The conspiracy against black voters

Alan Kirkland Soga (1861–1938) was a journalist who took up the cause of African voters in the early 20th century. One of four sons of Reverend Tiyo Soga and Janet Burnside, he was sent to Scotland at the age of seven with two of his brothers for his schooling and eventually studied law in Glasgow (Allen, 1904; Switzer, 1997; Odendaal, 2013). On his return to the Cape Colony, he was employed as a civil servant in the native affairs department and applied his legal training as an acting resident magistrate at St Mark’s in southern Transkei. After Cape Prime Minister Cecil Rhodes replaced him with a white and demoted him to a lesser position in the labour department, he angrily resigned and turned to journalism. When the East London leader, Walter Rubusana, established Izwi la Bantu (Voice of the People) in November 1897, Soga was soon appointed its editor. Printed bi-weekly by the Eagle Printing Press Company in East London, it billed itself as the ‘leading Native paper of the Border’ and usually consisted of four pages, three primarily written in isiXhosa and one in English aimed at a European readership.

Izwi was South Africa’s second independent black newspaper, established thirteen years after John Tengo Jabavu’s Imvo Zabantsundu, printed in nearby King Williams Town. Unlike Imvo, which allied itself with a white political party, Izwi stressed the need for a broad African nationalism and was tied to the South African Native Congress (SANC), which established branches in the Eastern Cape. Soga’s Izwi took strong positions criticising the suppression of the Bhambatha rebellion in Natal and other white policies. He also kept abreast of events in England and the United States, and he exchanged copies of Izwi for newspapers from those countries. An admirer of Booker T. Washington,

he was well informed about African American opinion and expressed his desire to convene in America ‘a conference of black men from different parts of the world to discuss the black man’s future and the potential for unity’ (Allen, 1904).

In 1907, British colonial officials announced their intention to merge four of their southern African colonies into a Union of South Africa. White delegates from Natal, Cape, Transvaal and Orange River provinces met in Durban in November 1908 to discuss the formation of a Union. The following February, they announced a draft South Africa Act that ensured whites would dominate the new Union. It stipulated that only men of European descent could serve in Parliament and that African and coloured men would not be allowed to vote in the Transvaal, Natal and Orange River. A small number of male Africans and coloureds in the Cape who met education and property qualifications – about 20,000 voters comprising about 15 per cent of the whole Cape electorate – would retain their franchise.

Before the draft Act was announced, Soga penned an opinion piece in which he argued for maintaining the Cape’s qualified franchise and extending it to the other colonies. He tried to assuage white fears that an expanded black vote would lead to inter-racial marriages and sexual relations and that black voters would ever outnumber white voters. And he did not argue for extending the vote to all blacks. Those Africans like him who qualified for the vote, he observed, were proud of their ‘civilised’ status in contrast with the ‘mass of people to whom they belong (who) are still living in barbarism …’ (Izwi la Bantu, 2 February 1909).

The announcement of the draft Act provoked a harsh reaction from black leaders such as Rubusana, Soga and John Dube. Black delegates representing the four colonies met in Bloemfontein in late March to establish the South African Native Convention (SANC). It was the first time African leaders from all over the country had met together. Soga was selected as the SANC’s general secretary. The SANC accepted the idea of Union, but only if black people were granted equal rights and the qualified franchise for blacks was extended to the whole country.

That was the backdrop for Soga’s editorial, ‘The South African Conspiracy Act and the Natives’, in which he assessed the forces blocking the extension of the black vote. One was the British government, which had missed an opportunity at the signing of the Vereeniging Peace Treaty ending the Anglo-Boer War in 1902 to extend political rights to blacks. Instead, they deferred a decision on this issue until self-government was implemented in the colonies. That ensured that whites would control decisions about any future political dispensation. By the time the draft Act was being considered, political power had shifted to white South African interests, and Soga identified two groups as the ‘storm centre’ of the plot to block the extension of black political rights. The first was white Transvaal politicians who were not prepared to yield on granting any political rights to blacks. The second was the white press (including his hometown newspaper, The Daily Dispatch), which he labelled as ‘representatives of the big lions of plutocracy’. He maintained the white press was owned by and served white capitalist interests, especially the Randlords who were concerned with maintaining segregation and insuring supplies of cheap black labour Soga’s fiery rhetoric did not translate into militant action. Like most members of the black educated elite, he was very conscious of his status and preferred to bring about change through public debates in newspapers and following constitutional processes. Soga’s views certainly made little impact on white leaders. The white National Convention approved the draft Act in May 1909 with no changes in its language and sent a delegation to London to lobby the British Parliament to adopt their Act. In response, the SANC sent its own nine-person delegation to represent black views, but their effort came to naught when Parliament ratified the Act with few changes and the Union of South Africa came into being in May 1910 (Plaut, 2016).

Allen, S.A. 1904. ‘Mr Alan Kirkland Soga’, Coloured American Magazine, February
Odendaal, André. 2013. The Founders. Johannesburg: Jacana Media.
Plaut, Martin. 2016. Promise and Despair: The First Struggle for a Non-Racial South
Africa. Johannesburg: Jacana Media.
Switzer, Les. 1997. South Africa’s Alternative Press Voices of Protest and Resistance
1880s–1960s. New York: Cambridge University Press.

The South African Conspiracy Act and the Natives
Alan Kirkland Soga, Izwi la Bantu, 23 November 1909

The local daily is highly incorrect at us for describing the compromise on the native franchise right under the Union as a great betrayal. We might better have described it as the South African Conspiracy Act. But when the Daily Dispatch accuses us of ‘adopting an inflammatory tone and language calculated to appeal to the worst passions of its readers’, we can but reply that we expected no better from a special leader of a shameless complot … The Dispatch need not be afraid of dividing the whites against the blacks or vice versa. This could not be more surely done than will be done by the present Draft Act if it is permitted to pass in its present form. The ingenuity of that paper’s attempts to appease criticism is only equalled by its aptitude for misrepresenting the true significance of the native position. But we are neither going to be beguiled by the plausibilities of the allied press nor their threats of the possible evils of agitating the native mind, and we are glad to see that it recognises with some misgivings that ‘it is becoming daily more and more clear that a very considerable agitation is about to be undertaken with regard to the Native and Coloured franchise.’ Good! We hope that the natives will throw fear to the winds, and will proceed, as they are accustomed to do in a free country to give free expression to their opinions, and to exercise the constitutional rights of public meeting, in as public a manner and as constitutional a way as the laws of this country permit. Applied to their accomplices at the Cape, the word ‘betrayal’ is most suitable, but the captains of this complot reside in the Transvaal. That is the storm centre, and the centre of political discord in South Africa. The reasons for this conspiracy against the Natives are too deeply rooted in our economic and race question to be satisfactorily dealt with in a brief article. The Daily Dispatch observes that this feeling, ‘call it prejudice’ as Dr Jameson remarked at Grahamstown ‘or call it what you like’, requires time for its removal and argues from that, that the Natives would be wrong in agitating against the Draft Act. It says further: The Cape delegates did all they could short of breaking up the Conference to secure greater privileges for the Coloured people, and indeed a very strenuous attempt was made in the Convention to secure a general franchise which would have fulfilled Mr Rhode’s words – ‘Equal rights for all civilised men.’ But the other Colonies would have either accepted a Union in which the coloured franchise was maintained in the Cape Colony, or of leaving the conference. It also threatens dire consequences – ‘disaster in the breaking up of the Union’ and warns the natives to be careful – ‘in case there will arise in the country an agitation against the Native vote which will sweep it away forever’ … At one stroke they sweep away the work of half a century and the dearest possession of 20,000 voters who represent the more ignorant millions. The educated and cultured few are forced back on the mass to be ruled under guardianship over again … Prejudice in this case however (plausible word) is used as a red herring, for there is no doubt of its existence. It is equally true (and this is the point the Dispatch carefully forgets) it is a prejudice fomented, promoted and kept constantly before the public by a cultured press, the jackals of the big lions of plutocracy which stand to gain by that dirty work, as the idle rich have always stood to gain in every country by degradation of the proletariat. True enough the root of race hatred in this country on the political plane (as witness the Asiatic treatment in the Transvaal) lies in economic reasons, aggravated in the case of the natives by their colour and ignorance, but on the moral plane, it is cunning and capital that keeps alive through a perverted press system those passions and prejudices which would die out quickly were the axe and the guillotine or the hangman’s rope threatened the writers or were they controlled by those Christian principles of which they love to boast. Those who are blind to the attitude of the allied press, and the degrading way which it panders to the basest passions of the ignorant mob, and the lynching theme have overlooked the leading features of the allied press of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Kimberley and need we add East London. These prejudices are kept alive by a crusade of the most offensive description, and so far as they ordinarily refer to the black or coloured section it is as a rule in terms of contempt for their ‘inferiority’, their ‘brutality’, their ‘ruffianism’, their ‘hereditary and irredeemable savagery’, their ‘drunken obscenity and insolence to white men’ and their ‘indecency to white women’. This latter which has now been developed by constant nursing and exaggeration into a hideous Black Peril is a trump card and is placed at the price of the lives of many innocent victims whose lives are forfeit at the nod of any white harridan or kitchen tyrant … Now to trace the conspiracy. It is easily traced by those who have followed contemporary history. The political faction in the principal states have been co-operating in freezing out the educated natives and coloured people while the late war was yet in its infancy … We know at any rate that some of the chief conspirators who arranged the Vereeniging compact were present in the Convention. Today as yesterday they are agreed in ‘sitting on’ the black man. The first notable act in the drama was that dark blot on the Empire – the failure to protect the Native and Coloured rights in the Peace Treaty. That sin rests with the Imperial Government, chiefly through the advisers of the British Cabinet at the end some of whom are sitting on this Convention. It will be remembered (we write from memory) that Clause VIII left the door open for the prospective enfranchisement of the natives when Responsible Government was granted. The Coloured people urged with a reasonableness which has never been refuted that they were excluded from the effect of the Clause. Deputations and petitions were sent to the Home authorities claiming the exercise of solemn treaties, and assurances of protecting the constitutional rights of the native and coloured subjects of the King and also the loyalty and good conduct of both sections, and their fidelity to the British Crown during the war, but the superior strategy of the so-called cultured capitalist class who were now playing their game for cheap labour, intervening with their press, their cables, and confidential men worked for the failure of the legitimate efforts of those people in a good cause …