no other white race in history has ever dealt with the question of the relations between black and white. . . .

• Smuts, J.C. (1942). Plans For A Better World: Speeches of Field-Marshal the Right Honourable J.C. Smuts, P.C., C.H., K.C., D.T.D. , London: Hodder & Stoughton.