Two incongruous neighbours for the new Mandela statue

Richard Dowden

Nelson Mandela talks to everybody. He has famously gone out of his way to confront his persecutors by greeting them with respect and a warm smile. The former President of South Africa is also very polite. If he attends today’s ceremony to unveil his statue in Parliament Square I would be surprised if he makes any reference to other figures represented there. But I wonder what the statues will say to each other when the crowds have gone and the square is deserted.

Take Palmerston, for example, who was Prime Minister in the 1850s when some 50,000 of Mandela’s own Xhosa people died in a famine triggered by Britain’s seizure of their lands. Or Disraeli, who helped to carve up Africa with other European powers at the Congress of Berlin in 1885. Both argued that British imperialism brought nothing but benefits to people who came under its rule. Mr Mandela could offer evidence to the contrary from the subsequent history of South Africa.

But Mr Mandela’s most interesting conversations would be with Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts, who stand close together near the northeast end of the square. Churchill, massive, glowering like a bull, Smuts striding out with pious purpose. We remember these two men, contemporaries and friends, for other reasons. Smuts, although an Afrikaner, was the only signatory to the peace treaties that ended both the First and Second World Wars. And he was instrumental in setting up both the League of Nations and the United Nations. Smuts was the favoured replacement as prime minister if anything should happen to Churchill during the war. But in South Africa Smuts and Churchill laid the foundations of what was to become the apartheid state, the state Mandela dedicated his life to destroying.

Churchill had been a journalist during the Boer War. He was captured, then escaped from the Afrikaners. But he became convinced of the justice of their cause and after the war, argued ferociously in favour of self-rule for South Africa. A Boer general during the war, Smuts negotiated the surrender of the Afrikaner army in 1902 and was a key player in the creation of the Union of South Africa.

During the war Britain had encouraged and armed blacks in the Boer republics to rise up against their Afrikaner masters. That had given many blacks the belief that they might enjoy more rights in the British-ruled Transvaal and the Orange Free State – just as they did in British Cape Province where non-whites had voting rights based on property. Westminster always insisted on a nonracial franchise and it was assumed that this would be extended to the whole of the new South Africa. But the interests of blacks came a long way behind the British greed for South African gold and the Afrikaners’ belief in racial purity and their demands for land and self-rule.

The man who should have spoken up for the non-racial franchise was Churchill. After the war, he had become an MP and in 1905 was made Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. Instead Churchill supported the aspirations of the Afrikaners. He described South Africa as a “war-torn country, still red-hot from race hatred”. But he was not referring to race as we would understand it. He meant the mutual hatred of Britons and Afrikaners. Churchill’s solution was a British-ruled South Africa with virtual autonomy for the Afrikaners.

In 1906 Smuts came to London and proposed self-rule based on a white population. As the negotiations progressed it became clear that the nonracial franchise was not going to be introduced in the new South Africa. Although they retained their property voting rights in the Cape, non-white South Africans were to have no say in the new parliament.

Churchill accepted this. In a House of Commons speech in 1906 he said: “We must be bound by the interpretation which the other party [the Afrikaners] places on it and it is undoubted that the Boers would regard it as a breach of that treaty if the franchise were . . . extended to any persons who are not white”.

A multiracial deputation travelled to London to protest. It included the premier of the Cape and several black members of a movement that was to become the African National Congress. They failed to get a hearing from the Commons and only saw a minister after the Act giving a new constitution to South Africa had been passed.

Only the Indians in South Africa managed to keep some of their rights. But not thanks to Churchill or Smuts. Proposed restrictions on Indian immigrants in South Africa were only blocked when Gandhi – then a young lawyer there – launched a mass protest movement.

Although not the Prime Minister, Smuts was the most influential man in the new Union of South Africa. Under his direction South Africa became a race-based state. All the laws that were later refined and clarified by Apartheid were passed while Smuts was in government. Blacks were only allowed in urban areas if they were there to serve whites. In 1911 skilled jobs were reserved for whites and black contract labourers were forbidden to strike.

Two years later the Native Land Act sent blacks to the reserves and forbade them to own land in white areas. Thousands of blacks were uprooted or thrown off their land. Their only political representation were five “leaders”, nominated by the Government, who held an annual meeting with the Native Affairs Commission, white “experts” appointed by the Government. In a second political incarnation in the 1930s Smuts was part of a coalition government that strengthened these laws, though Smuts himself argued against stringent segregation.

So perhaps in the long empty nights, when even Brian Haw and the Iraq war protesters are asleep, Mr Mandela might ask why so many of his fellow statues who did so much for human freedom in other contexts seemed to have been on the wrong side over Africa. It is a question we might ask ourselves today.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society