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James Sivewright

James Sivewright (1848 - 1916) was a prominent South African politician and statesman of Scottish birth. Sivewright was educated in Scotland and trained in telegraphy. He travelled to South Africa in 1877 at the Cape Colony’s request as a telegraphy expert, and from 1877-81 he developed and organised the telegraphy systems of the Cape Colony, Natal, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

In 1887 he joined the Cape Town branch of the Afrikaner Bond and in 1888 he was Bond member for Griqualand East. His subsequent political rise was based on acting as a link between Hofmeyr and Rhodes, and between the Cape and the Transvaal. Indeed Sivewright began acting as Rhodes’ right-hand man and he secured the Bond’s support for Rhodes’s premiership in 1890. In 1891 what was called the Sivewright Agreement gave the Cape Government Railways a virtual two year monopoly with the Witwatersrand goldfields, and following this agreement Sivewright was given a knighthood. Sivewright developed strong links with several key mining magnates and a close association with Barney Barnato in particular.

In 1892 Sivewright authorised a contract which granted his friend James Logan a catering monopoly on the Cape Government Railways for 15 years. The so-called Cape Liberals - Merriman, Rose-Innes and Sauer - who had objected to Sivewright’s financial dealings throughout his time in Rhodes’s ministry, now strongly objected to the Logan deal, which was eventually cancelled and Logan handsomely compensated. In spite of this, the debacle surrounding the Logan contract led in part to the dissolution of Rhodes’s ministry. Sivewright then acted as an unofficial railway diplomat until the Jameson Raid, and later he became Commissioner of Crown Lands and Public Works in the Sprigg ministry. Sivewright began to move closer to the pro-Rhodes Progressives and at the climax of the Bond-Progressive struggle for power in 1898 he won a seat as a Progressive at Stellenbosch. He was unseated shortly thereafter when it was found that one of his agents had attempted to bribe a voter. Sivewright returned to Britain but kept involved with Cape politics, including in helping to orchestrate the Bloemfontein conference in May 1899. Sivewright also maintained business and financial interests in South Africa until his death in 1916.

Schreiner’s mentions of Sivewright in her letters follow these unedifying political jiggery-pokery and refer to Sivewright having Rhodes ‘on a leash’ and part of an unscrupulous ‘crew’ around Rhodes. She also wrote to her mother Rebecca in detail in May 1896 about the immorality of some of these matters so as to explain her stance regarding Rhodes, commenting that “when both he and Sivewright came forward to shake hands, I turned on my heel and went to my house.”

For further information see:
K.E. Wilburn (1981) ‘Sivewright, Sir James’ in (ed) C.J. Beyers Dictionary of South African Biography¬† Vol IV Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council, pp. 572 - 574
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