Charles Robberts (Blackie) Swart

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Charles Swart

Synopsis:

Schoolteacher, magistrate's clerk, advocate, farmer, lecturer, last Governor-General of the Union of South Africa, secretary of the OFS Referees' Association, Chief whip of the National Party, Minister of Justice, Minister of Education.

First name: 
Charles
Last name: 
Swart
Date of birth: 
5 December 1894
Location of birth: 
Morgenzon, Winburg district
Date of death: 
1982

Charles Robberts (Blackie) Swart was born on 5 December 1894 in Morgenzon, Winburg district. He was the son of Hermanus Bernardus Swart and Aletta Catharina Swart (nee Robberts). During the South African War (1899-1902) Swart's father was captured and the young boy with his mother and the other children on their farm were held in the concentration camp at Winburg for the duration of the war.

Swart had an exceptionally sharp intellect. He matriculated in Winburg at the young age of thirteen. At the age of fifteen he was appointed magistrate's clerk at Winburg, having been adjudged too young for acceptance as a university student. In 1910 he enrolled at the Grey University College (University of the Orange Free State), obtaining the B.A. degree in 1912. After his initial studies he was a schoolteacher at Ficksburg from 1914 to 1915. During the 1914 Rebellion Swart was arrested and impris­oned and appeared twice before the Military Council on a charge of espionage and planning to join the rebels. Although he was later freed and allowed to continue teaching, he was placed under house arrest. The cell where he was held has been declared a national monument.

From 1915 to 1918 Swart was secretary of the examination board of the Orange Free State (OFS) Education Department. During these years he also continued his law studies, obtaining the LL.B. in 1918. In the same year he became judicial assistant to the Bloemfontein municipality.

His love for the judicature and academic life came to the fore from 1919 to 1948 when he practised as an advocate of the Supreme Court in Bloemfontein and lectured part-time in law at the Grey University College and in agricultural law at the Glen Agricultural College outside the city (1918-1921).

From 1921 to 1922 he studied at the University of Columbia in the United States of America (USA) towards a diploma in journalism in the latter year. During his stay in the USA Swart led a bohemian life, sleeping on park ben­ches at night, singing songs like 'Sonny Boy' on street corners to earn money, and even acting in a film. In 1921 he represented Die Burger at the World Disarmament Conference in Washington, after which he undertook a study tour of the USA, Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium, visiting several universities.

Swart's interest in politics started early. He was a member of the National Party (NP) since its founding in 1914. In 1919 he became chief secretary of the party in the OFS. A year later he was the party's candidate for Bloemfontein West in the Provincial Council election. In 1923 he stood as NP candidate for Ladybrand in the parliamentary election and won the seat. He was to represent this seat for the next fifteen years until he lost it in the 1938 election.

In the House of Assembly he was chief whip of the party and took part in many important commissions. For instance, in 1927 he was a member of the select committee responsible for the drafting of the bill for the iron and steel industry; and between 1926 and 1933 he was first a member and then the chairperson of the select committee on matters relating to the railways and harbours. In the years before 1948 he became a close associate of E.H. (Eric) Louw, later Minister of Foreign Affairs, and J.G. (Hans) Strijdom, Prime Minister from 1954 to 1958. He often spoke in parliament on matters such as the constitutional status of the Union of South Africa, neutrality and secession. He was considered one of a group of able young NP leaders.

Coalition and the resultant fusion between the NP under J.B.M. Hertzog and the South African Party (SAP) under J.C. Smuts were totally unacceptable to Swart. In December 1933 he and other NP members declared that they would actively oppose fusion. When fusion nevertheless occurred in December 1934 Swart joined the Gesuiwerde (Purified) National Party (GNP) under Dr D.F. Malan. In 1935 Swart was elected to the Federal Council of the GNP and as OFS whip, after having become a member of the executive of the party in the OFS the previous year.

In parliament Swart pleaded for the interests of the farming community. He emphasised the importance of an efficient agricultural rehabilitation scheme and urged the government to do something about the depopulation of the south west­ern parts of the OFS. In 1935 and 1937 he introduced unsuccessful motions to have the right of appeal to the Privy Council in Britain abolished.

Like most of his colleagues in parliament Swart was a member of the secret Afrikaner-Broederbond (AB). He joined the organisation after the coalition, partly (as he stated in an interview in 1976) because the AB tried to save Afrikaner unity.

Swart also became a member of the Ossewa-Brandwag (OB) shortly after its founding in February 1939. He supported the OB desire to achieve Afrikaner unity and served on the Groot Raad (High or Supreme Council). However, with the OB's increasingly reactionary policy and critical attitude towards parliamentarianism, Swart resigned from the organisation because it no longer measured up to his expectations.

After his defeat in the election of 1938 Swart continued to play a prominent role in the OFS. After the break between Hertzog and Smuts in 1939 over the question of neutrality during the Second World War (1939-1945) he, together with men such as H.F. Verwoerd*, J.G. Strijdom and E.H. Louw, strongly opposed the reacceptance of Hertzog in the GNP. He played a major role in the negotiations of 1939-1940 with Hertzog and was a member of the GNP's liaison committee that led to the formation of the Herenigde (Reunited) Nasionale Party (HNP, later NP).

Relations between Swart and Hertzog soured in 1940 when rumours started doing the rounds that Hertzog had undertaken to proclaim a British republic in South Africa if Britain should lose the war against Germany. Hertzog held Swart responsible for circulating the rumours. Although Swart later denied before a commission that he had anything to do with the matter Hertzog there­after never greeted him and refused him an interview unless he publicly apologized for starting the rumour””which Swart refused to do.

Early in 1940 the OFS congress of the HNP accepted the Federal Council's programme of principles in preference to those of Hertzog. After Hertzog had left the hall, Swart was unanimously elected leader of the HNP in the OFS. The commission under chairpersonship of J.C. (Joon) van Rooy (the so-called Afrikaner Unity Committee), which investigated this split in Afrikaner ranks, could not persuade Hertzog to give evidence before it with Swart.

In 1941 Swart was once again elected as Member of Parliament, this time for the seat of Winburg. After the National Party (NP) had won the general election of 1948, Swart was appointed Minister of Justice in the cabinet of D.F. Malan.

Swart has been described as a particularly able Minister of Justice. During his term of office until 1959 he was responsible for the following: the abolition of the right of appeal to the Privy Council in England; the reinstatement of Roman-Dutch law for testamentary bequest; the allocation of greater powers to the South African Police in combating crime; stricter measures against and punishment for robbery and other acts of violence; the expansion of the courts of law and judicial procedure; the institution of regional magistrates; the consoli­dation of amendments in a series of acts; the introduction of legislation on marriage and the rights of women; the rehabilitation of criminals; the reinstitution of the term "landdros” instead of 'magistrate'; and the translation of acts from Dutch to Afrikaans; the translation of Roman-Dutch law books into Afrikaans and English. He was also responsible for certain measures that were a result of the NP's racial policy: the Immorality Act and the acts regulating separate amenities; the banning of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA, South African Communist Party (SACP) after 1953); and the restriction of other organisations regarded as subversive. Swart was severely criticized for his share in the banning of Albert Luthuli and other African National Congress (ANC) leaders. As Minister of Education Swart was responsible for the achievement of independent status by the universities of the OFS, Rhodes in Grahamstown, Natal and the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education.

From 1949 to 1950 Swart was also Minister of Education, Arts and Science, and between 1948 and 1959 he acted in several other portfolios, such as Leader of the House of Assembly and Deputy Prime Minister. In 1955 he represented South Africa at the Conference of Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth, as well as at the inauguration of the Court of Appeal of the Federation of Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe ) and Nyasaland ( Malawi ) in Salisbury (Harare). During the illness and eventual death of J.G. Strijdom in 1958 Swart, being the most senior minister, was Acting and Intermediate Prime Minister.

From 12 January 1960 to 30 April 1961 Swart was the ninth and last Governor-General of the Union of South Africa. From 31 May 1961 he was the first State President of the Republic of South Africa for six years. He was thus the only person who was Governor-General and State President. In 1967 he retired to his farm De Aap in the Brandfort district where he lived until his death on 16 July 1982 in Bloemfontein.

Swart's public career spanned a period of more than 40 years and he left his imprint on the political, cultural and educational terrain and on the press. Over the years he held the following positions: secretary/organiser of the Taalfees (language festival) at Bloemfontein as part of the countrywide festival for the protection of language rights. (1913); member of the council of the Grey University College, Bloemfontein (1923-1933); member of the Foundation Committee and Congress of the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurverenigings (FAK) (Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Societies) (1929); founder member of the Voortrekker youth movement (1930); member of the board of directors of the National War Museum of the Boer Republics and of the National Women's Memorial, Bloemfontein (1930-1948); acting editor of Die Volksblad, Bloemfontein (1937); parliamentary press representative of Die Volksblad and Die Burger (1938); founder member of the Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut (1940); and chancellor of the University of the OFS (1950-1976). He was also guardian of a number of organisations and institutions, such as the Voortrekker youth movement and the National Cultural History Museum in Pretoria. Six schools were named after him, and the honorary citizenship of several towns was bestowed on him. He received several other awards and honours from organisations as varied as the Voortrekker youth movement, the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (South African Academy for Arts and Science), the Automobile Association of South Africa, the OFS Agricultural Union and the Department of Justice. He held honorary doctorates from the universities of Rhodes in Grahamstown, Potchefstroom and the OFS and was awarded the Decoration for Meritorious Service by the government.

Swart also left his mark as author and journalist. He produced a number of short stories and articles in Afrikaans and English for newspapers and journals. Because of his journalistic ability several editorships were offered him over the years, but he declined them. He was, however, a director of two publishing companies, namely Nasionale Pers and Voortrekkerpers. He wrote the two children's books Kinders van Suid-Afrika (1933) and Die agterryer (1939). He also wrote poems, songs and school songs for three different schools.

Swart was a keen sportsman all his life. He was a rugby player and referee. In 1918 he captained the first rugby team of the Oranje club in Bloemfontein and from 1919 to 1921 he was secretary of the OFS Referees' Association. During his stay in the USA in 1921 he helped a South African soccer team to beat a Chinese team in Madison, Wisconsin. He was also a bowls and jukskei enthusiast.

Farming was a special field of interest. He was an honorary member of the Letelle Sheep Association of South Africa and a life member of the OFS Agricultural Union. He farmed with Afrikaner cattle.

Swart will probably be remembered for the fact that the first treason trials took place during his term as Minister of Justice, as well as the fact that he introduced the first farm prisons and the first Suppression of Communism Act. Throughout his political career he was a staunch believer in Afrikaner nationalism. He was a popular, revered and approachable person and statesman. He had a remarkable memory even in his old age and his youthful spirit made him popular among young people. His tall figure of over two metres was part and parcel of his public image. Swart was buried in the Presidents' Acre in Bloemfontein. His private papers are kept in the Institute for Contemporary History at the University of the OFS in Bloemfontein.

Swart married Cornelia Wilhelmina (Nellie) de Klerk of Kanneboskroon in the Winburg district on 2 December 1924. A son and daughter were born of this marriage. The couple also adopted a daughter.


References:
• Verwey, E.J. (ed)(1995). New Dictionary of South African Biography, v.1 , Pretoria: HSRC.

Last updated : 02-Jun-2017

This article was produced by South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011

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