Here are two reviews of my book. I think they are both very generous.

The first is by Professor Keith Somerville and the second by Paul Trewhela, a former South African political prisoner.


Perfidious Albion – Britain’s shameful role in blocking a non-racial franchise in the Union of South Africa

Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right”
Martin Luther King Jr.

Perfidious Albion is a phrase that was much used in the late 18th and early 19th century to describe Britain’s reputation in Europe for bad faith, reneging on agreements and to back up accusations of outright treachery in her diplomacy and treaty making. It’s origins are obscure a 17th century French Catholic bishop and theologian wrote of Perfidious Albion in a poem attacking England ( Jacques Bénigne Bossuet, “Sermon pour la fête de la Circoncision de Notre-Seigneur” in: Oeuvres complètes, Volume 5, Ed. Outhenin-Chalandre, 1840, p.264).

The phrase, perhaps picked up from the French Catholic theologian, was used by Irish Catholics to describe England’s decision to renege on commitments to Catholic rights in Ireland made in the Treaty of Limerick in 1691, at the end of the war between English Protestant forces loyal to William III and Catholic Jacobites. The treaty promised favourable terms to the Irish Catholics, including freedoms to worship, own property and carry arms.  The provisions of the treaty were the reversed by the Penal Laws introduced in 1695.

The expression was picked up againt by French revolutionary writers in the 1790s, when Britain opted to join the old, autocratic monarchies of Europe in fighting the new revolutionary government and then Napoleon.

Much more recently it was used by Ian Smith, Prime Minister of the white supremacist, settler minority government in Southern Rhodesia. In his book, The Great Betrayal (London: John Blake, 1997) he bewails Britain’s supposed treachery towards the whites of southern Rhodesia and it is said he viewed the British Conservative Foreign Secretary as the embodiment of Perfidious Albion ( Independent 22 November 2007,  It is ironic that Smith thought Britain treacherous because of its demand that the franchise be extended to black Africans, as the main subject of this article is an earlier example of British perfidy in reneging on promises to black and Coloured South Africans of a non-racial franchise when the Union of South Africa was negotiated after the Second South African (Boer War), which ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging in 1902.

This example of gross bad faith helped lay the foundations of apartheid by legitimising the exclusion of non-whites from the new Union’s legislatures, denying them the franchise in the old Boer republics that became part of the Union and establishing the means by which the black and Coloured voters could be eventually disenfranchised in the Cape.  How this happened is narrated in the meticulously researched and crisply written new study of the failed attempts by a coalition of black, Coloured and white leaders to establish a non-racial franchise in the Union settlement and protect black and Coloured Cape voters by Martin Plaut (Promise and Despair. The First Struggle for a Non-Racial South Africa, Auckland Park, Jacana, 2016).

Plaut book

The book has been published at an interesting time, when some politicians and academics in South Africa, notably Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters and Professor Patrick Bond, have been criticising the 1996 “Mandela” constitution for limiting restitution of land and other resources to the black majority following the dismantling of apartheid (detailed by Justice Edwin Cameron of the South African Constitutional Court in a lecture at South Africa House, London, 21 July 2016). Constitution-making is a complex, long-drawn-out process involved much political horse-trading and legal argument, as Plaut’s very clear narrative emphasises.  If there were some faults or failures in the 1996 constitution – the SA Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron said in London on 21 July 2016 the failings have not been in the constitution in itself but in the failure of the ANC government and civil society to exploit its untapped potential for change and restitution of expropriated land – then the 1910 Union constitution’s failings were legion. The failings were the results of a desire of the British government not simply to reconcile with the Afrikaner republics they had just fought but to forge an alliance.  And there were global strategic reasons for this, as Plaut succinctly identifies: The British government, threatened by the rise of German military power and determined to have a united South Africa as part of its Imperial defences,  was keen to press ahead with Union. (p.113)

The British fear of impending war in Europe and the need to bring South Africa – with its all-important control of sea routs round the Cape and possession of ports at Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban – into the union of Britain and its foreign dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Newfoundland) that could be called upon to supply men and material to support the war effort, should it come to that.  The book sets out very clearly that not only did the British government not want to antagonise the Afrikaner members of the projected union by pressing for a union-wide, non-racial franchise and for the right of non-white to sit in legislatures, but also was aware of the colour bars in Australia and the opposition of the dominions to interference by London in what white settlers in them saw as their domestic affairs.  This is detailed and sourced convincingly by Plaut.

He provides a clear,  very well-illustrated and sourced narrative of the attempt by a delegation of black, Coloured and white politicians who travelled to London in the summer of 1909 to try to protect the non-racial franchise in the Cape and to enshrine the principle of a non-racial franchise based on property and educational qualifications rather than race on the constitution of the planned Union of South Africa. As one of the delegation,  the political activist and Xhosa newspaper editor John Tengo Jabavu, wrote: They (the black people of South Africa) were assured by governors, governors’ agents, officials and missionaries of the absolute justice, freedom and liberty, with discrimination of color, they would enjoy under the British government. (Plaut, p. 123). He was supported by other leaders of the delegation the former Cape premier, William Schreiner, Cape coloured leader Dr Abdbullah Abdurahman, the teacher and black rights activist Dr Walter Rubasana; they also had backing from Gandhi, who was in London representing the interests of South African Indians. The delegation tried to press the case for a non-racial franchise and had the support of the British Labour Party under Keir Hardies, radical liberals such as Sir Charles Dilke and the progressive press.

But the arguments for justice and equality could not compete with political expediency and the desire to bring Afrikanerdom into the imperial fold for strategic and also economic reason, the latter based on the lucrative mining industries.  The non-racial delegations active representation of non-website rights came to nothing and the intransigence of Jan Smuts, Louis Botha and John Merriman over the refusal of a union-wide non-racial franchise, the prevention of non-whites becoming members of elected legislative bodies and the provision for a future removal of voting rights in the Cape triumphed leading to the adoption of a constitution for the Union of South Africa that was discriminatory and excluded the vast majority of its population from political rights.

What is amazing – beyond the cold-blooded expediency of British politicians – is how little of this detailed and very valuable narrative has appeared before in histories of South Africa (barely a mentioned, for example, in James Barber’s otherwise excellent South Africa in the Twentieth Century,  or Leonard Thompson’s fine work, A History of South Africa).

As the author points out at the start of the second chapter, “Ask almost any South African when the vote was extended to black people and the answer will invariably be 1994…Inside and outside the country almost non  one questions the assumption that 27 April 1994 marked the moment when the first non-racial election was ever held in South Africa. This is clearly incorrect. (p.14)

The book then details how any person with sufficient property could vote in the Cape from 1836 could vote in elections. This was then enshrined in the non-racial franchise established in the Cape in 1853. Natal had a far more limited franchise while the Afrikaner republics in Transvaal and the Free State denied political rights to non-whites. Britain’s acquiescence in the face of Afrikaner intransigence set the precedent for the progressive disenfranchisement of non-white South Africans and established the institutional and legal foundations on which apartheid could be built. It also gave impetus to the establishment of a national African movement pledged to fight for political, social and economic rights – the African national Congress, which would include among its leader members of the unsuccessful delegation, John Tengo Jabavu and Walter Rubasana.

Professor Keith Somerville teaches at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, and edits the Africa – News and Analysis website ( His latest book, Africa’s Long Road Since Independence. The Many Histories of a Continent (Lonfon: Hurst and Co) was published in December 2015. He led the BBC World Service news programme team covering the elections in South Africa in April-May 1994.

A century of voter struggles

Mail & Guardian

Martin Plaut’s book on the disenfranchisement of black voters in 1909 suggests comparison with today’s inflammatory party-list system

Paul Trewhela

Mail & Guardian
22 July 2016


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 disenfranchisement 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 Zuma government metaphorically in place of the governments of generals Louis Botha, Smuts and JBM Hertzog.

Over the long – initially peaceful, then contestational and finally violent – struggles of the last century against minority white dictatorship, the time-frame of the book’s title, Promise and Despair, 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 Martin 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 2012 – 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 Mohandas 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 last 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 Cape Colony, Sir John Molteno) who resisted the imposition of racist, dictatorial exclusion.

The judgement of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, the intrepid defence of constitutional propriety by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, the ongoing current application to the South Gauteng High Court by five Umkhonto 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 the former Cosatu leader Jay Naidoo told Melanie Verwoerd on EyeWitnessNews 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 DA, 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 per cent 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 non-racial franchise, 14.8 per cent of its electorate were African and Coloured voters.

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 23 June 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 non-racial 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 non-racial nucleus of South African political leaders: Mahatma (or “great soul”) Gandhi.

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 sugar cane fields, mines and railways in Natal against harsh racist repression gained its full strength in South Africa over 40 years later, in the Defiance Campaign.

While the attention of the non-racial deputation of campaigners in London in 1909 was on the issue of the franchise, that question was settled in the Interim Constitution of 1993 and the first nonracial general election in 1994.

What is far from settled, 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.