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Louis Botha

Louis Botha (1862 - 1919) was a Boer general, South African politician, and then first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa in 1910. Botha spent his early childhood in Natal but grew up mainly in the Free State where he received little education. As a young man he was part of the Boer force which helped the Zulu king Dinuzulu to establish his authority over his rivals in 1884. Botha became a prosperous farmer in the Vryheid district, and in 1886 he married Annie Frances Bland Emmett. He went on to join the Transvaal Volksraad ('people's council', its governmental body) and when the South African War broke out in 1899 he joined up as an ordinary fighting burgher. During the early phases of the war Botha displayed enormous capacity for military leadership and by November 1899 he was appointed general.

When peace came in 1902 Botha was instrumental in persuading the Free State Boers to surrender, although some were in favour of fighting on. Botha saw opportunities for reconciliation and a new relationship of respect and equality between English and Boer South Africans. He, together with De Wet and De La Rey, toured Europe in the aftermath of the war raising money for destitute Boer women and children. In 1904 Botha and other Boer leaders held meetings across the Transvaal which led to the establishment of the Het Volk party. The central planks of Het Volk included conciliation between white South Africans, equality between (white) language groups, and self-government for the Transvaal. The latter was granted in 1907 and Botha became Prime Minister of the Transvaal. Botha was a firm proponent of Union and he played an important role in winning the support of the Transvaal, where there was hostility to the idea of Union in some quarters. He attempted to win the support of Boer/Afrikaner groups by appealing to their cultural aspirations, while at the same time winning the backing of English-speakers by stressing loyalty to Britain. When the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910, Botha was asked by the Governor-General, Lord Gladstone, to become Prime Minister and form a government. Botha caused consternation in more liberal circles - including Olive Schreiner - by appointing J.M.B. (Barry) Hertzog as Minister of Justice and Native Affairs.

Rifts developed in Botha's administration, in particular between Botha's brand of conciliation and loyalty to Britain, and Hertzog's increasingly strident nationalism. Around this time Schreiner commented in a letter to F.S. Malan, 'But I am opposed to Botha's silly Imperialism when he talks English, & narrow back-velt-ism when he talks Dutch!!', suggesting that Botha's ability to 'play' to both white groups was waning. The result of Botha's approach was Hertzog's angry departure from the South African Party and formation in 1914 of the National Party. Botha's government suffered further setbacks that year. He and Smuts (by this time Minister of Justice) swiftly crushed the 1914 miners' strike, and this led to them being 'labelled as merciless military dictators by their political opponents' (Kruger 1981: 48). Moreover, Botha's handling of the 1914 Rebellion against South Africa's participation in the First World War saw him further alienated from many of his former Afrikaner supporters. The Rebellion was an armed protest against South Africa's support of Britain in the war, and the Botha regime used force to suppress the uprising. Botha went on to play a key role in South Africa's victory over German forces in German South West Africa during the war. Botha, with Smuts was one of the delegates at the peace conference in Paris in 1919, at the end of the war, and he also attended Will Schreiner's funeral in London in June that year. Botha died suddenly of a heart attack later in 1919.

Olive Schreiner it seems first met Botha briefly in 1904 when she attended Paul Kruger's funeral, and then again in 1908 she met Smuts and Botha at the station at De Aar as they passed through on a train journey. She commented in a letter to Isie Smuts on Botha's smile. Later, in 1915, in the context of the quashing of the 1914 Rebellion and South Africa's attack on German South West Africa, she wrote in a letter to John Hogdson that while Smuts was a 'man of blood', Botha was 'far more human'.

For further information see:
D.W. Kruger (1981) 'Botha, Louis' in (ed) C.J. Beyers Dictionary of South African Biography  Vol IV Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council, pp. 41 - 51
Johannes Meintjes (1970) General Louis Botha: A Biography London: Cassell
Edward Harold Spender (1919) General Botha London: Constable & Co
Basil Williams (1946) Botha, Smuts and South Africa London: Hodder & Stoughton
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