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Patrick Duncan

Patrick Duncan (1870 - 1943) was born in Scotland, but after joining the British civil service was recruited in 1901 by Alfred Milner to his so-called ‘Kindergarten’ at the Cape, a group of young men who worked in a political capacity and were also a kind of ‘think-tank’ regarding political and public policy. Duncan went on to become an important figure in South African politics, culminating in his appointment as its Governor-General, a post he held from 1937 to his death in 1943. Duncan first came to know Milner while working as his secretary at Inland Revenue during the 1890s. After the annexation of the Transvaal during the South African War, Milner, then Governor of the Cape Colony and British High Commissioner for Southern Africa, appointed Duncan as colonial treasurer of the Transvaal in 1901. Duncan went on to be colonial secretary of the Transvaal between 1903 and 1907. After the Transvaal was granted responsible government, Duncan decided to leave full-time politics and he practiced as an attorney in Johannesburg from 1907 to 1910.

Duncan played an important role in bringing about the Union of South Africa in 1910. He was legal advisor to the Transvaal delegation of the National Convention and worked closely with Jan Smuts in ultimately securing Union. In 1910 Duncan also became the Unionist MP for Fordsburg, a position he kept until 1920. In 1912 he published Suggestions for a Native Policy, in which he deplored the poverty and social conditions black workers in South Africa were condemned to, and argued against low wages for black workers and also against segregation. On the other hand, though, Duncan did not support political equality between black and white South Africans, and he also opposed the non-racial franchise then in place at the Cape.

All three of Schreiner’s extant letters to Duncan are from this period. The first, from May 1912, thanks Duncan for his letter and indicates that he had planned to break a journey he was taking at the Schreiners’ home at De Aar. In the second, written later that same year and in the context of the 1912 Defence Act which brought the Union Defence Force into being, Schreiner warned Duncan of the dangers of such a Defence Force, using the parable of a knife she had given to her nephew Wilfred. The final letter is Schreiner’s response to a political programme Duncan had published in a newspaper, which was related to his 1912 publication Suggestions for a Native Policy.

Later Duncan was selected to lead the committee of enquiry which was set up to investigate the 1914 Rebellion, which occurred in part against South Africa’s participation in the First World War, in part because of the perceived political and racial ‘softness’ of the Botha government. In 1921 Duncan won the seat of Yeoville and became Minister of Education, the Interior, and Public Health in the South African Party administration from 1921 to 1924, and Minister of Mines in the United Party administration from 1933 to 1936. In 1936 Duncan was made a GCMG and in 1937 he assumed the role of Governor-General, a post he remained in until his death in 1943. Patrick Duncan’s papers are archived at Manuscripts and Archives, University of Cape Town.

For further information see:
P.F. Van der Schyff (1968) ‘Duncan, Sir Patrick’ in (ed) W.J. de Kock Dictionary of South African Biography¬† Vol I Pretoria: National Council for Social Research, pp.¬†258 - 260
Deborah Lavin (2004) ‘Duncan, Sir Patrick (1870-1943)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/32931
Deborah Levin (ed, 2010) Friendship and Union: The South African Letters of Patrick Duncan and Maud Selborne 1907-1943 Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, especially pp. ix-xxxvi
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collection icon National Library of South Africa, Cape Town: Special Collections at the NLSA provide one of the leading locations for archival papers across many periods, organisations a... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon University of Cape Town, Historical Manuscripts: Manuscripts & Archives at the University of Cape Town is a leading location for accessing archival papers across many per... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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