The anti-convict agitation: South Africa’s first mass movement

Anti-convict meeting

The huge anti-convict meeting outside the Commercial Exchange Building in Cape Town on 4 July 1849. The anti-convict campaign directed against the convict ship Neptune was the fi rst genuinely popular and democratic movement in South Africa. It provided a common focus for disparate forces opposed to the reactionary autocracy of Governor Sir Harry Smith, and introduced mass demonstrations and boycotts to the streets of Cape Town. It was indirectly responsible for the relatively liberal and colour-blind Cape Constitution of 1854.

Sir Harry Smith, the British soldier indirectly responsible for the murder of the Xhosa king Hintsa in 1835(see Hintsa’s war) was appointed Governor of the Cape, primarily to defeat the Xhosa armies in the long drawn out War of the Axe (1846–1847). By the time he arrived in December, the war was already over but Sir Harry was not to be denied his glory. He immediately set about extending the boundaries of Great Britain’s South African empire to a quite unprecedented extent. Within three weeks of his arrival, he literally doubled the size of the colony by extending its border all the way to the Orange River, and within three months he had added the whole of what is now the Free State under the name ‘Orange River Sovereignty’.

All of this was for the benefit of a small clique of Eastern Cape settlers who had been Sir Harry’s friends since the Hintsa War. Neither the Afrikaner Boers nor the British government was consulted, let alone the overwhelming mass of black Africans who suddenly found themselves proclaimed subjects of the white Queen.

Mobbing the Legislative Council

The anti-convict association attempted on 10 July 1849 to persuade the pro-Smith nominated members to resign. This drawing by A. Hayes was used to illustrate an article in the Cape Argus entitled ‘Mobbing the Legislative Council’.

Smith’s aggressive imperialism soon provoked a counter-reaction among significant elements of the Cape’s privileged classes. The first element was the Cape Town merchant elite, who had become restive under the iron hand of John Montagu, Smith’s top civilian administrator, and who thought that the time had come for those who paid the taxes to run the government. They found their spokesperson in John Fairbairn, the veteran campaigner for the freedom of the press (see The first press polemic).

The second element was the Afrikaans-speaking community of the Cape Midlands and the Eastern Cape who were unable to express their views in English, and who relied entirely on the voice of their hero, Sir Andries Stockenstrom. The white Afrikaners, those who remained behind after the trek, followed Stockenstrom because he was one of them. The coloured Afrikaners followed Stockenstrom because he was father of Ordinance 50 in 1828, which made people of all colours equal before the law, and the founder in 1829 of the Kat River Settlement, the one small part of the Cape Colony where people defined as ‘coloured’ were free to enjoy the same human rights as other people in the Cape Colony.

These disparate elements were fused into a single ‘popular party’ by an event in 1849. Smith’s unilateral expansion of the Cape boundaries had not been appreciated in London, which was worried about the financial implications of fighting white Afrikaners as well as black Africans. Smith’s aggression had already led to one clash with the Voortrekkers between the Orange and the Vaal (the Battle of Boomplaats in 1848), and London was not too stupid to see new conflicts looming with the Xhosa and the Sotho. Smith himself was uncomfortably aware that he was losing credibility at the Colonial Office, and he tried to placate it by accepting 300 British and Irish convicts sent to the Cape aboard a ship called the Neptune.

The Cape Legislative Council of 1850

The Cape Legislative Council of 1850, drawn by A. Hayes, as published in the Cape Argus of 26 March 1924. The elections to the Legislative Council, although held on a very conservative and indirect franchise, returned fi ve out of fi ve members of the ‘popular’ democratic party: Brand, Stockenstrom (standing), Reitz, Fairbairn and Wicht. When Governor Smith invoked his authority to replace Wicht with Robert Godlonton, an ultrareactionary from the Eastern Cape who had only fi nished eleventh in the poll, the other members resigned in protest.

The Anti-Convict Association was South Africa’s first mass movement. It mobilised in Cape Town, multiplied demonstrations and petitions, and proclaimed a boycott against any merchant supplying provisions to the convict ship. The popular members resigned from the governor’s Legislative Council and left Smith politically dependent on the extreme Eastern Cape settlers headed by Godlonton. The struggle lasted five months, until the Neptune and its convicts departed in February 1850.

New elections were held for the Legislative Council and, despite the indirect method of election cooked up by Smith, the popular party swept the polls with Stockenstrom coming in first and Robert Godlonton, the leading settler, no higher than eleventh. The battle for a representative government now began in earnest, with Stockenstrom and Fairbairn travelling to London to put the case of the popular party directly to the Imperial government.

But what kind of representative government was it to be? More especially what implications did representative government have for the majority of the population, who were not classified as white? Representative government is not the same as democratic government. Voting at the Cape, like all of Britain’s other colonies, was for men only, and only for men who were also landowners. Moreover, at this time the borders of the Colony did not extend beyond the Keiskamma River. Very few Xhosa-speakers resided within the Colony itself, and there was no expectation that this was about to change.

Since race was not an acceptable legal category at the Cape since Ordinance 50 of 1828, there could be no overt discrimination in terms of race. The discriminatory component of the franchise legislation was therefore expressed in terms of the value of the property that a man was required to possess in order to qualify for a vote. The debate between liberals and conservatives was fought over the question of whether the property qualification should stand at £25, which would allow most adult males outside the rural areas to vote, or whether it should stand at £50, a qualification which effectively placed the vote beyond the reach of anybody except males of European descent. This debate had been going on ever since the idea of representative government for the Cape was first proposed in 1848. But it was only to be concluded after the outbreak of the Kat River rebellion.

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