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Ask most South Africans when it was that black people were first given the vote in their country, and chances are they will answer, "in 1994".

They would be wrong — by more than a century and a half.

In 1853, when the Cape Colony was granted representative government by Britain, a vote was given to males of any race who owned property to the value of £25. Most Africans, it is true, could not meet this requirement, or garner sufficient white support to win a seat in the Cape parliament, but the principle of nonracialism was entrenched for the first time in SA. If only white politicians over the years had had the good sense to build on that precedent and gradually extend the vote to all races — or had been allowed by their electorate to do so — our troubled history might have turned out quite differently.

While politics is the art of the possible, it’s not always the art of the sensible, as Martin Plaut demonstrates in his absorbing and well-researched Promise and Despair — The First Struggle for a Non-Racial South Africa.

The author, an SA-educated former Africa editor of the BBC World Service, lifts the veil on a long-forgotten event. In 1909, the former Cape premier, WP Schreiner (brother of the well-known author Olive), headed a multi racial delegation to London to petition the imperial government to overrule the franchise proposals decided upon at the national convention prior to the establishment of the Union of SA. Their aim was to extend the Cape’s non racial vote across the country, to allow people of colour to stand for p arliament, and to keep the protectorates of Bechuanaland, Swaziland and Basutoland out of the clutches of the u nion.

Members of the deputation included the clergyman and author Walter Rubusana, newspaper editor John Tengo Jabavu, educationist John Dube (three founding members of what was to become the ANC), and Cape Town city councillor and powerful speaker Dr Abdullah Abdurahman.

Also among an astonishingly varied cast of characters aboard the Kenilworth Castle bound for Britain were ex-president MT Steyn of the Orange Free State, generals Louis Botha and Jan Smuts, author Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, and Natal premier FR Moor, as well as a fast-rising lawyer from Durban, travelling on this own — one Mohandas K Gandhi.

The Schreiner group was up against impossible odds: Smuts, Botha and Cape premier John X Merriman, well regarded in Britain for bringing white SA together after the ravages of the Anglo-Boer War, had prepared the ground for political union carefully. The franchise was the key issue. In earlier negotiations at Vereeniging at the end of the Anglo-Boer War, Milner and Kitchener had made the crucial concession to Smuts that the Cape’s nonracial franchise would not be extended to the Transvaal and Free State, whose burghers had trekked away from the more racially tolerant Cape. But, as the author observes, it was not simple prejudice that drove Smuts: he would have found it impossible to persuade his fellow Boers, who already had the vote, that they should accept a property or income qualification that would take the franchise away from them. Having conceded the force of Smuts’s argument at Vereeniging, the British Liberal government felt bound by its Conservative predecessor’s undertaking and was not about to let arguments over the franchise stand in the way of establishing the new union.

There were also important international considerations weighing on the minds of British prime minister Asquith and his colonial secretary, Lord Crewe. The Royal Navy’s dominance of the world’s oceans was being seriously challenged by the German kaiser, a Boer sympathiser who was suspected of having designs of his own on the gold-rich Transvaal. One of the indirect consequences of the Jameson Raid was an Anglo-German naval ship-building race, which had heightened British concerns about the security of her far-flung empire. Once union was achieved, SA — and the Cape sea route — was to become an important link in the empire’s defensive chain.

A secondary theme running through the book is how Gandhi successfully exploited his experiences in SA — and his use of satyagraha (passive resistance) — to mount a sustained challenge to the imperial authorities over their discriminatory treatment of Indians.

In Natal, the coal owners’ violent response to the Gandhi-inspired protest strikes of 1913 caused such outrage in India that the viceroy felt it necessary to take the extraordinary step of publicly criticising the British and SA governments.

Gandhi had single-handedly brought about a breach in the long-standing tradition that Britain’s dominions and colonies did not interfere in each other’s business.

Schreiner and his deputation failed in their mission — as they were bound to do, given the opposition ranged against them. But black South Africans found, for the first time, that they had international support, and they were able establish contacts with the likes of Keir Hardie’s Labour movement that were to bear fruit later.

After union, the fight for a nonracial franchise dragged on for another eight decades, bedevilled by personal rivalries, conflicting ideologies and power struggles whose after-effects may still be felt today.

One of the strengths of this fine book is its measured judgments. As Plaut points out, few of the main characters in his narrative were entirely free of racial prejudice themselves. This makes SA’s progress towards a nonracial democracy a complex tale from which no glib conclusions may be drawn.

Promise and Despair — The First Struggle for a Non-Racial South Africa
Martin Plaut