PORTILLO`S EMPIRE JOURNEY Episode 3 South Africa (Channel 5)

Michael Portillo offers a slanted view of South African history

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Editorial note: Portillo’s Empire Journey (Friday) is the latest offering from Channel 5. The first episode focused on India and the second on Jamaica but it is the third on South Africa that this review concerns.

Michael Portillo`s attention has turned, at least temporarily, away from railways to a series on the malign influence of the British Empire. In this episode he investigates the origins of Apartheid, for which he attempts to blame the British. This is such a one-sided version of South African History that it deserves to be challenged. Its fundamental flaw is that it fails to point out that Afrikaners, not British, colonists formed a majority of the white population of South Africa. Apartheid was a policy designed by Afrikaner governments to serve the interests of the Afrikaner population, much of which was working-class and fearful of native African competition in the jobs market. Most of the white English-speaking population went along with it if it seemed to secure white supremacy. Portillo`s is a classic example of a programme designed to reach a pre-ordained conclusion.

Afrikaners (also known as Boers) were descended from Protestant settlers, predominantly Dutch but also some French Hugenots and Germans, who established a colony at the Cape in 1652. Their language, Afrikaans, a variant of Dutch, reflects this. The Cape remained a Dutch colony until 1815 when the Dutch, as a punishment for having supported Napoleon, were forced to cede it to the British. The first British settlers landed in the Eastern Cape (the area around Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown) in 1820, but at no point did they ever form a majority of the white population. When the British government in London abolished slavery in the British Empire in 1833 thousands of Afrikaners protested and migrated to the interior in what is known as the Great Trek, defeated the Zulus in the Battle of Blood River in 1838 and set up their own republics in what came to be known as the Orange Free State (around Bloemfontein) and the Transvaal (around Pretoria). In 1843 the British established another colony on the east coast – Natal (around Durban). So by the 1870s there were four white colonies in South Africa, two Afrikaner and two British. Portillo`s programme, far from explaining any of this, ignores the Afrikaners altogether and begins with the British invasion of Zululand from Natal in 1879.

The Zulu War was the subject of the hit-film “Zulu” in 1964 which focused on the Battle of Rorke`s Drift, defended by greatly outnumbered Redcoats against the spear-brandishing Zulus. Despite a British force having been wiped out on the previous day at Isandlwana, Zululand was overrun by the British in a few months and annexed to Natal. Portillo correctly portrayed the Zulus as victims but failed to point out that they had acquired their land by conquering and subjugating rival tribes some two generations previously under their great warrior leader Shaka.

Portillo then turned his attention to the discovery of gold in 1886. This was in the Transvaal, in Afrikaner (Boer) territory. Prospectors flooded in from all over the world to what became known as Johannesburg. Businessmen, known as Randlords of whom the most famous is Cecil Rhodes (who had already made a fortune from South African diamond mines), acquired ownership of the gold mines. Here Portillo is on surer ground and what follows is by far the most shameful episode in the whole of British involvement in South Africa. Spurred on partly by a wish to bring the gold mines under British control and partly by a fear that the Traansvaal President (Kruger) might favour German influence in the region, they provoked Kruger into launching pre-emptive invasions of British Natal and Cape Colony in 1899. After initial successes, notably at Spion Kop (which became a Liverpool legend) the Boers resorted to guerrilla warfare to which the British responded by herding women and children into the world`s first `concentration camps` in which c28000 died, of whom c22,000 were children (as well as c20,000 black Africans). These were denounced in the House of Commons by a future Prime Minister (Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman) as `methods of barbarism` and were a gift to Nazi propagandists some 40 years later.

Portillo`s portrayal of later South African history is a travesty, resulting from his failure/refusal to recognise the role of the Afrikaners (Boers) who, I repeat, formed a majority of the white population. The four colonies (Cape, Natal, Transvaal, Orange Free State) were combined in 1910 into the Union of South Africa, which remained in the British Empire/Commonwealth until 1961. Economic life was dominated by English-speakers and a large minority of Afrikaners were recognised by the 1920s as forming a `poor white problem` similar to that in the American South in the years after the American Civil War. The Carnegie Commission (1928-32) investigated this and recommended measures including a programme of job reservation for whites. When a predominantly Afrikaner party was elected in 1948, under the leadership of Malan, followed amongst others by Verwoerd, Vorster and P W Botha, it began to implement this and to attempt to secure the future of whites in South Africa by a separation of the races known as Apartheid. Thus, for example, when I travelled on a whites-only overnight train from Johannesburg to Durban in 1982 the porters on the platforms, the ticket collectors, dining car attendants etc. were all white Afrikaners. Their jobs were secure; they had nothing to fear from non-white competition. This is what differentiated Apartheid from policies of white supremacy pursued in British colonies elsewhere in Africa (Rhodesia and Kenya in particular) where there was no poor white problem and fewer restrictions on native African employment. Portillo`s failure to recognise Apartheid as an Afrikaner policy designed to protect the interests of poor whites as well as the maintenance of white supremacy and his attempt to blame the legacy of British colonialism is deeply flawed.

Reviewed by Henry Falconer

Picture: Smerus (David Conway) / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)


1 Comment »

  1. Very interesting and informative article – thank you.


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