by Hannes Wessels
Reading Richard Steyn’s excellent account (Louis Botha: A Man Apart) of the life and times of General Louis Botha was enlightening, enjoyable but also saddening. Despite the best efforts of the author and publisher I fear the story of this remarkable man will soon be known to only a tiny few because he’s a white Afrikaner; and history today is dominated by a narrative that vilifies Europeans and glorifies Africans. This is a terrible shame because there are good and bad on both sides of the racial divide and this is an important point about the humanity of our world that should positively influence the development of the younger generation that will inherit it. The conventional wisdom has become horribly partisan and the history of the European in Africa focuses almost entirely on slavery, colonialism and exploitation of the many by the privileged and pitiless few. This is why Botha’s story will not find its way into many classrooms or lecture theatres.
Reading the book, I reminded myself that we are routinely bombarded with the history of the ‘previously disadvantaged’ who suffered at the hands of an avaricious white minority that grabbed all the best schools, best land and best business opportunities for themselves. This is done, dare we forget that we ‘palefaces’ must pay for the sins of our forefathers until death do us part. But Botha’s life was hardly the ‘privileged’ one we are all expected to assume.
Coming from a large family his early life was frugal and tough and he worked the family farm from a very young age. His education was brief and rudimentary at a local mission school. Unlike Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela, Cyril Ramaphosa and other lionised icons of the ‘liberation movement’, he never got a sniff of a proper secondary school or a university. His family could not afford it; farming on the frontier was tough, dangerous and impecunious. So, yes, he went out as teenager in search of land to improve the family fortunes and ended up fighting for it but he did so alongside Blacks at the behest of local chiefs who needed the martial skills of the young Boers to grow their own fiefdoms. As with so much South African history this was not a simple Black versus White story.
However, this baptism of early fire prepared the young Afrikaner for bigger battles to come against the English in successive Boer wars. A pacifist at heart, he entered the fray reluctantly but his sense of duty and loyalty to the ‘volk’ drove him to fight bravely and brilliantly, emerging at the end of the conflict alongside Smuts, De La Rey and De Wet as one of the country’s greatest combat commanders.
But fame and a huge following came at a price and again, with a measure of reluctance, he was drawn ever deeper into a toxic political arena polluted by hostility between the vanquished Afrikaners and the victorious English. Despite having suffered appalling hardship and being witness to the virtual destruction of his people, Botha was relentless in his desire to forgive the enemy and forge a new future in partnership with his former foes.
Opprobrium and threats to his life from his former brothers in arms troubled him deeply but did not deter him from reaching for the seemingly impossible goal of national unity. He knew a divided country would not be in the long term interests of the majority and he wanted better lives for all. Through courage and a measure of cunning he succeeded and the Union of South Africa became a political reality in May 1910. The stage was set, thanks in a big way to Botha, for the construction of what would become, the most industrialised, most developed, most prosperous and most powerful country in Africa. But none of our children know this. They have all heard about the magnanimity of Nelson Mandela but not a whisper about Botha.
No sooner was this achieved when war broke out in Europe and Botha, along with Smuts had to again take the lead on the hustings and on the battlefield and the leadership of these two men proved decisive to the outcome that resulted in German surrender. Botha, personally planned and commanded a masterful campaign in South West Africa that brought about a swift German surrender but triumphalism was never part of the man’s personality.
In interacting with the leaders of all the victorious great powers at the convention in Versailles to preside over the terms of a treaty with the defeated Germans, Botha was again a powerful proponent of peace without excessive punishment. He asked those, including the vengeful presidents of France and the United States to take a lesson from the foresight the British had shown in drafting and signing the Treaty of Vereeniging which formally ended the Boer War. Here he pointed out, the victors had shown commendable restraint and benevolence towards the Boers which had provided him and his supporters with the traction they needed to heal the wounds of war and encourage the unity that would revitalise the country. He warned his colleagues that vengeance visited upon Germany would almost certainly lead, at some stage in the future, to another conflagration. Sadly, he was right and the greatest man-made tragedy of all time was yet to come.
There is much more to be gleaned from this wonderful book. But out of this story, the most valuable lesson to be learned from the life of this extraordinary man, that is missing from the chronicles of all our erstwhile ‘liberators’ and most contemporary politicians, is the one about country before self. We live in a land being crippled by corruption, where fraud and theft permeates every government department and organ of state. And this is why I found this so riveting a read; it is about a South African prime minister who eschewed the pursuit of political power for any reason other than a sense of duty, a desire to serve and because he loved his country. And in the process he never stole a solitary cent.