Despised colonial calamity continues more than 120 years later

Looted Gold raises new questions about the land and gold-grabbing antics of Paul Kruger

Voortrekkers fighting off the Ndebele at Vegkop.

You’d be hard-pressed to ignore the calamities that grew out of the land-grabbing antics of the colonial powers more than a century ago.

Today, we look back in amazement at the arrogance of those all-pervasive antics while we gnash our teeth at the current blatant hijacking of sovereign countries undertaken by the likes of Russia and China.

Trevor Noah’s remarkably apt cameo of the British arriving in India to claim that huge country as their own springs to mind as an amusing, if deadly, example of empire-building back in the day.

Several European powers had a go at imposing their dominance over the southern tip of Africa in the early days. The Dutch, the French and the British vied over the years to raise their flags over the entire sub-continent, not forgetting that the Portuguese and the Germans managed to ‘acquire’ vast tracts of land on the east and west coasts. The British finally prevailed with the establishment of the Cape Colony and the Colony of Natal, although, as we well know, covetous eyes were cast in the direction of diamond and gold mines established inland.

Farmers of Dutch descent living in the outmost reaches of the Cape Colony were riled by Britain’s abolition of slavery in 1833. ( The slippery decision by British authorities to pay compensation for the freeing of slaves, but only if the farmers travelled to Britain to claim the money, was possibly the final straw for those hardy burghers.

Paul Kruger, a boy on the edge of puberty, left the Western Cape in 1836 with one of the waves of Voortrekkers in an exodus to the interior that became known as the Great Trek. Kruger is reputed to have seen action in thwarting an attack by Matabele tribesmen on a trekker laager at Vegkop  (near the town of Heilbron) in his formative years.

Some historians believe that his tough childhood on an impoverished farm led to his unrelenting quest, as an adult, to acquire farms and land in the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR). At one stage he was reputedly the owner of several hundred farms and plots of land in various towns.

Disputes over land seizures

During his early adulthood, Kruger took part in military actions against tribesmen, whose ancestral land had been seized by the newly-arrived Boers. He also fought against the British, whose colonial aspirations in southern Africa remained steadfast in those days of rampant empire-building.

Why am I touching briefly on a potted history of colonial times?

Mike Dwight and I write, in our soon-to-be-released book, Looted Gold, that the colonial mindset of those early times in the Cape and Natal permeated the actions of the emerging leaders in the ZAR for generations to come.

Template for land seizures

Kruger, with his oligarchic rule and disregard for the rights of local tribes, set a template that was followed by successive governments until the government of national unity came into existence in the 1994 general election.

You’ll read in Looted Gold how the disreputable concessions policy, implemented by Kruger, robbed the ZAR of much-needed income. The mining labour policy adopted by the mine barons kept black people in subjugated, poorly paid roles, deep underground. The pious Kruger intervened to ensure that black miners were able to buy cheap liquor, made by his friend Alios Nellmapius, while ignoring the safety concerns of mine owners faced with drunken workers heading off to work in the bowels of the earth.

The migrant mine labour system with its many faults has endured for generations, but was set in those early days, initially with the discovery of gold in the Eastern Transvaal, and then replicated in large scale on the goldfields of Johannesburg.

That system remained in place after the British took control of the ZAR and the Orange Free State in 1902. Migrant labour is still used in many South African mines today.   

Kruger’s cash-strapped ZAR was rescued from penury by the introduction of the concessions policy. The setting up of the ZAR Mint in Pretoria, another dodgy concession tied to the establishment of a national bank, saw the ZAR coffers swelling, as, by law, all the gold mined on the Witwatersrand goldfields had to be turned into coin by the Mint.

Kruger’s thirst for land

The canny Kruger, ever the not-so-artful dodger, made sure that his just dues were collected. It is recorded in Looted Gold that he was independently wealthy, although documenting the extent of his wealth was a challenge. Many of his farms were held in the name of proxies while the nature of his investments in Europe and the East was kept secret.

Prior to 1900, the level of security in gold mines was far from world-class. Gold was smuggled out of the mines in large quantities, and the police seemed to turn a blind eye to the problem. Winston Churchill was able to buy gold on the streets of Pretoria before his escape by train through Portuguese East Africa, in December 1899.

The hijacking of gold by people in high places was replicated in the 50 years that the National Party governed South Africa. Former Minister of Finance, Nico Diederichs, was known as ‘Dr Gold’ for a very good reason.

Some observers see the current looting of public money in South Africa as the ultimate irony. There can be no gainsaying the fact that Kruger set the template for looting during his four terms as president of the ZAR.

But what historians will find deeply disturbing is that Kruger, seeking to escape the shackles of colonialism under the British, replicated the system of discrimination, and played a role in the seizure of tribal land without compensation.

Land seizure by force

The system was expanded under National Party rule from 1948 and reinforced through apartheid legislation in the years that followed.

The government of the last 27 years has dallied over the return of millions of hectares of State-owned and other land to the rightful owners. Is ineptitude only part of the challenge?

The issue of title to land in Africa has become an intricate point of discussion.

South Africa gives title to private owners, apart from the enormous swathe of land in KwaZulu-Natal that is controlled by the Ingonyama Trust. The Pietermaritzburg High Court ruled in June this year that the Ingonyama Trust’s attempt to force people living on land they had occupied for generations to pay rent was illegal.

Who was it who said the more things change, the more they stay the same?

(SAFREA colleague Peter Ucko, who kindly edited this story, tells me that French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote the words – in French of course – ‘the more things change’…….in 1849).

Is Kruger smiling in his grave in Hero’s Acre in Pretoria as he contemplates the ongoing revelations about the looting of government funds and the furore over the seizure of land without compensation?

That’s a rhetorical question that we were unable to answer in Looted Gold.

But we were able to draw several startling conclusions and identify interesting parallels not published before. The years of research were well worth the effort. And the book Looted Gold, is well worth the read.

In next week’s MediaHub, I’ll provide information about the Looted Gold website and the book launch.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


3 Responses

  1. Thanks, Blake. A somewhat sickeningly awful history. The tragedy is that it continues today. The bigger tragedy for you and me is that we are living through a repetition, or contiuation, of looting. History is great as a teacher – – but we don’t always learn from it. It is the present that is our pain, compounded by the historical pain.
    I look forward to the launch of Looted Gold.

    1. Thank you Peter.
      It is a tragedy of our times that we are once again living through a period of looting. The outcome of last week’s local authority elections reflects poorly on our commitment to democracy, the gaining of which cost so many lives. I fear that the failure of governance by city councils in Pretoria and Nelson Mandela Bay will be replicated in the many towns in which no political party has achieved a majority. One gets the feeling that the looting will continue.

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