Milnerism And Reconstruction

Lord Alfred Milner

Lord Alfred Milner: the unsmiling face of British imperialism. He did not heed the parting advice given to him by Hicks Beach, one of his superiors: ‘I believe the greatest thing is patience. Impatience has been at the root of our diffi culties in South Africa.’

Among whites, English-Afrikaner divisions had become more pronounced as a result of the South African War. Among Afrikaners, bittereinder-joiner splits in the republics, as well as rebel-loyalist schisms in the British colonies, brought great bitterness within communities and even within families. Among English-speaking people, imperialistic and anti-imperialistic beliefs brought tensions to Cape society. Working-class and capitalist differences had been overshadowed by the clash of Boer and British interests during the war, but they were soon to resurface. There were also religious, cultural, racial, class and language affinities that stretched across state frontiers. It was from all these elements that a stable society and economy had to be reconstructed.

The vast task of reconstruction in the two colonies was controlled under High Commissioner Lord Alfred Milner and the lieutenant-governors, by executive councils consisting of the heads of departments. Milner’s power was subordinate to that of Secretary of State for the Colonies Joseph Chamberlain (until September 1903, and his successor Alfred Lyttelton) and to the cabinet in London.

Milner realised that the defeat of the Boer republics and the establishment of British rule in the Transvaal and Orange River Colony did not ensure the triumph of the bureaucratic, agricultural, economic and social components of the British supremacy concept, which would mould South Africa into an efficient link in the imperial chain. Repairing the ravages of war and effecting economic recovery, together with consolidating the gains of conquest, were the priorities of the British rulers after the war. Milner’s administration wanted to lay the groundwork for the creation of a stable, effi cient capitalistic society and economy, which would be an asset and not a burden to the empire. For that the loyalty or subservience of Britain’s former enemies was essential.

Milner relied heavily on a group of talented, inexperienced and often arrogant young Oxonians who became known as the Kindergarten, who were inspired by his view of imperialism. Members of the Kindergarten have been given great credit for their work in South Africa, but their influence may have been exaggerated or romanticised. Many Boers saw them in a different light. The Cambridge-educated Smuts, himself scarcely 32 at the end of the war, asserted in scathing terms that for Milner it was ‘. . . such a comfort to have a little kindergarten show of dolls – all your own, moving at your sweet will, not asking inconvenient questions, not making factious opposition . . . That is the way we are ruled here by the “finest flower of Varsity scholarship”.’

The first task of the Milner administration was to return to their homes 31 000 Boer prisoners of war (the majority of whom were in overseas camps), 116 000 white and 115 000 black inmates of concentration camps, 50 000 Uitlanders, 21 000 bittereinders who laid down their arms within three weeks of the signing of the peace agreement and 5 400 joiners, together with the indeterminate thousands of black and coloured people who had served with the British army. The sheer logistics of this resettlement exercise posed enormous problems and the total cost of repatriation and resettlement was £16 500 000.

The £3 million so-called compensation money to assist ruined farmers caused more resentment than anticipated. Allocating the money on the basis of wartime losses was a complex matter, which was further compounded by the fact that the hensoppers and joiners could also claim from an additional reserve fund. An exasperated Milner later exclaimed: ‘Compensation has, on the whole, been rather a curse than a blessing. You give a man a pound and he hates you for it, because he asked for four and expected two, and all his neighbours who have not got anything hate you equally.’ The general dissatisfaction about compensation eroded the divisions among the Boers as they now once again had a common enemy in the British.

Returning Boers had serious difficulties to overcome. British columns had destroyed all but a few farmhouses, dams and fences and had exterminated much livestock. Many blacks in both new colonies refused to leave farms they had occupied and worked – with the British turning a blind eye – during the war. Louis Botha reported that when he returned to his farm in the Vryheid district, black occupants on it told him that he should leave as he had no business there. From the end of the war, the authorities used the South African Constabulary, which functioned as a police force, to disarm blacks. Gradually the white landowner class regained their ascendancy over the countryside, as the Milner regime guaranteed property rights and emphasised the fact that the war had not altered master-servant relations.

London - cessation of hostilities of the SA war

Triumphant imperialism? Euphoria in London at the time of the cessation of hostilities of the South African War.

In both the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony, however, significant changes in the agrarian economy occurred in the post-war period. Some black peasants were initially able to use the conditions to their advantage. Historian Tim Keegan has shown that immediately after 1902 many Sotho became involved in ‘a form of colonising movement across the Caledon’ as ‘the white farmers welcomed with open arms any black family with stock and equipment who could plough and sow’. It was particularly in these arable eastern areas of the Orange River Colony that black sharecropping temporarily became the standard system. This enabled white farmers to become productive again and enabled black peasants to prosper as well.

Milner hoped to bring considerable numbers of English-speaking settlers to farm on the Transvaal and Orange River Colony platteland. Mining companies, which had large tracts of land, supported the idea. But there was no marked influx of English-speaking immigrants (not many more than 1 000 families came) that could offset the Afrikaner numerical superiority in the new colonies. Nor did the Burgher Land Settlement Scheme, which aimed at making white bywoners ‘sharecroppers of the state’, achieve any significant results. Poor whites continued to stream to the towns, their rural livelihoods destroyed by the war, largely through the scorched-earth policy of the British forces.

Milner’s educational policy also failed to achieve a dominance of pro-British views. He and his director of education, E.B. Sargant, decreed that English was to be the medium of instruction in state schools in the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony while Dutch was taught as a subject. Potential teachers were asked whether they would ‘use their best endeavours to reconcile all Boers to their new position as citizens of the British Empire’. The curriculum had a strong imperialist bias.

The educational policy was not very effective, countered by the Christian National Education policy and practice of the private schools established by Boer political and religious leaders. More important was the fact that education was not compulsory: in the Transvaal in 1905 there were 28 500 white children enrolled at state schools and the enrolment of private schools was 9 000; more than 25 000 white children were not enrolled at any school at all.

The question of race

Boer political revival

First South African census

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