A number of interrelated factors led to the South African War. The factors that have been covered in the text below include; the conflicting political ideologies of imperialism and republicanism, the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, tension between political leaders, the Jameson Raid and the Uitlander franchise.
To understand the interrelated factors that led to the South African War, it may be useful to read about the ‘First Anglo-Boer War’ 1880-1881 in SAHO’s feature on the topic.
Conflicting political ideology
After the First Anglo-Boer War (see further reading box above) the British government did not give up its ambition for unifying South Africa under Imperial British rule. The two Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic or Transvaal still maintained their desire for independence. The Boer republics were a stumbling block for the British Empire.
The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand
Gold had been mined since the early 1870s but was discovered on the Witwatersrand, in the Transvaal, in 1886. Thousands of white and black South Africans were employed on the mines by 1890. South Africa became the single biggest gold producer in the world and this meant great growth for the independent Boer governments. The Transvaal now also became more prominent in international finance because the importance of gold as an international monetary system. Britain was the centre of industry and trade in the world at the time and needed a steady supply of gold to maintain this position.
Neighbouring independent states like the Orange Free State and British colonies like Natal could also gain from the riches and investment brought to the country. The Cape Colony wasn’t the leading economic state in the country anymore and a Boer republic took its place.
Even though the Transvaal gold mines were the richest in the world they were also the most difficult to mine because the reefs lay so deep under the ground. The gold had to be mined by shafts as opposed to open mines, like diamonds. Mining as an individual was not as efficient as using groups of miners with special skills. Large companies were created with local and international investment and individual miners were soon squeezed out.
Prospectors streamed to South Africa from all over the world, and especially from Europe. The Transvalers saw these foreigners, or Uitlanders, as a threat to their independence. In order to maintain its control of gold mining and the growth of the as they called them immigrant population, the Transvaal government restricted the voting rights of Uitlanders. Only foreigners who had been in the country for 14 years or more could vote. It was called the Uitlander franchise and didn’t really bother most Uitlanders, who had come to South Africa to make their fortunes, but it did cause strain between the Transvaal and British governments.
To read more about mining labour and the migrant labour system visit SAHO’s feature on Johannesburg.
Tension between political leaders
There were various political leaders with opposing views in power in different parts of South Africa during the 1890s. Paul Kruger was president of the Transvaal or South African Republic (SAR) and Cecil John Rhodes became the premier of the Cape Colony in 1890. Rhodes was from Britain and had made his fortune in South Africa by mining diamonds. He was also a supporter of the British imperial plan to unite South Africa under British rule. Kruger was a supporter of Boer independence and the two leaders were in direct conflict with each other.
Rhodes believed that if the SAR was left to grow financially it would eventually grow in size and topple Britain from its position of power in South Africa. He specifically did not want the SAR to gain access to a route to the sea, as this would seriously affect the economies of the British colonies. Rhodes and Britain were determined to stop the SAR’s expansion.
The Jameson Raid
By 1895 Britain was getting more confident about taking action in South Africa. Joseph Chamberlain was appointed Colonial Secretary. He joined forces with Rhodes to try to develop and promote the British Empire in South Africa.
In September and October 1895 the Drift Crisis between the Cape Colony and the Transvaal or SAR developed. The Cape had finished building a railway line to Johannesburg and tried to get as much of the Transvaal’s railway traffic by reducing its rates. It was aware that the Transvaal's Delagoa Bay line was almost complete. The Transvaal government increased the rates on the part of the railway that ran through the Transvaal once it had crossed the Vaal River. In answer to this, goods were taken to the Vaal River by train, and then taken further by wagon to avoid paying the higher prices in the Transvaal. Kruger reacted by blocking access to the Transvaal, closing the drifts on the Transvaal side.
The British government demanded that Kruger open the drifts and used the situation to involve itself directly in Transvaal affairs. Rhodes planned an uprising of Uitlanders in Johannesburg. The uprising was timed to coincide with an invasion of the Transvaal from Bechuanaland (present day Botswana), by Dr Leander Starr Jameson. Rhodes wanted to take over the government of the Transvaal and turn it into a British colony that would join all the other colonies in a federation. Chamberlain helped plan the Jameson Raid.
The Jameson Raid which began on on 29th December 1895, was a total failure. Jameson waited on the border, but the Uitlander leaders in Johannesburg argued among themselves about the kind of government to be put into place after the invasion. Many of the Uitlanders had no interest in violent uprising, but preferred to celebrate the New Year. Rhodes decided to stop the raid, but it was too late because Jameson and his party had already crossed into the Transvaal.
Jameson’s troops tried to cut communication lines to Pretoria, but cut the wrong lines. This meant that the Transvaal government knew the raiders were on their way before they reached Johannesburg. On 2 January 1896 Jameson had to surrender at Doornkop near Krugersdorp. The prisoners were handed over to their own government and the Uitlander leaders who had been part of the plot were put to trial in Johannesburg. Some of them were condemned to death, but the sentences were later reduced to large fines.
Rhodes was forced to resign as the premier of the Cape Colony and the political problems between Afrikaans and English-speaking people became worse than ever in the colony. The Orange Free State co-operated more closely with the Transvaal. Transvaal residents felt that they were being threatened and Uitlanders were treated with more suspicion than ever before.
The Uitlander Franchise
The Uitlanders were not only from Britain, but came from all over the world to make money on the goldfields in the Transvaal. Some of them were not interested in the political situation in the republic and were not concerned about the fact that they couldn’t vote. Some Uitlanders felt that they contributed to the exploitation of the riches in the republic and had the right to a say in the way the country was being run.
The Transvaal government realised that this could be a threat to the republic’s independence, but also knew that it couldn’t ignore the Uitlanders’ demands. The foreigners could apply for citizenship or naturalisation after 5 years of living in the Transvaal. A Second Volksraad was created in 1890 and new laws were made. Uitlanders who had been naturalised for two years could now vote. The Second Volksraad only had say in local matters in Johannesburg and on the mines; any bills it put forward could only become laws if the First Volksraad agreed. Only Uitlanders who had been in the country for a full 14 years or longer could vote for the first Volksraad.
Now Uitlanders had a say in political matters, but the First Volksraad still ran the country. Very few Uitlanders used their right to vote, but the Second Volksraad took its responsibilities seriously.After the Jameson Raid Chamberlain wanted to win back some of the respect he had lost because of the raid’s failure. He was more determined to make the South African union a reality and decided to use diplomatic power to do so. He invited Kruger to London for talks about the Uitlander Franchise, but the president would not discuss his country’s internal affairs. He felt that this would create the impression that the SAR could not take care of its own politics independently.
Next Chamberlain called a meeting in London to try to involve Britain directly in Transvaal affairs. His interference caused even more tension between the two countries. He also sent Sir Alfred Milner, another loyal supporter of British expansion, to South Africa as British High Commissioner.Milner hoped that Kruger would not be re-elected, but in 1898 he was. Milner was afraid that the Boer republics wanted to take over the whole country and told Chamberlain that war was the only way to prevent that from happening. In December 1898 Transvaal police shot an Uitlander called Tom Edgar. The officer responsible said that it was in self-defence, but the Uitlander community reacted as if it was a political incident. This made the franchise issue an important factor in the outbreak of the war because political tension between Boers and British subjects in the Transvaal became worse.
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