Reconciliation – Smuts’ answer to SA and the 1919 peace

Smuts was ‘very anxious that the name of South Africa shall not be tarnished with this peace [of 1919].’ With this in mind, he wrote to the Gilletts, his Quaker friends in England: ‘I am going to give our Germans good decent treatment in spite of the awful terms about their private property.’ (p8 – Jean van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts papers, Vol 5)

Smuts’ reaction was within keeping of Botha’s actions as well as those of Lord Kitchener towards the defeated. No doubt Smuts’ main aim concerned the Germans within the Union. Reconciling them would ease some  issues in the mining fraternity given the links between some mining magnates and Germany, while it would also keep those who had rebelled against going to war with Germany quiet. How successful he was needs to be explored.

Looking at SWA (Namibia) which South Africa obtained as a mandate, the situation is less clear – half the German population was repatriated, the other half retained to help maintain the white presence. Was this compromise an attempt at ‘decent treatment’ or were there alternative economic and political drivers? 

It’s not always easy discerning altruistic motives from others in such actions, but one would like to think humanitarian priorities dominate. Sadly, history seems to prove otherwise – if Smuts could reconcile the Germans and Botha the Boers (although unsuccessfully as it turned out), why did they not do the same with other South African groups? What got in the way? The same issues that ultimately prevented the Boer reconciliation? It takes two to tango so they say, it also takes two to keep/create peace. As Kitchener said about taking Africa into World War 1, why fight for something with all that loss when its future will be ultimately decided at the conference table. And as he planned for Egypt, reducing the wealth gap, bringing people closer together, would ultimately reduce conflict. Why it didn’t happen is ably explained by Wanagri Maathai in The Challenge for Africa…

Recording identity

Not too long ago I was asked to specify my identity three times all linked to the same national body. The explanation given is ‘government require us to ask’ and ‘this will help the (service) prioritise local provision through identifying trends etc’ or words to that effect.

The last being online, there was no reaction but the first two mentioned occasions elicited interesting reactions to my responses ‘human’ and ‘not saying’. One was ‘but you have to say … your options are …’, the latter ‘I wish more would answer like that but I can’t tell them’.

A fourth occasion was completing the national census document – where I did specify an ethnicity under ‘other’.

Alongside this I have been reading about a religious denomination’s struggle against Apartheid where they decided to boycott recording ethnicity in birth registers as the information was being used to separate people according to colour and to deprive groups of equal status and the vote. This, at the time was an admirable stance defying legal obligations.

This presents the dilemma. As a political social being, my ethnicity (or any other classification label) doesn’t matter – I’m a human and all humans deserve to be treated equally. However, the historian/scientist in me craves classification as it helps me understand and interpret actions of specific groups and how we came to be who we are. How are researchers of the future going to get an understanding of our time given my recent answers?

This gives some insight into my varied answers to the same question. While I dont trust the anonymity of any of the systems used to record the data despite all the assurances given, the use of the census data has been of great assistance to my own research. However, my experiences of recording identity details for other purposes has been more sinister – that is not to say the current data gathering will be used for ulterior purposes but rather, it’s evidence of my being a product of my past. 

In SA people carry identity documents. These have varied in format over the century plus that they have been operational. Some were required to carry their ID document with them to verify their being in the place they were, acceptability for employment etc. It was divisive and led on occasion to protests, some turning violent as police opened fire on unarmed citizens. In the later years, ID numbers held a wealth of information – date of birth, gender and ethnicity – so if you knew the construction you could make decisions etc without asking those awkward questions – it was for this reason that some religious leaders refused to record ethnicity. My ID number hasn’t changed in the post-Apartheid years but by all accounts (so we’re told) the system has been changed so that apart from my date of birth the other numbers are just that – numbers.

For years in various countries one has had to complete a form attached to job applications containing personal information which has been removed before the recruitment team got the application forms to select their preferred candidates for interview etc. This data form we’re told is/was for monitoring purposes and to ensure a proportional representation of people in the organisation – if this was truely the case, why after all these years do we still have people complaining about glass ceilings, pay inequalities, changing their names to be less conspicuous etc? It seems more a product of habit and panacea than the social engineering tool it was meant to be.

More sinister though was the use of medical data and identity in the struggle for ethnic survival as seen by Wouter Basson’s (Dr Death) work to create products that would target specific genes while ignoring others. This would enable poisons to be used in teargas and even water (as rumour has it of towns/settlements being targeted with typhoid).

This was not widely known at the time and neither were many other actions of the day. But with the fall of Apartheid it became apparent that government, those trusted to look after the best interests of the people, had lied to the people.

It’s known too in Britain that Churchill bent the truth … portraying ships still being in service after they’d been sunk, the little ships which helped save the British army at Dunkirk having to be paid as opposed to doing their patriotic duty. He wasn’t the only one. The study of propaganda shows how much misleading of the public has been undertaken over centuries by all governments and it’s this potential misuse of identifying data that creates the dilemma.

In an ideal equal world (and I can’t think of a time when all were equal) would we even need to record our differences and similarities? So for now, how do we balance treating all equally without distinction whilst capturing data that will potentially be of use to future researchers in understanding the generations that preceded them? And can we really use the data collected to engineer a more equal society?  (James Lovelock & gaia theory)

Have you seen him?

Johnny Clegg probably has the most well-known song asking if you’ve seen him. It goes under the title Asimbonanga (lyrics) and was initially penned during Nelson Mandela’s time in prison. Again it came to prominence at the time of Mandela’s death – Have you seen him? You can hear the different versions in the link above. A moving piece, as is Johnny Clegg’s The Crossing which considers the (re)meeting on the other side of death. Both songs again were in the limelight when Johnny Clegg himself died on 16 July 2019, aged 66. (youtube videos).

Some time ago I posted a blog entitled Detained – in a different way, asking have you seen him (or her). More recently, being part of the CWGC enquiry into the Inequalities in Commemoration opened new windows on ‘have you seen him?’ Seeing someone is a form of greeting for some cultural groups – “I see your shadow” recognises the multiple dimension of a being or creation. Is this the role that memorials play? Is that why they are so important?

How do we continue to see someone once they’ve gone? What do we remember? Only the good? Only the bad? The complexity of a relationship (and the empire) is captured in Johnny’s High Country. How do we capture the complexities of an individual, a movement, an era?

Indians in Kenya by Sana Aiyar is a reminder of how the visible becomes invisible only to be made visible when it suits a particular purpose. Twenty-five years after South Africa obtained full democracy groups were calling on the spirit of Madiba to dominate relationships again, and on 1 January 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa was calling on the nation to honour the late ‘Desmond Tutu by taking up his campaign for social justice’. It was the occasion of the archbishop’s farewell before he was aquamated. As with cremation, there is a residue which can be placed in a special spot for commemoration purposes.

Have you seen him? Do we need to see him or her to remember and continue their struggle for making the world a better place? More importantly, how do we ensure we see the whole – good and not so good – that makes us and our world who we are, especially when the visual is no longer visible?

It’s healthy to separate – apparently

Over the past few months while looking into home front aspects in Africa around World War One, I couldn’t help but notice that town planning in the pre-war days revolved around segregation for health reasons.

Instead of finding ways to accommodate different cultural practices in one space, it was felt better to separate them. The issue became one of containment – and then finance. Despite concerns about infection spreading, funding improvements was an issue. The long term impact of improving sanitation and thereby the health and economic potential was ignored with significant consequences when plague and small pox broke out, and then the 1918 flu.

Towns I’ve read about include some in the Eastern Cape and Johannesburg in the pre-1920s and Nairobi. While it might be more understandable in territories such as British East Africa, I find it difficult to comprehend how the South African territories having experienced the consequences of the 1901/2 war (and not just the camps) did not realise the wider implications of restricting health initiatives.  But then, Nairobi was a new town in a British controlled territory as well… and given the coverage of the camps and hygiene issues in Britain during the 1899-1902 war, one (I) would have thought they’d learnt their lesson.

Similarly, looking at the early division in the Presbyterian church in South Africa, the divide came about due to meeting different needs: those who had prior knowledge of the Bible required more analytical type sermons than those who were still new to the contents.

I can’t help but wonder, whether, if our ancestors had been bold enough to find a common ground working and living together, our situation today would be any different. Are we any further along the journey to considering collaborative solutions? I’m not so sure when I see all the separate groups calling for equality and inclusion. We have some indications that it can be done: the countries which have united or federated (South Africa, USA, Australia, EU), the UPCSA (Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa), and SADC?. It’s not been easy journeys for any of them but if it’s been done at such a macro-level, can we do the same at more micro-levels? Seeing the consequences of decisions made to separate 100 years ago because it was easier, makes me think it’s worth the risk to find some common ground and struggle through the growing pains of creating something new.


Sana Aiyar – Indians in Kenya
Alan Cobley – On the shoulders of giants: The black petty bourgeoisie in politics and society in South Africa, 1924-1948
Jack Dalziel on the early history of the Presbyterian history in South Africa and various other sources (forthcoming publication)
Heyman Mandlakayise Zituta, The spatial planning of racial residential segregation in King William’s Town 1826-1991 amongst others
Norman Parsons Jewell – On call in Africa in war and peace, 1910-1932

Gaia United

Trying to understand a linked phenomenon, it was suggested I have a look at Gaia theory which I did – by reading Gaia: The practical science of planetary medicine by James Lovelock (1991). It reminded me much of Smuts’ Holism and Evolution (1925), although more scientific, visual and practical, and much easier to follow.

Gaia Theory in case you don’t know, is the ‘present theory that sees the Earth as a system where the evolution of the organisms is tightly coupled to the evolution of their environment. Self-regulation of climate and chemical composition are emergent properties of the system. The theory has a mathematical basis in the model “Daisyworld”.’ (Lovelock, p188)

What has been striking is how Lovelock had to struggle to get his theories and hypotheses recognised as he was outside of traditional thinking. Predictions he was making at the time the book was published are now being evidenced, in particular climate change.

One of the things Lovelock mentions which fits with my historical outlook is Disseminated Primatemaia – a plague of people. This is referred to in a different way by Marthe Kiley-Worthington in Family are the Friends you Choose. The arrogance of mankind that Lovelock refers to with his plague of people and their attitude to the universe or gaia is clearly seen in the most recent colonisation actions by superpowers – no doubt the earlier colonisers – Rome, Greece, Ottomans, Austria-Hungarians, Armenians, Aksumite etc all had similar thoughts and views in seeing their way to dominate great swathes of people and land.

They were all for union and unity under one authority. The most recent colonisers having industrialisation behind them as none previously had. The result being the destruction of Africa’s climate and ecology (and here I think specifically of Tsavo area in Kenya and lands below Kilimanjaro in Tanzania) and that of gaia which Lovelock writes. (The same case can be put for South American deforestation etc).

Back to my historical outlook – we, mankind, are our own worst enemy as long as we look out for the individual (group) and not consider how that approach impacts on the wider community and gaia. Our diversity is our strength – if we work together for gaia.