Louis Botha was born near Greytown in Natal in 1862. He was the son of Voortrekker parents and was brought up on a farm in the Free State, and was educated at the local German mission school.
A Boer general and statesman, he was leader of the Transvaal army in the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) from March 1900, and he was one of the architects of the Union of South Africa. His vision of South Africa included both British and Dutch. Botha was a leading figure in the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I. A great man of action, he was renowned for his simplicity, humanity, quick wit and good nature. He was endowed with natural gifts, yet his training was hardly sufficient to equip him for fifteen years of unremitting political, diplomatic, and military tasks.
Louis Botha's ancestors came from Thuringia in central Germany. Around 1672, a young soldier, Frederich Boot, or Botha, arrived at the Cape and later became a free burgher. Several of his descendants signed themselves as 'Both' and 'Boota'. His paternal grandfather Philip Rudolf took part in the Great Trek. Louis, the ninth among thirteen children, was born near Greytown in the Colony of Natal on 27 September 1862. The family moved to the Orange Free State near Vrede in 1869.
In 1880, at the outbreak of the First Anglo-Boer War, Louis overheard that British spies were crossing into the Transvaal by using rowing boats belonging to farmers along the Vaal riverbanks. He resolved to cut every boat and pontoon adrift and accomplished it.
The Volksraad decided to act on Botha's recommendations that the Uitlanders should be granted franchise concessions, dependent on residency prior to July 1892. The folly of the Jameson Raid of December 1895, had however, strengthened stubborn resistance to Uitlander grievances, and weakened the position of Joubert's followers. With Lucas Meyer, De la Rey and others, he was strongly opposed to sending the British the fateful ultimatum. But by October 2, 1899, shortly before Kruger's ultimatum, Botha had already left Pretoria for Vryheid to prepare for military service. Emphatically against war - he was nevertheless prepared to oppose any actions that might affect the integrity of his country.
When war broke out in 1899 Botha at once volunteered as an ordinary burgher for the Vryheid commandos under General Lucas Meyer
In December 1900, the republics were annexed under the names of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony. Though the burghers refused to condone this, Lord Roberts reported to the Secretary for War that organized resistance had ceased. Roberts was wrong.
With the railways in the hands of the British, Botha returned to guerrilla tactics. This new phase in Botha's war was marked by a change in the Boer morale. They fought on with renewed vigour and belief in their cause, operating from their home areas, living off the country and seizing British supplies. Kitchener determined to end the war at all costs. He built blockhouses linked by fences and telephones which marched for miles across the endless veld, organized systematic drives to catch their quarry, deported prisoners-of-war, and placed the women and children in concentration camps, where the death rate soared. Despite all these measures Botha, De la Rey, De Wet and the other leaders consistently evaded capture. Trains were boldly attacked, railway lines destroyed. Stronger discipline was enforced. Smuts and Botha carried out raids into the Cape and Natal.
Kitchener, on his own initiative, opened peace negotiations with Botha in February and March 1901 using Annie Botha as an intermediary. They met at Middelburg where Kitchener presented draft peace terms, approved by Milner and Chamberlain, granting financial assistance and reconstruction of property, and postponing black voting rights until after representative government had been introduced in the 'annexed colonies', in return for the surrender of Boer independence. The Boers found this unacceptable and many were angered that Botha had agreed to negotiate with Kitchener. Kitchener pressed Milner to soften the terms by introducing representative governments almost immediately and by granting full amnesty to the rebels. But Milner objected. The Boers responded by rejecting the British terms.
Though Botha was hard pressed, he got as far as Babanango in Zululand and managed to capture a convoy of thirty-one British wagons in September. But, by October 1901, the commandos had become fugitives and ammunition and supplies were dwindling to nothing; nonetheless, Botha defeated a British force on the 20th at Bakenlaagte. Botha said he owed much to his wonderful white horse, Dopper, which carried him through the war!
A meeting of sixty representatives of the commandos met on 15 May 1902 at Vereeniging to ascertain the views of the burghers. The representatives reported that in every area people were in desperate straits. To continue the war, Botha concluded, would result in total destruction of the two erstwhile republics and the virtual extermination of its people. On May 16, in a carefully reasoned speech, he persuaded the Free Staters that a decision for peace should be declared while they were still a nation, 'Do not let us regard a period of universal burial as the bitter end. If we do, we shall be to blame for national suicide,' he said.
On May 28, during negotiations at Pretoria, Lord Milner tried to get the five Boer generals to sign an unsatisfactory document recognizing the proclamations that had annexed the republics as colonies. Botha emphatically rejected this scheme. But negotiations were going anything but smoothly. Lord Milner, unbending, wanted the Afrikaners denationalized and would not be limited by a timetable for self-government. The only concession he made was at the expense of blacks and Coloureds who were expressly excluded from political participation until some hazy period in the future. Botha succeeded in fixing a sum for economic reconstruction after the war and a draft was drawn up which became the Peace Treaty.
The Boers were bitter. On May 29, negotiations were resumed. President Steyn left Pretoria, using his serious illness as an excuse to avoid signing the peace treaty. For three days, the negotiators argued. Then on the last morning, Botha and De La Rey managed to persuade defiant General de Wet to support the cause for peace. General Hertzog expressed his respect for Botha at this time, 'for he has shown himself to be possessed of a heart that feels all these things (the brunt of war), while he has had the courage to tell his people, and us, exactly how matters stand'.
Reluctantly the burghers decided to relinquish their independence and to accept the otherwise generous terms of peace. The annexation proclamations were tacitly dropped, and the Treaty of Vereeniging was ratified on May 31 by fifty-four votes to six.
For Milner the task was to control and administer a loyal post-war British South Africa himself. For Botha the task was to transform himself from a fighting man into a politician to ensure lasting peace in southern Africa. Though they had been conquered and impoverished, the Afrikaners had not been denationalised, and Milner failed to swamp them with British immigrants. Having overwhelmed the republics, British supremacy in South Africa began to wane.
Botha, De la Rey, and De Wet were appointed to collect money overseas for economic reconstruction of the country. In July, the trio left for Europe, but despite their warm reception, they only raised £125,000. Chamberlain refused to increase the amount agreed on for reconstruction. Botha then wrote a persuasive article in The Contemporary Review, 'The Boers and the Empire', in which he described the advantages a conciliatory and accommodating attitude on the part of the British would have as a humane gesture and as effective politics. Shortly afterward, the British House of Commons voted a further £8-million. Botha also pleaded for an amnesty for the Cape and Natal rebels, and Chamberlain eventually agreed that the two colonial governments should decide on the matter. Botha interceded with the Cape and Natal premiers and the amnesty was granted.
Back in South Africa, Botha determined to bring his people together again. Afrikaners resented Milner increasingly for his repatriation policies, for the way he carried out British compensation, and because he wanted to import Chinese labour to work on the mines. Botha, Smuts and De la Rey refused to serve on the Legislative Council in 1903. A protest meeting, headed by Botha, was held in Heidelberg to ask that Dutch and English be given equal status, to prevent further Chinese immigration, and to push for postponement of further importation of Indians. Milner's Legislative Council ignored the protesters.
Smuts and other Boer leaders founded Het Volk in May 1904. Although it was an Afrikaner political party, it was based on principles likely to appeal to Boer and Englishman alike. It aimed for conciliation, self-government, and acceptance of those who had surrendered or had served with the British. One year later, the party's influence had spread so far that a meeting was held at the Wanderers, Johannesburg, to oppose the Lyttelton Constitution. Here, they protested against Chinese labour, the inadequate government of the former republics as crown colonies, and, finding some support among prominent businessmen, they founded the Responsible Government Association.
Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, leader of the Liberal Party, had publicly endorsed his party's abhorrence of Kitchener's farm burnings and concentration camps as 'methods of barbarism'. In Britain, reaction had set in and at the end of 1905, the Liberal Party was swept in to victory at the polls.
Botha immediately sent Smuts overseas to plead for self-government. Campbell-Bannerman convinced his cabinet ministers that it would be 'a great act of faith' to make amends and retain Afrikaner co-operation. The Transvaal and the Free State shortly afterward obtained responsible government. (Transvaal in December 1906 and Orange River Colony in June 1907).
Het Volk, now including many English-speaking allies, won the next election, and Botha became Prime Minister of the Transvaal on 4 March 1907.
Botha attended the opening of Parliament at Pretoria by Lord Selborne on 21 March 1902 and heard him announce the decision to cease employment of Chinese labour by the Witwatersrand mines. Soon afterwards, he was summoned to attend the Imperial Conference. Botha was conciliatory. He pronounced Afrikaner loyalty to the Empire, presented the Cullinan diamond to Edward VII and was highly praised in England and South Africa. However, there was some tongue wagging in South Africa that Botha was becoming too anglicized. The gracious gesture of the uncommon present was immediately generously returned by the British House of Commons, which approved a loan to the Transvaal of £5 million. This was used mainly to establish the Land Bank to assist farmers, part was used to introduce free primary education, the railways were expanded, experimental farms were developed, and the fight against cattle diseases was given vigorous impetus.
With all four colonies self-governing, hopes revived for uniting South Africa under one government. Botha and Smuts worked hard towards this goal. Gold and diamond production expanded and economic prosperity followed. But, politically, Botha was walking a tightrope. The majority of Chinese were repatriated, but the Indian question was thorny. Indians were very dissatisfied when compulsory registration of Indians in the Transvaal was passed in 1906 and the Gold Law of 1908 further restricted their trade. Afrikaners mistrusted Botha for his friendliness towards the British, especially after the Education Act of 1907 made English, but not Dutch, a compulsory school-learning subject. Nevertheless, supported by moderate Afrikaners and English-speakers, his party grew.
In July 1907, the Selborne Memorandum, and in May 1908, the Customs Conference, laid the foundations for the National Convention. Botha played a leading part in the deliberations of the National Convention that produced the constitution for a unified form of government, ratified by the British Parliament on 31 May 1910. Botha becomes the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa on 21 May 1910.
In terms of the South Africa Act, the first governor-general, Lord Gladstone, asked Botha to form the government for the Union of South Africa. John X Merriman, the experienced Prime Minister of the Cape, had been considered, but Botha's great prestige and his standing amongst Afrikaners made him the obvious choice. Instead of choosing a 'Best Man' government from all the parties Botha chose his cabinet from supportive party representatives.
Percy Fitzpatrick was disillusioned because Botha had given up his negotiations for choosing a moderate government of the best brains in the country; but Fitzpatrick was stunned when he learned that Botha was to oppose him at Pretoria East. However, on polling day in September 1910, Botha, in a hotly contested election, was sensationally defeated by his former friend. To get into Parliament the member for Standerton was obliged to resign and Botha sought re-election at Standerton.
Botha was faced with the problem of what to do with General J B M Hertzog, a controversial but influential figure among the Afrikaners, whom Free Staters especially, regarded as their own spokesman. Botha tried to fob him off by offering him a judgeship instead of a cabinet post but Hertzog turned it down. Botha was torn, and believing that Afrikaner leaders in his government might accommodate Afrikaner interests, he reluctantly appointed Hertzog minister of Justice and Native Affairs. This alienated many English-speakers, particularly when Hertzog delivered a number of speeches stressing that South African interests should come before those of Empire and that a 'two-stream' policy should be followed regarding Dutch and English-speaking white South Africans. Botha agreed that South Africa came first, but he disapproved of Hertzog's speeches on these issues for being tactless and inappropriate political wrangling. Minister of Commerce Colonel G Leuchars resigned in protest over Hertzog's speeches and Hertzogism divided Botha's party. English-speakers were against the bilingualism clause in the Civil Service and Pensions Bill presented before Parliament in April 1912. Minister of Finance H C Hull and Minister of Railways J W Sauer clashed on overlapping railway and financial matters and Hull resigned. Botha then dissolved his cabinet and excluded Hertzog and Leuchars. By 1913, the Afrikaner people were completely divided and nationalism carried its own momentum. The National Party was founded in 1914 with Hertzog, as leader, defining a 'two stream policy' -two nationalities flowing in parallel channels of cultural and national development - in contradiction of Botha's avowed 'one stream' policy to merge the two races into one people, the object of union.
Like Hertzog, Botha believed in maintaining black traditions and in totally segregating black and white, except where blacks were needed as workers. As agriculture expanded, his attitude to blacks became increasingly illiberal in his efforts to placate the white races. The oppressive Native Land Act of 1913 was a revolution in land tenure; blacks had no rights to hire or buy land in the white areas and their lands were strictly demarcated and inadequate. At the outbreak of World War I, though some 70,000 Africans were recruited and went to France to work behind the lines, generally, they were not affected. Botha thought that while the war continued it would be very unwise to raise any large issues of policy in connection with the African population.
In an attempt to appease and reunify Afrikaners by showing that he and Hertzog shared a mutual approach to segregation, Botha introduced the Native Affairs Administration Bill in 1917. This dealt with the question of the segregation of blacks, the principle of which had been settled by the Act of 1913. Merriman vigorously the bill, predicting that large numbers of Africans would be forced to leave their districts. He foresaw that the promised commission to investigate the purchase of additional land for them would be thwarted by whites, who would never agree to sell their lands. The bill caused intense anxiety among blacks, for what they needed was access to land on easy terms. Among whites, there was such intense disagreement within Botha's party that the bill was finally withdrawn. The industrial colour bar was a related question. It had been introduced to assist impoverished whites in retaining jobs threatened by the influx into the towns of blacks who accepted lower wages. White workers were determined to resist any upward movement of blacks with skills. From 1911, efforts were made to reclassify semi-skilled mining and railway tasks as skilled and thus, reserved for whites. Industrial unrest erupted on the Rand in May 1913. Neglect and incompetence allowed the situation to get out of hand. In June, fighting and violent outrages broke out in Johannesburg and many people died. The government conceded to nearly all the demands of the Labour leaders, but six months later gold miners, coal miners and railway workers went on strike again. Smuts put down the strike and deported nine foreign leaders. Their political opponents labelled Botha and Smuts military dictators and the Labour Party gained many erstwhile supporters of the SAP.
The Great War confronted the Botha Government with a crisis: what part should South Africa play in it, and what action should the Union take in regard to German South West Africa? Botha felt it was a debt of 'duty and honour' to demonstrate gratitude for the early granting of self-government. But he had another motive too: he did not wish any other country to occupy and administer South West Africa. He had an eye on its incorporation into South Africa after the war. He considered the army that the Germans were raising in South West Africa a threat to South Africa itself. He therefore told the British Government that the Union would defend itself, and, as South Africa was part of the British Empire, it would look on Britain's enemies as its own. This pronouncement estranged influential anti-British Afrikaners.
At Britain's request, Botha undertook to seize those parts of South West Africa, which would give it command of Luderitz Bay and Swakopmund. Their aim was to take over the coastal wireless stations and especially the long-distance radio transmitters at Windhoek, which they wrongly thought were able to transmit to German ships and submarines. Hertzog pleaded for neutrality. Many Afrikaners had ties of kinship with Germany and they felt grateful for the sympathy of the German people during the Anglo-Boer War. Though the Kaiser had let them down, Germans had assisted the Boers in the field and through the Red Cross, to the extent that President Steyn had said, 'My people here consider that they are under a debt of obligation to the German race.' Afrikaners did not universally hold these feelings, but there was widespread dissatisfaction. Botha and Smuts took steps to carry out the campaign, using volunteers. Botha did not consult Steyn or Hertzog beforehand and in his patriotic speeches he failed to stress the material advantages to South Africa of such a campaign. Unintentionally, he set those with German loyalties against those with British loyalties.
The chief of the citizen force, General Beyers, resigned on 15 September 1914. That same evening General De la Rey was accidentally shot dead by the police. General De Wet held protest meetings in the Orange Free State and on 10 October Lieutenant Colonel S G (Manie) Maritz, who commanded the north-western Cape border, defected to the Germans. The protest in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State had become a rebellion. Botha defeated De Wet in a sharp skirmish, Beyers was put to flight and subsequently drowned. The rebellion was a formidable revolt of some thirteen thousand inadequately armed burghers who were prepared to follow their leaders blindly. Had it been successful, it would have led to a general civil war. It distressed Botha to take up arms against his own people. Though an amnesty was declared for the rank and file and the leaders were leniently treated, their prison sentences and fines upset Afrikaners and the shooting of Jopie Fourie as a traitor caused deep resentment.
Botha commanded the Union troops in South West Africa, penetrating the region in four different directions; he overran the German positions and put them to flight. Early in July 1915, the Germans surrendered, but the full peace terms were only to be drawn up after the war in Europe had ended. The elections of 1915 were stormy. Botha was attacked for not implementing language equality. The Nationalists pronounced him a disloyal Afrikaner and he lost much support. Though the SAP won the elections, the Prime Minister did not have an outright majority in Parliament. His task was onerous after he took over the portfolio for Defence from Smuts, who had assumed supreme command of the South African forces in German East Africa. Botha was offered a post on the British War Cabinet but refused, and in 1914, Smuts sailed for Britain to attend the Imperial Conference and to take his place on the War Cabinet.
Try as he might, Botha could not reconcile or reunite his people. And as the republican movement gained strength, his health began to fail. The Nationalists criticized his war policy and chided him for the country's lack of economic development because of South Africa's war effort. In 1917, the National Party proclaimed a republican manifesto, which asked Britain to restore independence to the former Boer republics. Unionists set fire to properties belonging to Afrikaners who in turn formed themselves into commandos. Botha swiftly intervened. Then blacks went on strike in Johannesburg and were sternly dealt with. This gave rise to further unrest. Peace. At the end of the war in 1918 Botha personally directed the repatriation of the South African troops in France. He went with Smuts to Paris to join the Allied delegations to the Peace Conference.
Botha wanted to annex South West Africa outright but could not obtain general agreement on the issue from Wilson. Under the Peace of Versailles, the territory of South West Africa was handed over to the Union 'to be administered as an integral part of the Union with full power of administration and legislation,' subject to the Mandate of the League of Nations. This obliged the Union to submit annual reports on its administration of the mandated territory. The proposed peace terms were severe. Smuts at first refused to sign, but Botha realized further argument would be futile and persuaded Smuts to sign.
Botha was given a tumultuous welcome on his return to South Africa. Worn out and not in the best of health, he caught a cold at his farm Rusthof that quickly developed into pneumonia. Very ill, he returned to his home in Pretoria where he died of a heart attack a few days later. He was buried in the Rebecca Street cemetery in Pretoria on 30 August.