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The High Commission Territories

In our last episode, we left off with the British Colonial Office having had reached a consensus that while the Protectorates of Bechuanaland, Basutoland and Swaziland would “not be immediately included within the sphere of responsibility of a united South Africa.”

At the same time, it was agreed, as part of the legislation establishing the Union of South Africa, that conditions be specified under which their ultimate transfer could be carried out. These conditions, which included the establishment of a High Commission, the non-alienation of tribal land, and reservation by the Protectorates of a share of the common Customs duties.

In July 1908 Sebele, along with Letsie, had received as an initial reply to his petition formal notification of the convening of the National Convention coupled with the assurance that in the event of regional amalgamation his peoples’ interests “will receive the constant attention and earnest consideration of the High Commissioner and of His Majesty’s Government.”

In response Sebele’s Tribal Secretary Sidzumo, on the Kgosi’s behalf, began to contact the other tribal secretaries in the territory as well as other educated peers to sensitise them to the emerging threat. In this effort, he found an early ally in Segale Pilane, who then served as the Secretary to his brother the Bakgatla Kgosi Linchwe I. In an August 1908 letter to Segale, Sidzumo had cautioned that if the Batswana did not join together to loudly protest against the Union they “would be killed by their quietness.”

By September 1908, Sidzumo was also lobbying the Bangwaketse and Bangwato. In a letter to the Bangwaketse Kgosi Bathoen I, he noted newspaper stories of the coming of a single government in South Africa that would legislate for blacks as well as whites, adding:

“We have found that the white settlers do not like the black people, neither do they appreciate to see them own land the wealth of which was given to us by God. They only desire to see destruction, hatred, war, and poverty for the black people. Many whites also do not like the powers of our rulers. They destroy the powers of [northern] Basotho and Matebele [Amazulu] rulers because they do not want to be guided by the laws of Natal and the Transvaal, but would rather be under the laws of King Edward VII. We are not the nations which have met about the new Union.”

With this letter, Sidzumo enclosed a draft of Sebele’s earlier petition, which was adapted by Bathoen I as the basis for a October 14, 1908 Bangwaketse petition.  The day after his communication with Bathoen, Sidzumo also wrote to O. Sekgome, BaNgwato Kgosi Khama III’s Secretary, which stressed the need for action in

that “the Native Question is the only present obstacle towards the closer union of various South African governments.”

While the Bakwena National Office was thus taking the lead in promoting pan-Batswana unity within the BP, another sort of consensus was emerging out of the deliberations of the National Convention. The all-white conference formally met behind closed doors from October 1908 to February 1909. Meeting in Durban and Cape Town, its delegates unanimously agreed to a Constitution creating a unitary state based on rigid white supremacy.

The limited franchise then enjoyed by non-whites in the Cape Colony was not extended to the other Provinces of the proposed Union. Elective offices at the national level were, furthermore, reserved for those of “European descent.”

On the question of the Protectorates the initial reluctance on the part of white South African political leaders to embrace Selbourne’s concept of a High Commission in which “His Majesty’s Government would have a veto on all obviously improper appointments”, coupled with their eagerness to consummate the Union of South Africa as soon as possible played into the hands of the Basotho, Batswana and Amaswati. By December 1908, the Convention along with the Colonial Office had accepted that any transfer would have to be delayed until after British Parliamentary approval of the Union of South Africa Act.

At the same time, the Convention accepted its Protectorate Committee’s twenty-five-point Schedule for their future incorporation, which provided for a High Commission that would have advisory status only and would be free of direct imperial oversight. This Schedule, which was incorporated into the draft of the Union Act submitted to the British Parliament, left the door still open for an early transfer.

In January 1908 the BP’s Acting Resident Commissioner, Barry May, formally notified Batswana of the likelihood of their future inclusion in the nascent South African state. Selborne, citing promises made in his response to Sebele’s petition, instructed May to inform the Batswana that while “it was not the intention of His Majesty’s Government to sanction any change at present in the system under which the Bechuanaland Protectorate is governed” and that the position of the BP was to some degree different from Basutoland and Swaziland due to the existence of British South Africa Company concessions, it was also clear that the Protectorate was “an integral portion of South Africa” and could not “be permanently administered apart from the general political comity of South Africa.”

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