Oom Paul's People - Howard Hillegas

The Boer Government-Civil and Military

The Constitution, or Grondwet, of the South African Republic is a modified counterpart of that of the United States. It differs in some salient features, but in its entirety it has the same general foundation and the same objects. The executive head of the Government is the President, who is elected for a term of five years. He directs the policy of the Government, suggests the trend of the laws, and oversees the conduct of the Executive Council, which constitutes the real Government. The Executive Council consists of three heads of departments and six unofficial members of the First Raad. These nine officials are the authors of all laws, treaties, and policies that are proposed to the Volksraads, which constitute the third part of the Government. There are two Volksraads, one similar in purpose to our Senate, and the other, the second Volksraad, not unlike our House of Representatives, but with far less power.

The first Volksraad consists of twenty-seven members elected from and by the burghers, or voters, who were born in the country. A naturalized burgher is ineligible to the upper House. The twenty-seven members of the Second Raad are naturalized burghers, and are voted for only by men who have received the franchise. The second House has control of the management of the Government works, telephones, mails, and mines, and has but little voice in the real government of the country. Its members are undoubtedly more progressive and have more modern ideas than those of the First Raad, and introduce many bills which would be of undoubted benefit to the country, but the upper House invariably vetoes all bills that reach them from that Raad. The First Raad receives bills and suggestions from the Executive Council or from the President him-self, but refers them to a commission for investigation before any action is taken upon them. The evidence in support of proposed measures does not reach the Raad, which only concerns itself with the report of the commission. The Raad can, by motion, make a suggestion to the Executive Council that a certain measure should be formulated, but the Executive Council and the President have the authority to ignore the suggestion, leaving the First Raad without a vestige of authority. The upper House concerns itself chiefly with the questions of finance, changes in the Constitution, and the care of the natives. As the question of finance is so closely connected with almost every subject that comes before the Government, it follows that the First Raad concerns itself with practically the entire business of the Government. The popular conception is that the Second Raad, being composed of naturalized citizens, takes less interest in the affairs of the country, and can therefore be less safely trusted with their conduct than the old burghers and Voortrekkers of the upper House, who would rather declare war against a foreign power than pass a law in the least unfavourable to their own country's interests. In consequence of the Second Raad's infinitesimal powers, almost the entire law-making power of the Government is vested in the Executive Council and the First Raad.

The First Raad of the Transvaal Republic is the direct successor of the democratic form of government that was established by the Voortrekkers of 1835 when they were journeying from Cape Colony to the northern lands. The Second Raad was established in 1890, in order that the Uitlanders might have representation in the government of the country. It was believed that the newly arrived population would take advantage of the opportunities thus offered to take part in the legislation of the republic, and in that way bridge over the gulf which had been formed between the two races. The Uitlanders cared little for the privilege offered to them, and so far in the history of the Second Raad less than half a score of its members have been elected by the new population.

The annual sessions of the Volksraads commence on the first Monday in May, and continue until all the business of the republic has been transacted. The members of the two Houses receive fifteen dollars a day, and seventy-five cents an hour for services extending over more than the five hours a day required by the law. The chairmen, or voorzitters, of the Raads receive seventeen dollars and fifty cents a day, and one dollar an hour for extra time.

The sessions of the Raad are held in the new million-dollar Government House in the central part of the town of Pretoria, and are open to the public except when executive business is being transacted. The Raad chambers are exquisitely fitted out with rich furniture and tapestries, the windows are of costly stained glass, and the walls lavishly decorated with carved wood and fine paintings of the country's notable men. On a lofty elevation facing the entrance to the First Raad chamber is a heavily carved mahogany desk, behind which is seated the chairman. On his right is a seat for the President, while on the right side of that are the nine chairs for the Executive Council. Directly in front and beneath the chairman's desk are the desks of the three official secretaries, and in front of these, in semicircular form, the two rows of seats and desks of the Raad members. In the rear of the chamber on either side of the entrance are chairs for visitors, while high in the left side of the lofty chamber is a small balcony for the newspaper men.

All the members of the Raad are obliged by law to wear black clothing and white neckties. This law was framed to prevent some of the rural members from appearing in their burgher costumes, and has had the effect of making of the Boer Raads a most sombre-looking body of lawmakers. Almost all members wear long frock-coats, silk hats, and heavy black boots, and when, during the recesses, they appear on the piazza of the Government Building with huge pipes in their mouths, the wisdom of the black-clothing law is not apparent. There is little formality in the proceedings of the Raads. Certain rules are necessarily followed, but the members attack a bill in much the same vehement manner as they would a lion or a panther. There is little eloquence in the taal, or dialect, that is spoken in the Raads, and the similes and metaphors bespeak the open veldt and the transport path rather than the council chamber of a nation.

The black-garbed legislators make no pretensions to dignified procedure, and when a playful member trips another so that he falls to the floor, or pelts him with paper balls, the whole Raad joins in laughter. The gaudily dressed pages—one of them is sixty-five years old and wears a long beard—are on terms of great familiarity with the members, and have become mildly famous throughout the country on account of some practical jokes they have perpetrated upon the members. It is only justice to say that these light proceedings take place only when the President is not present. When he arrives in the chamber every one rises and remains standing until the President has seated himself. He generally takes a deep interest in the subjects before the House, and not infrequently speaks at length upon measures for which he desires a certain line of action. Many of President Kruger's most important speeches have been delivered to the Raads, and so great is his influence over the members that his wishes are rarely disregarded. When he meets with opposition to his views he quickly loses his temper, and upon one occasion called a certain member who opposed him a traitor, and angrily left the chamber. A short time afterward he returned and apologized to the member and to the Raad for having in his anger used unseemly language.

One of the most disappointing scenes to be observed in Pretoria is the horde of Uitlander politicians and speculators who are constantly besieging the Raad members and the Government officials. At probably no other national capital are the legislators tempted to such a great extent as are the Boers, who, for the most part, are ignorant of the ways of the world and unfamiliar with great amounts of money. Every train from Johannesburg, the Uitlander capital, takes to Pretoria scores of lobbyists, who use all their powers, both of persuasion and finance, to influence the minds of the legislators, either in the way of granting valuable concessions for small considerations or of securing the passage of bills favourable to the lobbyists. It is no wonder that the Uitlanders declare that less than one fourth of the Raad members are unassailably honest and that all the others can be bribed. The Boer alone is not blameworthy who, having never possessed more than one hundred dollars at one time, yields to the constant importunities of the lobbyist and sells his vote for several thousand dollars.

Beset by such influences, the Raad members are naturally suspicious of every bill that is brought before them for consideration. Their deliberations are marked by a feeling of insecurity akin to that displayed by the inhabitants of a sheep-pen surrounded by a pack of hungry wolves. They fear to make a move in any direction lest their motives be misunderstood, or they play into the hands of the Uitlanders. As a consequence of this external pressure, progress in the improvement of the methods of governing the country has been slow. One of the results of the Volksraad's fearfulness is the absence of local governments throughout the republic. There are no municipalities, counties, or townships which can formulate and execute local laws. Even Johannesburg, a city of one hundred thousand population, has no municipal government, although several attempts have been made to establish one.

The Raads are burdened with the necessity of attending to all the details which govern the administration of every city, village, hamlet, and district in the entire country, and the time consumed in doing all this leaves little for the weightier affairs of state. If a five-dollar road bridge is required in an out-of-the-way place in the northern part of the republic, the Raad is obliged to discuss the matter. If an application for a liquor license comes from a distant point in the interior, the Raad is compelled to investigate its character before it can be voted upon. The disadvantages of this system are so evident that it is hardly conceivable that no remedy has been applied long ago, but the fear of local mismanagement has prevented the Raad from ridding itself of this encumbrance upon its time and patience.

Every legislature of whatever country has its idiosyncracies, and the Raad is no exception. Laws are upon the statute books of some of the American States that are quite as remarkable as some of those made by the Boer legislators. Bills quite as marvellous have been introduced and defeated in the legislatures of all countries. The Boer Volksraad has no monopoly of men with quaint ideas. The examples of Raad workmanship here given are rare, but true nevertheless:

A man named Dums, whose big farm on the border became British territory through a treaty, sued the Transvaal Government for damages, whereupon the Raad passed a law that Dums could never sue the Government for anything. The High Court sustained the law, and Dums is now a poor cab-driver in Pretoria. Another man sued the Government for damages for injuries resulting from a fall in the street. He was successful in his suit, but the Raad immediately thereafter passed a law making it impossible for any person to sue the Government for injuries received on public property.

During a severe drought in the Transvaal an American professional rain-maker asked the Raad for a concession allowing him the exclusive privilege to precipitate rain by means of explosives in the air. The Raad had a long and animated discussion on the subject, owing to the opposition of several of the less enlightened members, who declared that the project was sacrilegious. "It is a sin," they declared, "to poke your fingers in the Lord's eye to make him weep." The abiding faith which some of the Raad members have in divine guidance is illustrated by a discussion that took place in the body shortly after the Jameson raid. One member declared that "the Lord will assist us in this matter if we will only bide our time," whereupon another member rose and said, "If we do not soon get down to business and do something without the Lord's assistance, the Lord will take a holiday and let the Transvaal go to hell." A law which was in effect for almost two years made it a misdemeanour for any one to sing "God save the Queen" or "Rule Britannia" in the country. Mass meetings are prohibited in the Transvaal, but Germany and other countries with less political foment have equally stringent regulations on the same subject, so the Uitlanders' grievance on that account is nullified.

Second to that of the Volksraad, the highest power in the Government of the country is the High Court, which is composed of some of the ablest jurists in South Africa. From a constitutional standpoint the High Court has no right or power to review the acts of the Volksraad. The Constitution of the country gives supreme power to the Volksraad in all legislative matters, and when a chief justice of the High Court recently attempted to extend his jurisdiction over the acts of the Volksraad that body unceremoniously dismissed him. The purpose of that part of the Constitution which relates to the subjugation of the High Court is to prevent some influential enemy of the republic from debauching the High Court and in that way defying the authority of the Volksraad. In a country which has so many peculiar conditions and circumstances to contend with, the safety of its institutions depends upon the centralization of its legislative and administrative branches, and the wisdom of the early burghers who framed the Constitution so that the entire governing power lay in the hands of the country's real patriots has been amply demonstrated upon several occasions.

The civil and criminal laws of the country are administered throughout the different political divisions by local magistrates, called land-drosts, who also collect the revenues of the district and inform the Volksraad of the needs of the people under their jurisdiction. The land-drost is the prototype of the old-time American country squire, in that he settles disputes, awards damages, and conducts official business generally. In the majority of cases the land-drosts are aged persons who have the respect and esteem of the members of the community in which they dwell and to whom they bear the relation of fatherly advisers in all things. In Johannesburg and Pretoria the land-drosts are men of eminent station in the legal profession of South Africa, and are drawn from all parts of the country, regardless of their political or racial qualifications. All the court proceedings are conducted in the Dutch language, and none but Dutch-speaking lawyers are admitted to practise before the bar. The law of the land is Holland-Roman.

The military branch of the Government is undoubtedly the best and most effective because it is the simplest. It is almost primitive in its simplicity, yet for effectiveness its superior is not easily found. The Transvaal glories in its army, and, as every man between the ages of sixteen and sixty is a nominal member of the army, nothing is left undone to make it worthy of its glory. The standing army of the republic numbers less than two hundred men, and these are not always actively engaged. A detachment of about twenty soldiers is generally on duty in the vicinity of the Government House at Pretoria, and the others are stationed at the different forts throughout the republic. The real army of the Transvaal, however, is composed of the volunteer soldiers, who can be mobilized with remarkable facility.

The head of the army is the commandant-general, who has his headquarters in Pretoria. He is under the immediate jurisdiction of the Volksraad and the President, who have the power to declare war and direct its conduct. Second in authority to the commandant-general are the commandants, permanent officials who have charge of the military affairs of the seventeen districts of the republic. Under the old South African burgher law each commandant in any emergency "commandeers" a certain portion of men from his district.

The various districts are subdivided into divisions in charge of field-cornets and assistant field-cornets. As soon as the commandant-general issues an order for the mobilization of the volunteer army the commandants and their assistants, the field-cornets, speedily go from one house to another in their districts and summon the burghers from their homes. When the burgher receives the call, he provides his own gun, horse, and forage, and hastens to the district rendezvous, where he places himself under the orders of the field-cornet. After all the burghers of the district have gathered together, the body proceeds into an adjoining district, where it joins the forces that have been similarly mobilized there. As a certain number of districts are obliged to join their forces at a defined locality, the forces of the republic are consequently divided into different army divisions under the supervisions of the commandants.

In the event that Pretoria were threatened with attack, the order would be given to move all the forces to that city. The districts on the border would gather their men and march toward Pretoria, carrying with them all the forces of the districts through which they were obliged to pass. So simple and perfect is the system that within forty-eight hours after the call is issued by the commandant-general four army divisions, representing the districts in the four quarters of the republic and consisting of all the able-bodied men in the country, can be mobilized on the outskirts of Pretoria. It is doubtful whether there is another nation on earth that can gather its entire fighting strength at its seat of government in such a brief time.

The Transvaal Boer is constantly prepared for the call to arms. He has his own rifle and ammunition at his home, and when the call comes he need only bridle his horse—if he is so fortunate as to possess an animal so rare in the Transvaal—stuff several pounds of biltong, or dried beef, in his pockets, and commence the march over the veldt to the district rendezvous. He can depend upon his wife and children to care for the flocks and herds; but if the impending danger appears to be great, the cattle are deserted and the women and children are taken to a rendezvous specially planned for such an emergency. If there is a need, the Boer woman will stand side by side with her husband or her brother or her sweetheart, and will allow no one to surpass her in repelling the attacks of the enemy. Joan of Arcs have been as numerous in the Boer armies as they have been unheralded.

The head of the military branch of the Transvaal Government for many years has been Commandant-General P. J. Joubert, who, following President Kruger, is the ablest as well as the most popular Boer in South Africa. General Joubert is the best type of the Boer fighter in the country, and as he represents the army, he has always been a favourite with the class which would rather decide a disputed point by means of the rifle than by diplomacy, as practised by President Kruger. General Joubert, although the head of the army, is not of a quarrelsome disposition, and he too believes in the peaceful arbitration of differences rather than a resort to arms. By the Uitlanders he is considered to be the most liberal Boer in the republic, and he has upon numerous occasions shown that he would treat the newcomers in the country with more leniency than the Kruger Government if he were in power.

In his capacity of Vice-President of the republic he has been as impotent as the Vice-President is in the United States, but his influence has always been wielded with a view of harmonizing the differences of the native and alien populations. Twice the more liberal and progressive party of the Boers has put him forward as a candidate for the presidency in opposition to Mr. Kruger, and each time he has been defeated by only a small majority. The younger Boers who have come in touch with the more modern civilization have steadfastly supported General Joubert, while the older Boers, who are ever fearful that any one but Mr. Kruger would grant too many concessions to the Uitlanders, have wielded their influence against him. Concerning the franchise for Uitlanders, General Joubert is more liberal than President Kruger, who holds that the stability of the Government depends upon the exclusiveness of the franchise privilege. General Joubert believes that there are many persons among the Uitlanders who have a real desire to become citizens of the republic and to take part in the government. He believes that an intending burgher should take an oath of fidelity, and afterward be prepared to do what he can for the country, either in peace or war. If after three or four years the applicant for the franchise has shown that he worked in the interests of the country and obeyed its laws, General Joubert believes that the Uitlander should enjoy all the privileges that a native burgher enjoys—namely, voting for the candidates for the presidency and the First Volksraad.

General Joubert's name has been connected with Transvaal history almost as long and as prominently as that of President Kruger. The two men are virtually the fathers of the Boer republic. General Joubert has always been the man who fought the battles with armies, while Mr. Kruger conducted the diplomatic battles, and both were equally successful in their parts. General Joubert, as a youth among the early trekkers from Natal, was reared amid warfare. During the Transvaal's early battles with the natives he was a volunteer soldier under the then Commandant-General Kruger, and later, when the war of independence was fought, he became General Joubert. He commanded the forces which fought the battles of Laing's Nek, Bronkhorst Spruit, and Majuba Hill, and he was one of the triumvirate that conducted the affairs of the Government during that crucial time. He has been Vice-President of the republic since the independence of the country has been re-established, and conducted the affairs of the army during the time when Jameson's troopers threatened the safety of the country. He has had a notable career in the service of his country, and as a reward for his services he is deserving of nothing less than the presidency of the republic after Mr. Kruger's life-work is ended.

General Joubert is no less distinguished as a diplomatist among his countrymen than President Kruger, and many stories are current in Pretoria showing that he has been able to accomplish many things wherein Mr. Kruger failed. An incident which occurred immediately after the Jameson raid, and which is repeated here exactly as related by one of the participants of the affair, is illustrative of General Joubert and his methods of dealing with his own people. The story is given in almost the exact language of the narrator who was the eyewitness:

"Shortly after Jameson and his officers were brought to Pretoria, President Kruger called about twenty of the Boer commanders to his house for a consultation. The townspeople were highly excited, and the presence of the men who had tried to destroy the republic aggravated their condition so that there were few calm minds in the capital. President Kruger was deeply affected by the seriousness of the events of the days before, but counselled all those present to be calm. There were some in the gathering who advised that Jameson and his men should be shot immediately, while one man jocosely remarked that they should not be treated so leniently, and suggested that a way to make them suffer would be to cut off their ears.

"One of the men who was obliged to leave the meeting gave this account to the waiting throngs in the street, and a few hours afterward the cable had carried the news to Europe and America, with the result that the Boers were called brutal and inhuman. President Kruger used all his influence and eloquence to save the lives of the prisoners, and for a long time he was unsuccessful in securing the smallest amount of sympathy for Jameson and his men. It was dawn when General Joubert was won to the President's way of thinking, and he continued the argument in behalf of the prisoners.

"'My friends, I will ask you to listen patiently to me for several minutes,' he commenced. 'I will tell you the story of the farmer and the neighbour's dog. Suppose that near your farm lives a man whose valuable dogs attack your sheep and kill many. Will you shoot the dogs as soon as you see them, and in that way make yourself liable for damages greater than the value of the sheep that were destroyed? Or will you catch the dogs when you are able to do so and, carrying them to your neighbour, say to him: "I have caught your dogs; now pay me for the damage they have done me, and they shall be returned to you."

"After a moment's silence General Joubert's face lighted up joyfully, and he exclaimed:

"'We have the neighbour's dogs in the jail. What shall we do with them?'

"The parable was effective, and the council of war decided almost instantly to deliver the prisoners to the British Government."