By Martin Plaut
The National Library in Cape Town contains in its collection a menu of a meal at the House of Commons in London in 1909 (1). The prettily-decorated document reveals that a good lunch was enjoyed of mutton with green beans, followed by vanilla ice-cream and cheese. The significance of this unremarkable repast was the group who ate it, for they would go on to reshape the future of their countries.
Hosted by the Labour Party leader James Keir Hardie, the meal brought Labour MPs together with a South African deputation led by W. P. Schreiner, who had been Prime Minister of the Cape Colony during the Anglo-Boer war. Schreiner, previously a conservative, had become a passionate supporter of the rights of the black majority. In the run-up to the Union of South Africa in 1910 he had undertaken a passionate campaign to win a qualified, but non-racial, franchise for all South Africans. In particular he wished to preserve and – if possible – extend to the whole of the new country, the Cape’s non-racial franchise, a right that had been exercised by all men of wealth and property since the 1850s.
So it was that in 1909 Schreiner arrived in London at the head of a nine-strong deputation (2). He and one other were white. The rest were Africans or Coloured. The lunch in the House of Commons came at the culmination of their efforts to win over British opinion and almost certainly took place on 3 August 1909 (3).
These are the signatories, listed in the order in which they signed.
Susan Strong (an opera singer)
Daniel Dwanya (sponsored by Chief Kama from Middledrift)
D. J. Lenders (African Political Organisation)
Matthew Fredericks (African Political Organisation)
Alfred Mangena (already living in London, who joined the deputation)
Agnes P. Hardie (daughter of Keir Hardie)
W. P. Schreiner (former Prime Minister of the Cape and leader of the deputation)
Arthur Henderson (Labour, Barnard Castle, 1903–18)
James Parker, (Labour, Halifax, 1906–18)
Charles Duncan (Labour, Barrow, 1906–18)
Mrs. G. N. Barnes (wife of George Barnes)
George N. Barnes (Labour, Glasgow Blackfriars and Hutchesontown, 1906–18)
George Henry Roberts (Labour, Norwich, 1906–16)
Keir Hardie (Labour Merthyr Tydfil, 1900–15)
Dr. A. Abdurahman (African Political Organisation)
Joseph Gerrans (Mafikeng trader representing the Tswana chiefs of the Botswanaland Protectorate)
Thomas M. Mapikela (South African Native Convention)
Walter Benson Rubusana (South African Native Convention)
John Tengo Jabavu (Cape Native Convention)
Mrs Lillie B. Hardie (wife of Keir Hardie ne Lillias Balfour Wilson)
Keir Hardie was among a handful of MPs who opposed the colour bar when the bill came before the House of Commons on 19 August. He spoke powerfully and with some insight, for he had seen South Africa for himself just a year earlier. He had a torrid time in South Africa, being forced to flee from meetings by the white trade unionists for questioning their attitude towards, and treatment of, their black compatriots (4).
The deputation was unsuccessful. It met Lord Crewe, the Colonial Secretary on 22 July 1909. Schreiner reported the outcome in spidery handwriting from the Morley Hotel, Trafalgar Square – today the site of the South African High Commission (5). “The Secretary of State received them courteously and responded sympathetically, but without giving any assurance that the desired amendments would be made.”
It is easy to conclude that the Schreiner deputation was a failure. Yet the signatories of the menu were to play important roles in the futures of their countries. Of the Labour MPs who sat down with their South African visitors, two subsequently became Cabinet Ministers, two led the Labour Party and Ramsey MacDonald (who was not present, but backed Schreiner) become the party’s first Prime Minister in 1924. Labour Party policy went through many twists and turns in the decades that followed, but this meeting in London in 1909 perhaps began to establish the direction of party policy towards Africa. Certainly links with the African National Congress (ANC) were to continue across the years, with the Labour MP Robert Hughes (now in the Lords) chairing the British Anti-Apartheid movement (6).
Among the South Africans at the meal were the founders of the ANC in 1912 (7). Alfred Mangena became party treasurer, Thomas Makipela speaker, and Walter Rubusana its Vice President. John Tengo Jabavu also participated in the founding conference, while John Dube (who did not attend the 1909 meal but supported the Schreiner deputation) became the ANC’s first president (8).
(1) Schreiner Papers: MSC27 Box 8 Letter 1521A 1 National Library of South Africa, Cape Town. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Quarterly Bulletin of the South African Library, 67/2, 2013.
(2) See Andre Odendaal, The Founders: The Origins of the ANC and the Struggle for Democracy in South Africa, Jacana, Auckland Park, 2012. For the drawing up of the proposed constitution by the National Convention see: L. M. Thompson, The Unification of South Africa, 1902-1910, Oxford University Press, London, 1960
(3) Keir Hardie wrote to Schreiner suggesting when they should meet, Schreiner Papers: MSC27Box 8 Letter 1515 1
(4) Frederick Hale, `Socialist Agitator, Traitor to the British Empire, or Angle of Peace? James Keir Hardie’s visit to Natal in 1908’, Journal of Natal and Zulu History, XIV, 1992. Jonathan Hyslop, The world voyage of James Keir Hardie: Indian nationalism, Zulu insurgency and the British labour diaspora 1907–1908, Journal of Global History, 2006, 1. Wilfrid H. Harrison: Memories of a Socialist in South Africa, 1903-1947, published by the author, Accessed 1 October 2013
(5) Schreiner Papers: SC27 Box 8 Letter15M02 1
(6) The author represented the British Labour Party on the Anti-Apartheid executive, as Africa Secretary of the party from 1979 – 1984
(7) South African History Online, for a partial list of the delegates to the South African Native National Congress (which was renamed the African National Congress in 1923) . Accessed 1 October 2013.
(8) See Odendaal, op cit, p. 424- 434 for Dube’s role in the deputation and their campaigning during their time in London.