The Dutch East India Company was an archetypal phenomenon of the mercantilist age that was characterised by the close identification of government and commercial enterprise. Such a relationship often resulted in confusion between public and private enterprises, between the revenue of the state and the income of its officials. Cape officials habitually augmented their salaries by holding a number of incompatible offices simul taneously. They collected the greater part of their salaries directly from fees paid for services rendered. Many ran private businesses on the side, and did not scruple to grant themselves substantial loans, contracts and monopolies, known as pachts.
The Cape elite was tiny, and officials, merchants and landowners were linked together by ties of blood and marriage to form a closed network. One example is that of the Burgher Senate, a self-perpetuating body of four members, which administered the affairs of Cape Town. It controlled the collection of taxes, which it assessed to its members’ own advantage and that of their friends, and also disposed of various other privileges, such as the licensing of butchers and bakers.
The networks of patronage and influence that dominated Cape Town were replicated on a smaller scale in the country districts. The landdrosts, district secretaries and Boards of Heemraden had considerable administrative powers in respect of finance, taxation and allocation of land and labour. These powers were selectively applied, and the Boards were often guilty of ‘a sacrifice of the public revenue, either in subservience to their own views, or to the interests of their neighbours’. Since revenue was unable to keep pace with expenditure, the early governors resorted to massive injections of paper money. ‘As to our finances, we are perfect bankrupts, and it is needless to conceal it,’ the Cape Colonial Secretary reported in 1825, ‘we have not enough to pay our own salaries.’
The Cape was not the only newly acquired colony in these desperate straits. Similar conditions also obtained in Mauritius and Sri Lanka, and in 1822 the British Government appointed a Commission of Eastern Inquiry. The commissioners were J. T. Bigge and W. Colebrooke. Few South Africans have ever heard of them, or of Lieutenant-Governor Richard Bourke under whom they worked. Nevertheless, it was these faceless bureaucrats who carried out a veritable ‘revolution in government’ which finally ‘cast off the old skin’ of the VOC era and remodelled the Cape in the British image as best they could.
The first task of the commissioners was to create an independent legal system that could guard against both arbitrary misuse of power and corruption within the ranks of the administration. A new Supreme Court was therefore instituted, headed by a chief justice and attorney-general sent out from Britain. All future judges had to be chosen from the British bar, and all Cape lawyers were required to take their degrees in Britain. The language of the courts was changed to English and the jury system was introduced. Associated with the introduction of an impartial judicial system was the introduction of a more efficient and honest civil service capable of withstanding the temptations of government patronage. Public officials were no longer allowed to hold more than one office, and they were forbidden to collect their salaries in the form of cash fees for services rendered. Strongholds of the old Cape elite, such as the Burgher Senate and the Orphan Chamber, were reformed or closed down. Resident magistrates took over judicial duties from the landdrosts of the country districts, and civil commissioners took over the collection of taxes, the keeping of accounts and the allocation of land. Ordinance 33 of 1827 did away with the old Boards of Heemraden altogether.
As representatives of a home government committed to principles of free trade, the commissioners reviewed with distaste the piecemeal system of rents, tithes and taxes from which government revenue was derived, as well as the motley array of licences, concessions and monopolies that had fed the government patronage network. Out went the monopolies of butchers, bakers, wine traders and auctioneers. Local taxes and tithes were abolished, and new roads and the introduction of a postal service facilitated trade. The Land Board was revamped and steps were taken to improve the speed and accuracy of surveying.
The attitude of the commissioners towards the social structure of the colony was similarly shaped by their commitment to a free and efficient economy. The poor administrative record of the old system led the commissioners to believe that local bias and racial prejudice disqualified Cape Afrikaners from holding official positions. Conversely, they believed that the servile condition of the Khoikhoi and the free blacks inhibited productivity. The efficiency of Khoikhoi artisans when fairly remunerated and the success of a Khoikhoi farmer at Clanwilliam encouraged the commissioners to believe that, once granted personal liberty and security of property, the Khoikhoi and other people of colour would become ‘industrious farmers and respectable members of the community’. This economic imperative was equally responsible – with missionary pressure and liberal humanitarianism – in bringing about the famous Ordinance 50 of 1828, one of the foundation stones of what came to be called ‘Cape liberalism’. Ordinance 50 repealed existing oppressive laws, outlawed dubious varieties of labour contracts, and specifically reaffirmed the right of Khoikhoi and free people of colour to buy and own land and property on the same basis as white people.
Most important of all was the second clause. It stated that ‘no [Khoikhoi] or other free person of colour, lawfully residing in this Colony, shall be subject to any compulsory service to which other of His Majesty’s subjects therein are not liable, nor to any hind rance, molestation, fine, imprisonment, or punishment of any kind whatsoever . . . unless after trial in due course of law’.
The intention of Ordinance 50 may well have been to free up labour on Afrikaner farms for the use of British settlers in the Eastern
Cape, but it did at least free the Khoikhoi from the threat of legally endorsed coerced labour under the pretence of antivagrancy laws. What Ordinance 50 did not do was to alleviate the economic plight of the coloured person. It distributed labour more fairly between English and Afrikaans and it protected the rights of the labourer to a certain extent, but the population nevertheless remained ‘free men who depend on employment for food’ rather than independent producers. The result was that the Western Cape especially retained the same basic class and racial structure as in the days of slavery, though the distinction was no longer between free and unfree but between rich and poor.