A century of voter struggles told beautifully through people's promise and despair

Leading the struggle: A South African Native National Congress (early ANC) 1914 delegation with founding members Thomas Mapikela, Walter Rubusana, John Dube, Saul Msane and Sol Plaatje. Photo: UWC Robben Island Mayibuye Archives

Leading the struggle: A South African Native National Congress (early ANC) 1914 delegation with founding members Thomas Mapikela, Walter Rubusana, John Dube, Saul Msane and Sol Plaatje. Photo: UWC Robben Island Mayibuye Archives

Promise and Despair: The first struggle for a non-racial South Africa by Martin Plaut (Jacana)

With violent protests in Pretoria and Cape Town against top-down imposition by the ANC of unwanted election candidates, this superb new book by Martin Plaut could not be more timely.

Focusing on the disenfranchment of black voters by the Constitution of the Union of South Africa in 1909 and the coming together of its opponents, the book provides a history of the birth period of the ANC and simultaneously suggests comparison with the lack of accountable representation under the party-list system in the present Constitution. One reads this history for today, with the Jacob Zuma government metaphorically in place of the governments of generals Louis Botha, Jan Smuts and JBM Hertzog.

Over the long initially peaceful, then contestational and finally violent — struggles of the past century against minority white dictatorship, the timeframe of the book’s Promise and Despair title could easily be reversed. Throughout the book, “despair” at the entrenchment of an oppressive minority regime coexists with the “promise” of its overthrow.

It is extraordinarily helpful to follow Plaut’s account of the constitutional struggles of more than a century ago through the long-term perspective he provides.

The characters, backgrounds and qualities of the main actors from that time come to life with an almost contemporary vividness, indicating the deep structure of South Africa’s polity and the enduring relevance of this seminal period in its history.

The refusal of the franchise in the Union of South Africa — “a union in which we have no voice in the making”, Pixley kaIzaka Seme told delegates at the founding conference of the ANC in Bloemfontein in January 1912 — resulted, as Seme continued, in the “forming of our national union for the purpose of creating national unity and defending our rights and privileges”.

In a rounded dialectic, the broad canvas of South African history shows the tendency to brave, principled and even inspirational leadership (most strikingly in Plaut’s book through the contribution of Mahatma Gandhi) at least as deeply grounded as its tendency to despotic arrogation of wealth and power by the few.

For this reason alone, the book is a refreshing and inspiriting read, given the “despair” that has followed the “promise” of 1994.
For many readers it will provide an education in a period of South African history perhaps even more relevant today than that of the past 50 years, given the constitutional focus a century ago of that band of men and women (most actively a white woman, Betty Molteno, daughter of the first prime minister of the Cape Colony, Sir John Molteno) who resisted the imposition of racist, dictatorial exclusion.

The judgment of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, the intrepid defence of constitutional propriety by public protector Thuli Madonsela, the ongoing application to the Johannesburg high court by five Umkonto we Sizwe veterans alleging fraud by leaders of the MK Military Veterans Association (among them the deputy minister for defence and military veterans, Kebby Maphatsoe): this is the language of constitutional struggle today, brought vividly into historical context by this book.

As former Cosatu leader Jay Naidoo told Melanie Verwoerd on Eyewitness News last week, “public representatives should be accountable to constituencies and to the people, rather than to the party bosses”, whereas under the Electoral Law in the 1993 Constitution they are “parachuted into communities by party bosses who do not have the trust or support of citizens”.

Only days later Lindiwe Mazibuko, the former parliamentary leader of the Democratic Alliance, wrote in Business Day about the “crisis of representation we are experiencing under the electoral system of closed-list proportional representation”. She described this as a “crisis of participation, which leads powerless people to take to the streets”, calling for an “urgent debate on how to amend our political system ... before it is too late”.

With his main focus on the year 1909, Plaut shows that, as far back as the Constitution of 1853, black men in the Cape owning property worth at least £25 (as the currency was then) had been able to vote and stand for election to the colonial Parliament. By 1886, educated black African men “made up 43% of the vote in six constituencies of the Eastern Cape”.

When the imperial Parliament in London created the racially exclusive, all-male franchise in the Constitution of the Union of South Africa in 1909, heavily curbing the Cape’s previous nonracial franchise, 14.8% of its electorate were African and coloured voters.

The Cape Colony provides the main actors for the drama in the first half of the book, with an emphasis by Plaut (a former Capetonian) on their failed struggle in London to prevent a heavy derogation and ultimately the total extinction of those rights.

Looking ahead to the foundation of the ANC in 1912, the major focus in the early part of the book goes to John Tengo Jabavu, of Mfengu background, editor since 1884 of the newspaper Imvo Zabantsundu and secretary general since 1886 of the Union of Native Vigilance Association (founded in King William’s Town), together with Walter Benson Rubusana, of Xhosa background, one of the organisers in 1891 of the South African Native Convention and founder in 1897 of the newspaper Izwi Labantu.

Setting off by sea from Cape Town on June 23 1909, these two leaders representing separate, tribally grounded organisations, travelled to London together with Dr Abdullah Abdurahman — the first black man elected to the Cape Town City Council in 1904 and leader of the African Political Organisation, founded in 1902 to “promote unity between the coloured races”, with its support from the coloured population. They were part of a nonracial delegation headed by William (WP) Schreiner, the white former prime minister of the Cape Colony (and brother of the now more famous novelist and radical political thinker Olive Schreiner), who had left Cape Town for London a week previously.

In London they were in contact with a non-member of the delegation, John Langalibalele Dube, from the colony of Natal: the founder in 1903 with his wife Nokuthela of the first Zulu/English newspaper, Ilanga laseNatal, and in 1912 elected as the isiZulu-speaking first president of the ANC. They were in London raising funds for their school at Ohlange.

Also in London from Natal at that time, and also not part of the deputation but giving them his support, was the most radical and globally most famous member of that extraordinary nonracial nucleus of South African political leaders: Mohandas K Gandhi, or the Mahatma (“great soul”).

Gandhi’s planned and deliberate use of non-violent defiance of unjust laws (“passive resistance”) in 1913 in the struggle of indentured Indian labourers on the sugarcane fields, mines and railways in Natal against harsh racist repression gained its full strength in South Africa more than 40 years later, in the Defiance Campaign.

Although the attention of the non-racial deputation of campaigners in London in 1909 was on the issue of the franchise, that question was settled only in the Interim Constitution of 1993 and the first nonracial general election in 1994. What is far from set- tled, however, as the spate of political assassinations in the ANC —and the unrest in Pretoria and Cape Town — now make plain, is the question of representation. How are politicians to be held accountable by the voters?

Plaut’s very readable study is a book for its time, and a fitting background to South Africa’s constitutional struggles in the 21st century.

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