Sammy Marks – Kruger’s Jew

Sammy Marks

Sammy Marks

The South African War of 1899–1902 President Paul Kruger of the ZAR granted the extraordinary privilege of private use of the state mint to one of his burghers, Sammy Marks, a Lithuanian-born Jew. Arriving in South Africa in 1868 at the age of 24, Marks had worked initially as a peddler and then moved to Kimberley, where he dealt in diamonds and claims. In 1881 he visited Pretoria and met Kruger, discussing the possibility of investment in the infant republic. Kruger promised Marks government support for his ventures. The first of these was a distillery outside Pretoria, the first factory in the ZAR. It was christened De Volkshoop (the People’s Hope) by Kruger at its opening, but was more popularly known as Hatherley or Eerste Fabrieken. Marks later established glass and canning factories, as well as a brick and tile works.

After the discovery of gold, Hatherley flourished as its cheap gin and brandy, made with produce supplied by Boer farmers, slaked the thirsts of black and white mine workers. Nearly all of Marks’s businesses depended on government favour. To ensure this he wooed the Boer leaders assiduously, with ‘soft’ loans and gifts large and small. Most importantly, he helped to secure a property deal that made the president a wealthy man. He also gave Pretoria a large sum for the erection of a statue of Kruger.

Marks was a frequent and welcome visitor to the president’s home. Kruger clearly enjoyed Marks’s company – the lively argument, sometimes bordering on the insolent; the crossfire of argument-clinching illustrations from their favourite text, the Bible; and the banter about Marks’s supposed religious wrong-headedness.

Marks regarded the coming of the South African War as an unmitigated disaster. During the conflict he successfully performed a balancing act between Boer and Brit. Before the occupation of Pretoria he did his duty as a loyal burgher. Once the British arrived he took the oath of neutrality and served them just as faithfully. When the Boer generals negotiated peace in 1902, they sent for Marks and discussed with him their course of action. The peace conference at Vereeniging was held on Marks’s property, where he played a vital role in strengthening the hands of those making peace.

After the war Marks was a strong supporter of Milnerism – the systemic attempt to entrench British cultural values and the English language in the two former republics. Yet with the resurgence of Afrikanerdom he shifted his support to Louis Botha’s party. His reward was appointment as a senator in the first Union Parliament and state support in establishing South Africa’s first steel works. Marks died in 1920 at the age of 76.

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