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The 1908-10 Campaign Against Incorporation Into South Africa (Part 6)

JEFF RAMSAY
We left off in July 1909 with the arrival in London of the “Coloured and Native of People’s Delegation, which nearly coincided with the simultaneous disembarking of a 19-member “official” delegation made up of leading white South African politicians.

At least some of the later party came prepared to press for a firm guarantee that Bechuanaland and the other protectorates would soon become part of the nascent Union.

Also shipped in, however, was a secret dispatch by the commanding officer of British forces in South Africa, General Methuen, “on the subject of the fighting strength and resources of the Basuto.” This report, which was widely circulated among the South African officials as well as within the Colonial Office, must have made for sober reading to any inclined to simply dismiss Basotho, and by extension Batswana and Amaswati, concerns:

“...The Basuto nation could probably put about 60,000-80,000 fighting men in the field. About 50 per cent of these would probably possess breech loading rifles...about half of the remainder would have firearms of some sort, and for close quarters they would have knockberries and battle axes or assegais. The leading feature of the Basutos as an enemy would be that every man would be mounted and well-mounted. Probably they would fight as mounted infantry, dismounting and using their rifles, but they are a nation of horsemen, and quite capable of acting as units.

At the start of the war they would almost certainly hold some of their historic strongholds, or even assemble in force to besiege Maseru or one of the other Residencies. If merely driven away then they would probably retire to their mountain fastnesses and adopt guerrilla tactics, which would be exceedingly difficult to put down...”

Along with the Basotho, the merafe of the Bechuanaland Protectorate had the regional distinction of being relatively well armed at the time. This was in sharp contrast to the circumstance of the indigenous communities in South Africa, and indeed the other adjacent territories, which had all by then been subject to disarmament regimes.

On July 20-21, 1909 Lord Crewe held secret talks with the official South African delegates. In his opening remarks the Colonial Secretary made it clear that his government “were prepared to see the bill through both as to franchise and as to representation.”

Thereafter, most of the discussion at the meeting centred around proposed amendments to, and clarifications about, the Schedule for the future incorporation of Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland.  A guarantee against the partitioning of the territories after their incorporation was accepted, but amendments proposed by the Resident Commissioners of Basutoland and Bechuanaland, which sought to institutionalise the status

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of the Chiefs and the Basutoland National Council were ruled out. Contemporary press reports confirm that, while the discussions about the South Africa Act were held in camera, the outcome of the talks was widely anticipated and understood by informed opinion.

For the Batswana and their allies and sympathisers, the challenge was to get the imperial government to commit itself as explicitly as possible to respecting indigenous opinion on the matter. In this context their agent, Joseph Gerrans, succeeded in getting The Times (London) newspaper to publish in full a “report of the meeting convened by Mr. Barry May in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, at which the subject of South African Union was officially discussed with the chiefs of the Protectorate.

The said report largely consisted of full English translations of Bathoen, Linchwe and Sebele’s January 1909 Gaborone pitso testimony

On the previous day the same transcript had been formally delivered by Gerrans to the Colonial Office as part of a new “Chiefs and people of Bechuanaland” petition against South African incorporation.

The publication of the Batswana leaders’ views had a clear and immediate, albeit immeasurable, effect on public discussions.

One advantage the Dikgosi enjoyed, in contrast to the members of the Coloured and Native Peoples’ Delegation, was their unquestioned imperial credibility as spokesmen. Their appearance also challenged the racist stereotype, perpetuated as much by white liberal “negrophilists” as their “negrophobe” opposites, that “natives” naturally needed the assistance of others in articulating their interests.

Bathoen and Sebele’s skill in elocution was also the subject of a follow-up article in The Times entitled “The Vice of Generalities” which noted that: “The speeches of these barbarian chiefs, even as reported in English, are far better reading then the speeches of most European statesmen.” The same article went on to once more quote various passages, which were contrasted with “the coldness and staleness of modern civilised speech.” Although possibly unrelated, it was only after the publication of the Dikgosi’s words that The Times further agreed to print a letter collectively submitted by the non-white members of the People’s Delegation. Reaction also came from South Africa, whose press carried accounts of the Gaborone testimony.

A number of British backbench and opposition MP’s now took up the Basotho-Batswana-Swati cause. Among them was the pioneer Scottish Labour MP Keir Hardie, who first raised the issue of the Protectorates’ future during Parliament question time at Westminster.



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