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Review of The Lion and the Springbok: Britain and South Africa since the Boer War


By Christopher Fyfe

The Lion and the Springbok: Britain and South Africa since the Boer War by Ronald Hyam and Peter Henshaw. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003. xv+397pp. ISBN 0 521 82453 2. £45.

Long ago two Cambridge historians, Jack Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, used the files in the Public Record Office to highlight, in their famous Africa and the Victorians (1961), the ‘official mind’ rather than economic forces, as the dynamic behind British imperialism in Africa. In this volume, another pair of historians – Ronald Hyam and his former student Peter Henshaw, now teaching in Canada – again use the PRO files to contest in eleven self-contained chapters the standard interpretations of British/South African history. Away with theory, which saw British policy dictated by motives of economic interest. Instead: ‘high policy’ and ‘geopolitics’.

Whatever the (much debated) economic motives behind the Boer War, control of the Cape, a vital link in the wartime defences of the British Empire, was a ‘geopolitical’ priority that outweighed all else. Defending it was, and remained, an essential requirement of British ‘high policy’. Maintaining it demanded what high-policy makers are best at; preserving the status quo, postponing decisions, and ensuring that decisions, when made, balance concession against concession.

One concession the British government is usually blamed for is allowing the South Africa Act of 1910 to exclude Africans from parliament, thus permanently entrenching white supremacy. But it was realised in London that no South African Government would accept anything else. So, as a compromise, it was agreed to maintain Bechuanaland, Basutoland and Swaziland, bound by treaty to the Crown, as British ‘High Commission Territories’ for an unspecified period. Again and again South African governments demanded they be handed over, only to be met with the customary bureaucratic stone-walling – which eventually saved the inhabitants from apartheid.

Another geopolitical priority was restraining the Union of South Africa within its existing borders. Smuts dreamed of a ‘Greater South Africa’ stretching to the Zambesi, a state so powerful that it would threaten control of the Cape. The National Party victory in the 1948 election added another threat; ‘Afrikanerdom’ spreading northwards into British Africa. Hence the three territories formed an important barrier to be preserved at all costs.

These included the decision made by civil servants (whose files on the subject fill over a thousand documents), and accepted by the government, not to allow Seretse Hama, heir to the Bangwato chieftaincy, to return to Bechuanaland after his marriage to a white Englishwoman, for fear that the National Party government take the marriage (illegal in South Africa) as a pretext for occupying the territories. Whatever public opinion might feel at this apparent subservience to racism, high policy stood firm – and saved them.

Study of the documents relating to the creation of the Central African Federation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1953 (a study undertaken here for the first time) reveals high policy at work again. The South African government was not just then making any specific moves towards expansion. But in the Rhodesias, South African investment, and, above all, Afrikaner immigration were growing steadily, allowing the civil servants to convince themselves that British control of Central Africa was under an immediate, irreversible Afrikaner threat which only a federation could avert. Having first managed to interest and unwilling Labour government, they easily won over its Conservative successor. Their fears of Afrikanerdom were held to outweigh the expressed opinion of the six million African inhabitants, and the way opened for the disastrous ten-year Federation and its bloody aftermath.

Otherwise the civil servants guided successive governments along the tightrope of South African relations with remarkable success. South Africa, needing British investment capital and a British market for farm produce, remained within the sterling area. The transfer of the British naval base at Simon’s Town, usually presented as a humiliation, turned out to be a good bargain. British strategic interest were not seriously affected, dockyard supplies went on being purchased in Britain and – and astonishing bonus – ‘coloured’ dockyard workers were still employed, a tiny loophole in the overwhelming apartheid structure. And the South African government was reluctantly persuaded to withdraw its application to join the Commonwealth in 1961, thus averting a possible breach in Commonwealth solidarity.

In two final chapters we leave the PRO for a wider conspectus. A survey of how South Africans viewed Britain, 1945-61, shows that, even after Macmillan’s ‘winds of change’ speech, only 52% of the voters voted for a republic in 1960. And a survey of British reactions to apartheid, 1948-91, shows that up until the early 1960s there was a general anti-apartheid consensus, which became increasingly polarised between right and left on into the Thatcher years.

Almost all the chapters have been previously published elsewhere, but together give a comprehensive, entertainingly-written overview. The cover picture, dating from a 1906 rugby tour, has a lion and a springbok in rugby clothes dancing happily together. Now, thanks to Hyam and Henshaw, historians have some nice new tunes to dance to.


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 66 (2004), pp. 86-88]

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