The War that Made South Africa

The Boer War

by Thomas Pakenham
Random House, 718 pp., $20.00

The Boer War of 1899-1902 was Alfred Milner’s war, as surely as the Second World War was Hitler’s. He himself said to Lord Roberts, the British commanding officer, “I precipitated the crisis, which was inevitable, before it was too late.” As Britain’s proconsul at Cape Town, ruling the British colonies of the Cape and Natal, Milner was determined to provoke a war with the two independent Afrikaner republics to the north, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. He wanted, he said, to “knock the bottom out of ‘the great Afrikander nation’ for ever and ever Amen.”

And then? “The ultimate end is a self-governing White Community, supported by well-treated and justly governed black labor from Cape Town to the Zambesi.” In other words, a new Dominion to include what later became Rhodesia, under a British control which would be steadily reinforced by a torrent of British settlers until the Afrikaner nation was no more than a scattered, back-country minority.

And then? Milner’s “Greater South Africa” would become a component of a Greater Britain of the white race—by which he meant the “English” race. There would arise a supreme federal world state, in which Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and the new South Africa would send their representatives to an Imperial Parliament in London. “Und morgen, die ganze Welt!” In this vast structure, the black and brown millions would be no more than “justly governed” servants.

As a racist politician, Milner is the only important British leader (Sir Oswald Mosley’s importance declined in proportion to his racism) who deserves some comparison with Adolf Hitler. Both looked forward to world domination by their own tribe of the white race; both engineered and provoked war to bring that vision nearer. Curiously enough, they failed in the same way too. The actions of both Milner and Hitler changed the history of large areas of the world, but in exactly the ways they did not intend. Hitler let Russia into Europe, ensured that through the state of Israel the Jews would become a coherent political force in the world, and left Germany broken and partitioned. As for Milner, Thomas Pakenham’s closing verdict can stand: “The end result of Milner’s destruction of the old [Afrikaner] republics was not only to lose the two old colonies, too [i.e., the British colonies of the Cape and Natal], but to cast away that priceless Liberal legacy: the no-color-bar tradition of the Cape.”

In consequence of Milner’s war, the whole of South Africa eventually passed under Afrikaner control, beginning with the restoration of self-government to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, proceeding through the Union of 1908, and culminating with the Nationalist electoral victory of 1948. Milner’s countervailing flow of British settlers did not materialize. It was Afrikaner segregation by race, rather than the not ineffective British segregation by “civilization,” which came to determine “native policy.” The multiracial political constitution of the Cape did not spread to the old republics, and was eventually scrapped with the introduction…

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