Economic Woes And Political Reaction Curbing The Black Franchise Attempting To Justify Disenfranchisement

Almost all the principal speakers in the 1936 debate on disenfranchising blacks asked the question whether all this was fair, just and Christian. Deputy Prime Minister Jan Smuts disliked the bill, but he thought that it had sufficient elements of ‘justice and fair play and fruitfulness for the future’. Invoking the principles of self-preservation and self-defence, Prime Minister Barry Hertzog argued that no one could prove that the white fear of superior black numbers was unfounded.

Jan Hofmeyr, the leading liberal in Parliament, strongly differed from both. He opposed any law based on fear; it would fail to secure self-preservation. No nation, ‘save at the cost of honour and ultimate security, can take away [franchise] rights without adequate compensation’. The bill reduced black people to an inferior, qualified citizenship.‘The puny breastworks that we put up must be swept away, but I do believe that the mere putting up of those breastworks is going to accelerate the day that the tide will turn . . .’ He believed that there was an opposing current, ‘a rising tide of liberalism’, among young whites in South Africa.

Another liberal, F.S. Malan, proposed extending the Cape Province’s qualified franchise to the other provinces, arguing, ‘You cannot divide the interests of a people, whether a man is black or brown or white.’ He appealed to the Cape liberal tradition, upheld by its leader J.H. (Onze Jan) Hofmeyr, who, as far back as 1887, had laid down the broad principle: ‘Have one principle for your voter, make the test as high as you like, but when a man comes up to that test
do not differentiate, let him be treated as a full citizen of the country.’

Leader of the Opposition D.F. Malan differed strongly. To him the qualified franchise for Cape blacks was a bluff, and it ‘was not seriously intended that it actually was seriously intended (sic)’. The overriding principle was white security. Even in the supposedly liberal Cape Colony, politicians altered the franchise qualifications in 1887 and 1892 in the belief that it was a risk to have too many blacks who had qualified. If you made the qualification for the franchise too low, they argued, you got a black man’s country in which ‘white civilisation’ could not survive. Raising it ever higher would produce ‘a small restricted coterie’ of white people governing the country. Less affluent whites denied the vote on that account would have insufficient protection against exploitation. ‘The poor [white] man’s vote is the bulwark against exploitation.’

J.G. Strijdom, who would later become prime minister, argued that instead of spending money on land for blacks, the government should buy land for poor whites, who ‘needed it much more’. Heaton Nicholls from Natal pointed out that both poor whites and poor blacks were streaming to the cities where they competed for work. Other than buying more land for blacks, it would be impossible to implement a policy of territorial segregation or try to rehabilitate the poor whites.

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