The Road To Union

Chief Bhambatha with an attendant

Chief Bhambatha (right) of the Zondi from Greytown with an attendant. In 1906, Zulu dissatisfaction about the arbitrary dismissal of African chiefs by the colonial authorities, labour, poll and hut taxes and the shortage of land came to a head. Bhambatha refused to pay the poll tax. Martial law was declared and the rebellion was crushed by force, resulting in many deaths, including that of Bhambatha himself.

Part of the concept of British supremacy had entailed the incorporation of the different regions of South Africa into one state after the Union Jack had been hoisted over them. A united or federated South Africa would, it came to be believed, be of greater value to Britain in case of war than four separately governed colonies.

Mythical Britannia sealing the peace

This cartoon shows mythical Britannia sealing the peace between former enemies by assenting to the Act of Union. With the benefi t of hindsight, what is equally signifi cant in this cartoon is that black people are completely absent

The reports of two commissions encouraged South African unity. The Selborne Memorandum, named after the high commissioner at the time, stressed the advantages to white South Africans of joining forces and establishing one government for the whole region. It initiated a movement that many white South Africans favoured. The Lagden Commission had been appointed to make recommendations regarding a common policy towards Africans for all the South African states. Race relations after 1905, particularly in Natal, made many whites in South Africa favour political amalgamation of the four colonies. The so-called Bhambatha Rebellion of 1906 was the largest and most violent manifestation of racial conflict since the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.

The events leading to the Bhambatha Rebellion and its harsh suppression in 1906 made Liberals in Britain support federation. They thought that a strong central authority would alleviate the worst excesses of the way in which the Natal authorities treated their black population. Even in South Africa, M.T. Steyn, former president of the Orange Free State, had criticised the ‘hysterical way in which Natal is dealing with the Native question’. Others interpreted the main lesson of the Bhambatha Rebellion to be the need for the establishment of a powerful South African defence force, for although the Natal militia had crushed the uprising, subsequent black revolts would perhaps not be subdued as easily. Fears of concerted black attacks on white authority continued and black resistance took a variety of forms. Historian Charles van Onselen has focused attention on the activities of the black Ninevite gangs whose operations (and crimes) in the Transvaal were often directed against black migrant workers and inhabitants of urban locations. Economic rivalry between the states, particularly epitomised by railway tariffs and customs policies, had not been eliminated when all the territories became British colonies, nor by the customs union of 1903, which was in essence a temporary compromise. Unification would ease this rivalry.

There were thus ample reasons why unification or federation appealed to many white South African leaders. Leaders like Steyn and J.B.M. Hertzog believed that it could strengthen Afrikaner nationalism, while Botha and Smuts were convinced that South Africa ruled by one government would provide the best opportunity of achieving self-determination within the framework of the empire. These views did not necessarily contradict each other. Yet these leaders were not initially impressed by Selborne’s Memorandum. They were also concerned that the amalgamation of the South African states should not be hastily patched together by imperialistic forces.

A national convention

Black rejection

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