A Briton's Impressions of South Africa


SOUTH AFRICA changes, chameleon-like, as one approaches. A man may reach Pretoria in three weeks from London, but the geographical distance is no index to the difference in mental perspective between the theorist at home and the worker on the spot. For two years the English papers have hurled South African impressions at their readers : Johannesburg has become as familiar a name as Birmingham : few families have not sent a relative to the war. And yet the traveler, however learned he may be in the book-work of his subject, is singularly unprepared for the reality which begins to dawn upon an observant man after a few months’ experience. He begins to realize the geographical vastness, the curious absence of natural means of communication, the paradoxes of the climate and the soil ; but even then he is only on the brink of discovery. The race problem, too often talked of at home as the ordinary question which has faced Britain in all her colonies, begins to reveal itself as an apparently insoluble enigma. The rural Boer, the most dogmatic individualist in the world, was shaped by judicious management from Pretoria into some momentary semblance of a nation and a very formidable reality of an army. The war is over, and he is returning to his home, beaten, angry, but still unconvinced. His sombre God has chastened him for his sins — that is all: some day doubtless He will lift from him the cloud of his displeasure. To this people, without culture, without enterprise, wholly un-modern and un-political, the so-called lessons of the war mean nothing, and side by side with them there lives in the towns a race modern of the moderns. The old mining-camp, California-cum-Ballarat character of the gold industry in South Africa has utterly passed away. Gold-mining has ceased to be a speculation, and has become a vast and complicated industry, employing at high salaries the first engineering talent of the world. The great mineowner is frequently a man of education, almost invariably a man of extreme ability. In few places can you find men of such mental vigor, so eagerly receptive of new ideas, so keenly awake to every change of the financial and political worlds of Europe. It is as if in the seventeenth century in Scotland, when the Covenanters were hiding in the hills, the towns had been filled with French intellectuels and modern scientists.

In this fact lies the intricacy of the South African problem. The twentieth century and the seventeenth exist side by side, and must be harmonized. The common false impression pictures South Africa as a clean slate, without history, institutions, or race tradition. It would be more exact to describe it as permeated in a large part with the most conservative of memories, the most bigoted and intolerant of traditions. So far it is plain that there is no common meeting ground of Boer and Uitlander. If things are allowed to drift, the towns will grow in population and wealth, the Rand will occupy itself with exploiting its two thousand millions’ worth of undiscovered gold; and meanwhile at the back of it all will be the country districts, stagnant, poor, with long, bitter memories and an irreconcilable race hatred. It is not a pleasant picture, but it is inevitable unless the problem is recognized and boldly met. If a meeting ground does not exist, it must be created. In my opinion the most hopeful solution is to be found in the schemes of land settlement which it seems certain will soon be put into execution. It is proposed to buy great tracts of land, and settle on them selected British colonists, who will be at once exponents of scientific agriculture and a country police force. Model government farms will be started which will serve as agricultural bureaus and training colleges. Such a scheme will fulfill many purposes. It will encourage South African farming, and exploit some of the vast agricultural riches which lie dormant in the soil; it will provide a civilizing agency for remote districts ; it will increase the British stock in the new colonies by the influx of the best class of colonists ; and it will provide the most effective of forces for local defense. It is in such a policy alone that we can find hope of some ultimate and permanent reconciliation. The High Commissioner is the type of administrator peculiarly fitted for the intricate South African problem. A common official would not see the difficulty ; a weak man, if he saw it, would shrink from it in despair. Lord Milner, with the imagination and trained perceptions of the scholar, has the direct practical vigor of a great man of affairs. Where a coarser or more cautious man would fail, there is every chance that he may succeed.