SPEECH BY PROF HOWARD PHILLIPS AT THE LAUNCH OF
SELEKSIES UIT DIE BRIEWE VAN PRESIDENT MT STEYN, 1904-1910
Welcome to the launch of the VRS’s 98th volume, Seleksies uit die Briewe van President MT Steyn, 1904-1910/ Selections from the Letter of President MT Steyn, 1904-1910.
Particularly, I wish to welcome and thank:
Mr Emilton Cloete, headmaster of CTHS, who generously provided us with extra chairs and tables for tonight’s function;
and several members of Steyn’s family who, most appropriately, have joined us tonight to mark the launch of this volume. As was the case when the family of Richard Selope Thema joined us last year when we launched his autobiography here and in Johannesburg, your presence tonight connects what we publish very directly with the subject of our publications, bridging the decades in between. We are honoured to do so.
The book is truly a model of effective, rolling co-operation within the VRS, for its two industrious editors and its one well-skilled translator were all members of the VRS Council until last year, which greatly facilitated this collaboration.
The first editor, Con de Wet, began working on the project as long ago as 2004 after retiring as chief archivist of the W. Cape, but the extent of Steyn’s correspondence – over 500 letters – made for slow going. When, last year, he had taken the project as far as he could by collecting, transcribing and selecting letters suitable for inclusion and doing preliminary editing, it was Elizabeth van Heyningen, my vice-chair and a fellow-historian at UCT for nearly 20 years, who readily agreed to bring the volume to conclusion by adding insightful introductions and more detailed footnotes to a text which was by then available in English too, thanks to the translating ability of a third member of the VRS Council, Chris van der Merwe.
To add a further VRS dimension to the preparation of the text for publication, four in-house readers (Sandra Commerford, Rolf Proske, Russell Martin and me) then scrutinized the text, while a fifth, Tanya Barben, indexed it very thoroughly. From the title page to the last entry in the index, therefore, this is a VRS volume through and through. The Society’s grateful thanks thus goes to all of those whom I have mentioned for their respective contributions to the making of our 98th volume. Our gratitude is due to the volume’s dexterous designer, Claudine Willatt-Bate, and to the four donors whose subsidies have made publication possible, viz. a longstanding member, Chris Otto (via the Stellenbosch University History Department), the Van Ewijck Foundation, the Fonds Neelandistiek and the Frank Bradlow Memorial Trust.
The upshot of these combined efforts is a volume which allows us at last to gain a 360-degree perspective on this former president of the OFS through his own words, particularly with regard to his key role in the revival of Free State Afrikanerdom after the South African War and in the making of Union in 1910. Themes of rebuilding and reconciliation consequently loom very large in its pages, subjects which tax a very different South Africa as much today.
From the book’s 93 letters, Steyn emerges as a man of principle, yet able to see beyond his immediate political and personal situation and adapt pragmatically to changed circumstances, a dignified and dutiful figure, not without a self-deprecating sense of humour, a man of courage in confronting his acute physical disability and, to some extent, overcoming it without self-pity or anger. In other words, the book fleshes him out as much more than a one-dimensional, bittereinder Afrikaner nationalist hero.
There is a certain appropriateness in the fact that Con de Wet and Elizabeth van Heyningen are the editors because both have family ties to Steyn’s Free State. Con’s parents were born there during Steyn’s presidency, while Elizabeth’s paternal grandfather was a magistrate’s clerk in Fauresmith in the 1890s when Steyn was president. In a sense, therefore, the broader, multi-sided view of Steyn-in-the-round which this volume provides is the result of the scholarly labours of two descendants of burgers of his time. With his strong sense of heritage, Steyn would have thought this most apt.
On which note, this is obviously the right moment for me to hand over to Con, Elizabeth and Chris to tell us about their experience of dealing with Steyn’s letters two generations after their ancestors experienced him as their president.
DR CON DE WET – TOESPRAAK TYDENS BEKENDSTELLING IN KAAPSTAD – NOVEMBER 2017
Die rede hoekom ek besluit het om Steyn se korrespondensie te publiseer was omdat ek gevoel het dat Steyn nie altyd die aandag wat hy verdien in die geskiedskrywing gekry het nie. Na my mening is die rede daarvoor dat hy gedurende sy hele openbare lewe in die skaduwee van pres. Paul Kruger gelewe het. Ek was bly om te sien dat prof. M.C.E. van Schoor daarmee saamgestem het, want in die voorwoord van sy biografie van Steyn, Marthinus Theunis Steyn. Regsman, staatsman en volksman, wat in 2009 verskyn het, skryf hy dat ‘n moontlike rede daarvoor dalk is dat pres. Steyn te lank “in die skaduwee van die oormatige verheerliking van pres. Kruger gestaan het” en dat inligting oor hom in Afrikaans, naas die twee toe nog enigste biografiee van Steyn, naamlik N.J. van der Merwe se Marthinus Theunis Steyn- (1921) – en Karel Schoeman, In liefde en trou (1983), slegs in verspreide tydskrif- en koerantartikels, radiopraatjies en hoorbeelde te vinde was.
Hopelik sal hierdie publikasie van Steyn se korrespondensie die leser help om ‘n veel beter begrip te vorm van die mens Marthinus Theunis Steyn. Hy word algemeen beskou as ‘n vegter vir die regte van die Afrikaner-gemeenskap, en dit was hy beslis. Maar uit sy korrespondensie en sy gesinslewe is dit ook duidelik dat hy ander volksgroepe en gemeenskappe ‘n regmatige plek gegun om hulle oortuigings uit te leef. Die duidelikste voorbeeld daarvan is sy huwelik en gesinslewe. Hy is in 1887 met Rachel Isabella (Tibbie) Fraser getroud. Haar oupa, ds. Colin Fraser, was een van die Skotse predikante wat in 1815 na die Kaapkolonie gekom het en was die predikant van die N.G. gemeente Beaufort-Wes. Haar vader, ook Colin Fraser, was die leraar van die N.G. gemeente van Philippolis. Daar het ‘n besondere sterk liefdesband binne die Steyn-gesin bestaan, maar tog het elke lid van die gesin die vryheid geniet om sy/haar lewensideale uit te leef. Mev. Steyn het byvoorbeeld in Engels met die kinders gekorrespondeer en pres. Steyn in Nederlands. Hoewel dit onder die Afrikaners die gebruik was dat die oudste seun van die gesin na die oupa aan vaderskant vernoem is, is die Steyns se oudste en enigste seun na sy oupa aan moederskant vernoem – Colin Fraser Steyn. Dit is ook opmerklik dat Steyn en sy eggenote ‘n groot invloed op die kinders uitgeoefen het, want hoewel hulle later jare uiteenlopende politieke menings gehuldig het, is die gesinsband nooit verbreek nie.
Nadat die Britte Bloemfontein in Maart 1900 verower het, het Steyn en sy regering as die sogenaamde Regering te velde saam met die Vrystaatse strydmagte die stryd voortgesit. By Reitz is die meeste van hulle egter gevange geneem, maar Steyn het ontsnap danksy sy swart agterryer wat sy perd aan die president gegee het om te ontvlug. Die ontberings het egter sy lot van Steyn geeis en op 30 Mei 1902, ‘n dag voor die ondertekening van die Vredesverdrag van Vereeniging, het hy uitgetree as president en genl. De Wet as waarnemende president benoem. Op 11 Julie 1902 het hy en sy gesin na Europa vertrek om daar mediese behandeling te ontvang. In Januarie 1905 het die gesin na Suid-Afrika teruggekeer en hulle op hulle plaas Onze Rust naby Bloemfontein gaan vestig. Hoewel hy tot met sy dood in 1916 nie meer aktief in die politiek betrokke was nie, het hy nogtans op versoek van verskeie persone tog ingestem om in 1908-1910 as ondervoorsitter van die Nasionale Konvensie, waaruit die Unie van Suid-Afrika op 31 Mei 1910 ontstaan het, op te tree.
Genraal Christiaan de Wet hou ‘n toespraak tydens President Steyn se begrafnis
Steyn se korrespondente het ‘n groot getal beroemde persone in Suid-Afrika en in Europa aan die begin van die 20ste eeu ingesluit. Hulle het ingesluit genl. C.F. Beyers, genl. Louis Botha, Jaap de Villiers, Abraham Fischer, genl. J.B.M. Hertzog, J.H. (Onse Jan) Hofmeyr, dr. W.J. Leyds, dr. N. Mansvelt, John X. Merriman en genl. J.C. Smuts. Merriman was een van Steyn se getrouste korrespondente en in die versameling is daar 85 briewe van horn en Steyn se antwoorde daarop. Ek vertrou dat hierdie publikasie die lig sal laat val op die belangrike rol wat Steyn in die geskiedenis van Suid-Afrika gespeel het.
Vergun my ook om my dank te betuig teenoor persone wat ‘n belangrike bydrae gelewer het in die publikasie. Eerstens aan die Van Riebeeckvereniging en in die besonder die voorsitter, Howard Phillips, wat ‘n allerbelangrike rol gespeel het in die tot standkoming van hierdie publikasie. Hy was van die begin af entoesiasties oor die projek en het ‘n belangrike rol gespeel om die publikasie die lig te laat sien. Verder ook aan die mede-redakteur, Elizabeth van Heyningen, wat die finale afronding gedoen het en die manuskrip persklaar gemaak het. Ook aan Chris van der Merwe vir die vertaling van die Nederlandse briewe in Engels. En laastens, maar allermins die minste, aan my eggenoote, Blanche, en ons dogter, Sonja, vir hulle intense belangstelling in die hele proses en die ondersteuning en verdraagsaamheid wat ek deurentyd van hulle ontvang het. Aan julle almal my innige dank!
DR ELIZABETH VAN HEYINGEN – LAUNCH SPEECH IN CAPE TOWN NOVEMBER 2017
Con has done the very considerable job selecting the letters for this volume and he also began the work of identifying the many individuals mentioned in the text. My task, then, has been to provide the historical context.
In some respects Steyn is a familiar historical figure – one of the great heroes of the South African War. We have a tendency not to look too closely at heroes, to take them for granted so, when I came to write the introductions to the letters, I thought I should try to see him through fresh eyes. These letters do not include the period leading up to the war, or those of the war itself. Instead, they deal with Steyn’s declining years when he might have been considered a lesser figure in South Africa’s political life. Yet he was not, and this is truly remarkable.
In the first place, Steyn was an ill man. At the end of the war he was struck down by a paralysis which has now been identified, perhaps, as an autoimmune disease called myasthenia gravis. It’s always uncertain identifying historical diseases because the symptoms are often inadequately described. However, in the case of Steyn the course of his illness is told in some detail. In effect, it left him able to use his hands only with difficulty. The most striking feature was the effect on his eyelids which always drooped after the war. But, if this was the ailment that he suffered from, one of the greatest problems was that the symptoms got worse with activity. In other words, Steyn was debarred from playing an active role in South Africa’s political life.
This takes us into the realm of ‘what might have been’. Historians should step warily here but I found myself thinking, on a number of occasions, what might have happened if Steyn had been well. To make a couple of suggestions:
(1) the Treaty of Vereeniging might not have been signed on 31 May 1902. Steyn was the ultimate bittereinder and he was strongly opposed to the terms of the peace. He told Christian de Wet that the Boers were selling out for £3 million – the amount granted in compensation. (On the other hand, the Boers might have gone with Louis Botha anyway, lessening Steyn’s prestige.)
(2) Steyn’s greatest moment in these post-war years was his role at the National Convention in 1908. Smuts and Merriman desperately wanted him to attend because they knew that his standing amongst the Boers was so great that he, more than anyone else, could perhaps bring on board the more reluctant Afrikaners. As a result, he was made vice-chair of the Convention and he did, indeed, prove his worth. Even old enemies like L.S. Amery and Dr Jameson remarked on his ability to reconcile conflicting parties. So, if he had been well, would Steyn have been South Africa’s first prime minister? And if he had been, would this have prevented the 1914 rebellion that broke out in opposition to South Africa’s invasion of German South West Africa at the start of World War I?
Another feature of these letters that I thought was both unusual and topical, was that this is a rare study of politics, power and disability. Increasingly now, we recognise that there is a place for people suffering from disability. We have relatively few accounts in South Africa of the inner life of someone so afflicted. Steyn’s stubbornness, which prevented him from surrendering during the war, stood him in good stead in the face of illness. With determination and good humour he struggled to learn to walk again, and even to write, something that was always a hardship. More than this, his wisdom, his sweetness of temper, and his status, enabled him to act as elder statesman in the aftermath of the war, even when he could not participate actively. From the stoep of his farm at Onze Rust he received visitors and wrote letters to South Africa’s leading politicians.
President Steyn recuperating in Europe
So what were his achievements? They can be summed up briefly: language, education and reconciliation. I’m not going to dwell on the first two because Chris is going to say something about them. We don’t usually think of Steyn as the great conciliator – that accolade goes to Louis Botha. But, between 1906 and 1910 he conducted a remarkable correspondence especially with Smuts and John X. Merriman, in which the three men worked out their ideas on Union. One topic was Union versus Confederation and, with the American and Australian examples before them, they opted for Union as less divisive.
A second major, and difficult, topic, was that of the franchise. Who should have the right to vote? Women didn’t come into the picture. Interestingly, if female suffrage had been considered seriously, Steyn is the only one of the three who would probably have supported it. But the issue was, rather, the black vote. None of the three covered themselves in glory on this matter. But neither did the British. The reality was that none of them could envisage a world in which black people were considered equal to whites. Since they were all interested in social justice, they all knew very well that all male South African adults should have the vote, but they couldn’t face it. Instead, they brushed the subject under the carpet. It could be dealt with sometime in the future, when somehow black people had become ‘civilised’. They knew, of course, that it would be almost impossible to bring their constituents on board, but they were far too complacent in their discussions of the matter.
Steyn only agreed to attend the Convention after he had persuaded Louis Botha that the principle of the language question – the equality of Dutch with English – would be accepted beforehand. In the event, it proved to be the clause that almost broke the Convention. And it was Steyn who brought the more recalcitrant JBM Hertzog on board, and persuaded Brits like Jameson that Dutch should be accepted in government and education on the same basis as English. In the event, they did not get quite what they wanted – that all civil servants should be bilingual – but it was enough. Having got over this hurdle, Steyn played a critical role in soothing the sensibilities of isolationist English-speaking Natalians.
And afterwards Steyn and Hertzog had no difficulty persuading Free Staters to accept the terms of the Convention. Merriman in the Cape had far more trouble. He had to cope with people like WP Schreiner, who fought for an extended black franchise, and with F.S. Malan and Onze Jan Hofmeyr, whose loyalties were uncertain.
Steyn himself had one final decision to make. Should he stand for public office in the new South Africa? Sadly, his doctors did not recommend this and he was forced to accept his place as one of South Africa’s most revered elder statesmen, out of the hurly-burly of active political life.
PROF CHRIS VAN DER MERWE – TOESPRAAK TYDENS BEKENDSTELLING IN BLOEMFONTEIN – 27 NOVEMBER 2017
In my capacity as translator, I will speak in English as well as Afrikaans.
Unlike Elizabeth and Con, my connection with Steyn is not a Free State one, but a literary one. Through Die pluimsaad waai ver (‘The seeds spread widely’), a drama by N P van Wyk Louw, my interest in Steyn increased greatly. Steyn is a main character in the play, and Louw depicts Steyn as a role model for Afrikaners – not Paul Kruger, who was regarded by most Afrikaners of the time as the suffering hero of the Anglo Boer War. Louw appreciated in Steyn the combination of broadmindedness and loyalty to his people. Unlike Kruger, who went into exile, Steyn remained on the battle field until the end of the war. Unlike Kruger, Steyn was an educated man; he was less conservative, and had good relationships outside Afrikaner circles – but he was also unwavering in his loyalty to Afrikaner independence and freedom and in his opposition to (what he saw as) grave British injustice.
Steyn was vir Van Wyk Louw ŉ toonbeeld van ‘Liberale nasionalisme’, ŉ konsep waarin Louw sterk geglo het; ŉ konsep wat twee skynbaar teenoorgestelde kenmerke bymekaar bring, naamlik ‘liberalisme’ en ‘nasionalisme’.
While I translated the letters, the relevance of Steyn’s letters for the present South Africa became clear to me. Steyn realised the importance of education for the well-being of his people. Today we need to realise the vital importance of education again; although we should broaden Steyn’s view of education to include all the people of the country.
Ons moet weet: Na die oorlog was Steyn se mense in ŉ haglike situasie – arm, verslaan, verslae. Hy het geweet opvoeding is die sleutel tot heropbou. Hy was in sonderheid bekommerd oor die lot van Afrikaner-meisies, want daar was geen Nederlandse meisieskool in die Vrystaat nie. Opvoeding was vir hom uiters belangrik, nie net vir seuns nie, maar ook vir meisies. Daarom het hy die inisiatief geneem met die stigting van die Oranje Meisieskool in Bloemfontein.
Steyn was in favour of mother tongue education – he feared that Afrikaner culture and identity would be overwhelmed if English would become the sole language of communication in the schools and government. He was convinced of the richness of his Dutch heritage, of its language and culture, and passionate in maintaining it. He argued for the equality of Dutch and English as official languages, because, as Howard Phillips mentioned in his Foreword: Steyn believed, once the Afrikaners’ fear of being overwhelmed by English were removed, the relationship between the two language groups would improve greatly.
Steyn wrote his letters in Dutch, English and Afrikaans, depending on the recipient. He did not make a choice between Dutch and Afrikaans – he did not enter into the debate among Afrikaners on the desirability of Standard Dutch, Simplified Dutch or a developing new language, Afrikaans. The important point for him was to maintain Afrikaner identity, which was linked to language, and both Afrikaans and Dutch could serve that purpose.
To some of his friends, especially Jaap de Villiers, Steyn wrote in Afrikaans. Thereby he showed his sympathy for the developing language, although he is sometimes uncertain about the correct use of Afrikaans.
Ons moet onthou: Sy Afrikaanse briewe is geskryf aan die begin van die 20ste eeu – lank voor die standaardisasie van Afrikaans, en slegs aan die begin van ontwikkelinge wat later die Tweede Afrikaanse Taalbeweging genoem sou word. Afrikaans was nog nie gestandaardiseer nie; daar was nog geen eenstemmigheid oor taalreëls nie. Wanneer hy skryf aan Jaap de Villiers, regsgeleerde en politikus in die Transvaal, soek hy soms hulp vir die regte skryfwyse in Afrikaans; hy is onseker oor die korrekte formulering en spelling. Uit vandag se oogpunt sou ons sê hy skryf ŉ mengsel van Afrikaans en Nederlands, soekend na die korrekte skryfwyse. Dit sien ons onder andere in brief 23 (pp. 61-62), wat hy so afsluit:
‘Soos jy sien is my Afrikaans nog een beekie deur makaar. Wat maak jelle met de z en ch. Gooi jelle hulle weg. Ik schryf nou niet meer nie. Ons zal later praat.’
Brief 51, ook in Afrikaans aan Jaap de Villiers, eindig soos volg:
‘Trap vas en hou jullie lyf renosters. Julli zal nou van alles beschuldig word wat onder de zon is. Pasop net voor eeretitels, dit zal meer breek dan iets anders’ (pp.109-110).
‘Pasop net voor eeretitels’ – beware of honorary titles. Steyn was not someone who strived after honour or riches; his main concern was to remain true to his principles. Today there may be difference of opinion about the choices that Steyn made; there may be criticism against ideological views of his time which he shared; but there can be no doubt about his integrity – the integrity which is so sadly lacking in present South African politics. To return to Van Wyk Louw’s drama and the ‘liberal nationalism’ he found in Steyn: Steyn could play a vital role at the National Convention because he was liberal in his communication with people of different backgrounds and opinions; but he was also influential because he was respected by all, even by those who did not share his nationalism – respected for his suffering and self-sacrifice for the cause in which he believed.