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  • Promise and Despair: The First Struggle for a Non-Racial South Africa by Martin Plaut
  • Robert I. Rotberg
Promise and Despair: The First Struggle for a Non-Racial South Africa. By Martin Plaut (Athens, Ohio University Press, 2017) 272 pp, $79.95 cloth $29.95 paper

Accessible and engaging, this book makes three important contributions to the historiography of modern South Africa. Despite its somewhat misleading subtitle, the first three-fifths of the book is essentially about how British governments after the Anglo-Boer War failed miserably to prevent millions of Africans, Coloureds, and Indians from losing their already limited colonial franchises when the Union of South Africa was constructed by and for whites in the years from 1906 to 1910.

After defeat by British and Dominion troops in 1902, Afrikaners won the peace by compelling a guilt-ridden Britain to let them create a Union from two former Afrikaner states and two British colonies. Britain was also exceedingly anxious about Germany’s race to build battleships, and impending war.

The Union immediately subjected nearly 9 million Africans to a harsher form of white overlordship than Africans in the Cape Colony— even under Cecil Rhodes’ premiership—had ever experienced. Afrikaners from the Transvaal (now Guateng Province) and the Orange Free State (now the Free State Province) refused to give way under any circumstances; British politicians (especially the Liberal Party then in charge) caved. [End Page 176]

Much of this book is about Britain’s weak-kneed total abnegation of responsibility. British parliamentarians knew that by agreeing to a Union in which African rights would be subordinated to white avarice and racist prohibitions, they were behaving in a manner, according to Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, “unworthy of a civilized Power” (41).

Plaut takes readers through all phases of this pitiful story, including the sorry debates in Parliament that ratified the Union agreement, earlier developed in South Africa among white political leaders from the four components of the new Dominion. Britain, the imperial victor for which large parts of most world maps were painted red, failed to stand for African rights and Africans as voters, even on the basis of restricted property and income. They demanded less even than Rhodes, who in 1899 had finally agreed to the franchise for every “civilized” person— meaning every person with some education, property, and income, who “in fact is not a loafer” (26).

Plaut details the intricacies of the negotiations that resulted in Union and disfranchisement. But he is particularly thorough in narrating how African and white opponents of Union lobbied and entreated in London before the final Parliamentary acquiescence of the Liberals. The forlorn chief advocate of African rights was William Philip Schreiner—brother of novelist Olive and a former Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. He had support from the Africans who later created the African National Congress and from the noble South African and British women who had favored the underdog Afrikaner side during the Anglo-Boer War and were now trying to help Africans.

The second important theme of this book revolves around the white women—Alice Greene, Emily Hobhouse, and Betty Molteno—who had battled on behalf of Afrikaners during the war and had exposed the cruelties of British concentration camps. Because of their sympathies, they had become close to Jan Christiaan Smuts, the chief negotiator of the Union and subsequent prime minister. Their interventions were not helpful in avoiding Union, but they were influential with Smuts in arranging critical compromises when Mohandas K. Gandhi battled Smuts and Prime Minister Louis Botha about discrimination against Indians in the Transvaal on the eve of World War I.

Gandhi’s use of civil disobedience to agitate for the abolition of proscriptions against Indian immigration and other taints is the book’s third concern. Plaut discusses Gandhi’s tactical decision making and his refusal to ally his Indian movement with those of Africans and Coloureds. The Gandhian-led strikes and passive protesting closed mines and sugar plantations, resulting in a Hobhouse-brokered accommodation between Smuts and Gandhi that temporarily benefited Indians and enabled Gandhi to return to the larger and longer struggle in India.

This book is not really about indigenous...


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pp. 176-178
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