Of Old Newspapers, “The Native Franchise” and that Frayed Tail-End of the Year

It’s a Tuesday night although it feels like it should be Friday already and I am tired beyond reckoning; goodness this year is too long yet not long enough. But, it is Tuesday night and it is December, and I am sitting on the lounge floor beside these papers below. You won’t be able to see the details on my dodgy camera phone photo, but you are looking at a newspaper from July 1899, one from 1910 and a commission certificate signed by Governor Frere in 1878. I have, scattered about my person on a randomly awful Tuesday night, pieces of paper that have been around for 134 years (in the case of the certificate). This is a quite extraordianry thrill for me.

6968 – I’m going to write that out only so that I can say it again – six thousand nine hundred and sixty eight (give or take) Tuesdays have passed between the signing of that paper and my sitting with it in and end of year funk. There were awful Tuesdays, funny Tuesdays, loving, lustful, rainy, sweaty, endless, boring, candlelit, disco-ball Tuesdays – 6968 of them since that ink dried. And that is a singualrly beautiful and perfect thought. How I wish you could smell them! (she said with absolutely no intention of sounding quite so creepily, nerdily, passionate about paper.)

South African newspapers pre-1900

My lounge is a museum now, where not long ago the bloodhound was on the coffee table, the children were fighting about a ball in a Hello Kitty plate and we ate home-made strawberry ice-cream (the 3 year-old hated it!) on the floor next to the puddle on the carpet where the roof-leak collects (the bucket never catches all of the rain). Now though, in this paper museum, even the bloodhound is sleeping respectfully on the couch. These papers from the old bullet-box are wonderful and I love spending time with them. It seems a shame though that they are locked away in the home of a nuclear family, hardly ever seeing the light of day. No more though because it’s blog time!

I could have written about the stiff and serious advertorials in the papers, the tiny writing telling stories about the coming Anglo-Boer War, the share prices of the newly founded Johannesburg gold mining companies and perhaps also the way one article runs up against another – a society wedding rubbing shoulders with a political editorial, but in this bullet box are two pamphlets published in 1908 and 1909.  And I wanted to ignore them. Really I did. Race in South Africa is such a touchy issue, even after my run in with the mums, I am not nearly tough enough to tackle the South African “race issue”. And I particularly don’t want to tackle the “race issue” in the interminable run-up to Manguang.

The Black Vote

Every 4 years in South Africa, the ANC (the ruling party with almost two thrids of the vote) holds a confenrence. At this conference, delegates vote for the leader of the ANC. The run-up to these conferences is a riotous jockey for position. Divisions are sown; conspiracies unearthed. We have the Wit Gevaar (white peril), the Swart Gevaar (the black peril), the Rooi Gevaar (red peril) and the newly emerging Geel Gevaar (yellow peril). We all live in a permanent state of anxiety, looking over our shoulders for multi-coloured peril. This year we also have the Secrey Bill and looming censorship, which allows the government to quash an advert for chicken wings as it offends the dignity of our president and his 20 children. And I think for the average South African, we are just tired. It’s the end of the year. Our children have run us ragged; it’s hot; we have survived (kind of) the repeated electricity and rates increases, redundancies etc. We want a few days off at Christmas and we want a New Year.

Now, far be it from me to add fuel to the hate-fire but I found these two pamphlets about The Black Vote: South Africa’s Greatest Problem and I cannot believe what they say and I cannot help but pass them on. I am appalled and while I want to write about cheerful and light things, can you believe this guy?!

The background is:- Lord Selbourne, in addressing a group of students at the Cape University suggested that it might be time to give the black man the vote. There would be conditions, certainly, but wasn’t it time?

“Way to go, Lord Selbourne”, I hear you say. Of course, he was no saint. His vision of equal rights is a long way off from equal rights. He had this to say in response to the questions raised around the black man possibly, one day in the future running the country, having the benefit of numbers,

The civilised native of the year A.D. 2000 will be less, not more competent to master the white man than were the savage warriors of Dingaan competent to overwhelm the avengers of Piet Retief, and mere numbers will count no more in the future than they did in the past.

Good grief!

In response to Lord Selbourne’s address, Mr Fred Bell got himself all ‘a flutter and published the two pamphlets above, one in December 1908 and the other in February 1909. They are filled with the most unimaginably bigoted pseudo-science and self-satisfaction. I suppose we must allow him that he was a product of his time but my oh my, the white Imperialist has much to answer for.


I contend that as a race, the native of Africa, the Negro, the Negroid, or the Bantu, affords a most remarkable instance in the evolution of humanity of arrested or retarded development.

Professor A.H. Keane, that eminent anthropologist says:- “No full-blooded negro has ever been distinguished as a man of science, a poet or an artist, and the fundamental equality claimed for him by ignorant philanthropists is belied by the whole history of the race throughout the historic period.”

Can. You. Believe. This. Guy? He then quotes Mr Meredith Townsend who comes across like quite a nice chap to start; a man ahead of his time.

A third class maintains that the negro, if carefully observed, is found to be exactly like everybody else, with the same passions, the same aspirations, the same powers…

Go Mister Townsend! But, oh, wait…

…with one most remarkable exception, that he cannot rise in the scale beyond a certain point; he remains under all circumstances, more or less of a child, bad or good like other children, but never quite a man.


Mr Bell continues:


Let us rather face the facts. If Nature has arrested the development we still must aid the lower race – indeed it is, therefore, the more incumbent upon us so to do, but if we are wise we will help and guide that race along its own natural lines.

My museum and my little reverie on the lounge floor seem quite dirty now. I want to bath, I think. I also think that despite the tensions and the terrible weight of our terrible history of prejudice, hate, racism and human rights abuse, we have come a long way in South Africa.

And next time I want to write a blog, I’m not going to mine South Africa’s dark past, I’m going to follow my hubby’s lead and write about historical fashion for which I have an unequalled passion. And surely there is nothing controversial or sickening about fashionable silhouettes through the ages.

13 thoughts on “Of Old Newspapers, “The Native Franchise” and that Frayed Tail-End of the Year

  1. I have a passion for old things. And, hard as it is, we have to look at the dark side, too, to fully appreciate the good stuff. I don’t think we can truly understand “now” without a good solid understanding of how we got here. 🙂

    • And perhaps also so that we remember not to go there again. Although to hope that we can learn from history is probably a vain hope.

      Goodness, look at me being all maudlin. It’s definitely going to be a fashion blog next!

  2. In my trawls through the old newspaper articles for my blog I at times find interesting stories I would like to use but they have the most awful racist tones so I just flick to the next one.

    I think we have to keep those attitudes in mind, if we forget that kind of intolerance it makes it easier to return to it.

    I am nerdily passionate about old things too so I was quite envious about your papery treasures! 🙂

      • Aww, thanks 😀

        It is very interesting to read those old things isn’t it. It’s like a peek into the way people thought, and the way society flowed, and not how I was taught history at school at all!

      • I loved all of my school history teachers, from my primary school teacher who had Parkinson’s and whose writing on my reports and the blackboard was a trembly heartbreak to the younger high school teachers who never tired of telling me about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the rearmification of Germany. But, yes, not one ever read goofy stories from old papers. The Past was a very serious place for me then.

  3. Yes, this seems horrific, but many of these people treated the Irish the same. Within living memory in the UK, landlords were allowed to have signs no blacks, Irish or dogs, suggesting they were on a par. A lot of this dates back to the aftermath of the Black Death when there was a huge labour shortage in Europe so pagans were allowed to be enslaved. It’s also a notion that made these pillars of industry felt like the empire was doing good, not just making money for them.

    • The Empire did do so much good though too. It outlawed slavery, built railways, established infrastructure…It is just awful to think though what we’ve always been willing to do the the proverbial ‘them’ in order to be part of the cool crowd. It’s like we never grow out of playground politics. We just use fancier words and find more elaborate ways of saying I don’t want to be your friend and I am so much cooler than you.

  4. I have a friend who is researching the local recent history of her home area which includes a major research character who was school Comissioner, Christian minister – but whose nephews were almost certainly involved in the local massacre of Native Americans, and he himself had a boy who was indentured servant/ slave/adopted son/protegee? Close history is uncomfortable. The further removed, the less painful!

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