17 Jun 2011

 Cape Times

A window on the Union years




The collection offers insights into people and events that shaped  South Africa

THIS collection is a significant addition to the Van Riebeeck Society’s roster of publications of South African historical documents. It is also entertaining and accessible and should appeal to a wide readership.

An unlikely friendship between a son of a Scottish crofter and a daughter of the aristocratic Cecil family was conducted mainly by letter for a period of nearly 40 years. Covering the time of reconstruction after the Anglo-BoerWar (1899-1902) right through to the outbreak of World War II, this collection offers behind-the-scenes insights into the events and leading personalities which shaped present-day South Africa.

Patrick Duncan was educated in a rural parish school and became a brilliant Oxford graduate, joining the Imperial civil service as a member of the Milner Kindergarten. He came to South Africa in 1907 when Maud Selborne was in Pretoria as the wife of Lord Selborne, British High Commissioner, who was a significant figure in the run-up to Union. It is plain in this collection that Duncan’s far-sighted and reconciliatory influence at critical stages of South Africa’s development was rather more significant than has been realised.

There is no evidence that this correspondence was anything more than an affectionate meeting of two wide-ranging minds – an intellectual friendship between two people who shared a common interest in the politics of the day. Duncan married Alice Dold in 1916.

He was an idealistic liberal imperialist of unquestioned integrity, a gifted writer and a perceptive and sometimes sharp-tongued and ironic observer and analyst of public affairs. He was an intensely private man, shy and reserved, which many years later became a trouble to him when carrying out ceremonial and social duties as Governor General of the Union of South Africa. He had no small talk, as Lavin tells us in her introduction, and he had no taste for social “junketings”.

Lady Selborne was well-connected and well informed about British politics and foreign policy at the highest levels. She was fascinated by South Africa and its racial dilemmas and was a shrewd, pragmatic analyst of the politics of the Union and of Britain alike.

Duncan’s initial assessment of Afrikaners and their leaders Smuts and Hertzog was hardly flattering. In 1908 we find him writing about the “obstinate and ignorant prejudice of the Boer”. He describes Hertzog as a “real fanatic. I think he is mentally unbalanced.” Yet personally Hertzog was quite nice and pleasant, he wrote.

He is equally scathing about the English of the towns and their apathy towards “anything outside their material interests”. He is particularly scornful of the English of Natal and he is severe in his criticism of the mining magnates of the Rand, specially Lionel Phillips and the Chamber of Mines, whose attitudes towards black mine labourers disgusted him. He is less severe if rather patronising in his comments on Abe Bailey: “an interesting sort of creature who does not do any real harm politically”.

As Lavin notes, it is perhaps difficult a century later to appreciate how “imperial” the framework of thinking was in the early years after 1910. Duncan was to abandon or modify substantially these early impressions.

He had arrived in this country as an apostle of Empire. Slowly his outlook changed as he experienced the realities of South African life and politics. He became a member of Parliament in 1910 and stayed the course in politics until he was appointed Governor General of the Union by Hertzog in 1936. By the 1930s he had become South African in his outlook although disenchanted by the petty-minded and mean-spirited tone of party politics, especially at election time. In a moment of exasperation he complains to Lady Selborne: “Sometimes our politics seem like a game played in a mental hospital.”

By the 1920s and 1930s he had come to appreciate both Hertzog and Smuts. He said of Smuts that he liked working with him very much. “He has a big outlook and an educated mind… He is a big man and has grown much since the war.”

And Duncan says after a series of 1932 meetings with Hertzog, before the coming together of the Smuts and Hertzog parties, that nothing could have been fairer or more friendly than his attitude. He believed Hertzog to be genuine.

Yet Duncan never changed his liberal views about the treatment of blacks in South Africa, which assailed his conscience and made him doubt whether there was a longterm future for whites in South Africa.

He deplored the pass laws and conditions on the mines as akin to slavery. “If I had to live with some of our magnates or in the atmosphere of the Rand Club, I should feel that the time was ripe for revolution.”

Lavin has edited and introduced this collection as a fine work of scholarship which is at the same time accessible to all South Africans who believe that a knowledge of their country’s past is a useful guide to its future.