A Hush Fell on the Room

Posted on December 09, 2016 by Cape Rebel

From No Outspan
by Deneys Reitz


Parliament was to open the next morning, a Saturday, and throughout the Friday there was suppressed excitement. Members stood in knots in the Lobby, eagerly discussing the position. No one knew what the Prime Minister was going to do, for he preserved a sphinx-like silence.

At ten-thirty on the Saturday morning, everyone was in his place when the Speaker stood up. The moment prayers were over, a score of Members were on their feet demanding to know what the Government intended to do. It was an extraordinary situation. The Cabinet consisted of thirteen Ministers, of whom General Smuts and six others of us were old South African Party men, so that we were in a majority of one, but thus far General Hertzog had given us no inkling of his views, although we were co-responsible for whatever line was to be adopted.

Now General Hertzog could no longer evade the issue and, pale and tense, he stood up to say that, as the only business of the House on the opening day was to give formal notice of a Bill to prolong the life of the Senate, he would make a pronouncement on the Monday morning. We adjourned, no wiser than before.

We later received notice of a Cabinet meeting at three o’clock that afternoon at Groote Schuur, the historic residence bequeathed to the nation by Mr Cecil Rhodes as the home of future Prime Ministers of the Union. He did this at a time during the Anglo-Boer War when the likelihood of there ever being a Union of South Africa seemed remotely improbable.

I can remember how in 1902, as a youth, I was serving in the field under General Smuts. Word came through that Mr Rhodes was dead and of that strange proviso in his testament. We received the news with scornful laughter. It seemed to us a bitter mockery that this Englishman should speak of a united South Africa and a Prime Minister while we were still at each others’ throats. If anyone in those far-off days had ventured to tell me that I would one day enter that very building as a Union Cabinet Minister, to speak on behalf of taking arms at England’s side, I would have thought him insane. But so it was.

I had climbed up through the intervening years, with General Smuts as my leader. He and I and scores of thousands of South Africans of Dutch descent had come to see that the British had treated us fairly. They took our country, but they gave it back to us with Natal and the Cape thrown in for good measure. We enjoyed greater liberty and security than we had had under our own republics, and we saw that our only hope of survival as a free nation was inside the Commonwealth.

Therefore we attended this gathering at Groote Schuur determined that South Africa should once more play its rightful part against German aggression.

It was a momentous occasion. I was the first to arrive, and I watched the other Ministers as they drove up in their cars, each vehicle bearing the embroidered pennant of the Union. We were ushered into a reception chamber hung with priceless tapestries, and containing Chinese vases and lacquered furniture. General Hertzog awaited us. It was evident from the start that he had sent for us, not in order that we might consult with him, but so that we might receive his orders.

He strode backward and forward across the carpeted floor and spoke for nearly three hours without a halt, raking up the bitterness of the Anglo-Boer War and speaking in exalted tones of the humiliation we had undergone at the hands of the British, and of the mighty work of reconstruction that Hitler was carrying out. The burden of his theme was that South Africa should remain neutral. If Hitler won the war, he would not molest us; and if the British were victorious, we would be safe anyhow.

It was growing dark before he ended and it was decided to adjourn until the next afternoon, when we were to meet again.

General Smuts and I, and the other five Ministers who stood with us, decided that night that if General Hertzog insisted on neutrality, we would carry it against him and take a vote in the House.

The Cabinet Meeting on the Sunday afternoon was a repetition of the previous one. Again General Hertzog harangued us interminably, and it was a long time before General Smuts was allowed an opportunity to state his views. He began by saying that the decision he had come to was the most serious he had been called upon to take in all his life. Then he went on to say why South Africa should stand by the Empire and declare war on Germany.

There was an occasional interruption by General Hertzog, but all felt the heavy responsibility that lay on our shoulders, and throughout the discussions ran with decorum. When at length General Smuts declared it to be his intention to test the matter in the House, a hush fell on the room. For we all knew that it meant the break-up of the Government, and that it meant many other things still lying shrouded in the future.

It was I who finally brought the conference to a close. I expressed my opinion as to our entry into the war, then I stood up and said to General Hertzog: ‘Sir, it is quite evident that we have reached the parting of the ways. Those of us who are opposed to neutrality cannot remain in office with you. Therefore this meeting is our last as fellow colleagues. I wish to thank you for the courtesy you have invariably shown us during the time we served under you, and I hope the personal friendships we have made will not be affected by what has happened.’

Hereupon everyone rose, and a butler brought in liquid refreshment which all partook of. We shook hands, and what was perhaps the most critical Cabinet Meeting ever held in South Africa was over.