Louis Botha

The South African soldier and statesman Louis Botha (1862-1919), one of the most important Boer leaders, helped to establish the Union of South Africa and became its first prime minister.

Conflict had featured prominently in the relations between black and white on the one hand and Boer and Briton on the other during the greater part of the 19th century. In this setting the Boer had often been in danger of being crushed between the numerical superiority of the Africans and the economic, cultural, and military power of the British. Partly as a result, the Boer developed a nationalism whose moods ranged from a fierce pride in all things Afrikaans to distrust and, sometimes, hatred of the outsider. Considerations of security for the Afrikaner influenced the attitude of Louis Botha to the Africans, the British, and the nationalists in his community.

Botha was born into a farming family of Voortrekker (pioneer) and Irish stock near Greytown in Natal on Sept. 27, 1862. The turbulence of the times and the paucity of schools made higher education a luxury many farmers could not give their children. Botha grew up with little formal schooling. His family moved to the Orange Free State, where young Botha established contacts with the Zulus which were to change the course of his life.


Military Career

Before King Cetshwayo of the Zulus died, he had indicated that his son, Dinuzulu, would succeed him. Prince Zibebu's challenge to the young monarch's authority resulted in civil war. In 1884 Botha joined the commando unit sent by the Boers to fight by Dinuzulu's side. The rebels were crushed, and the Boers acquired 3, 000, 000 acres of Zulu territory as payment for their help. A member of the surveying team, Botha was instrumental in transforming this land into the New Republic, which became a part of the South African (Transvaal) Republic when the British annexed Zululand in 1887. The union with the Transvaal led to Botha's election to the Volksraad (parliament).

In the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902) Botha's genius as a military strategist came to the fore. A field cornet when hostilities commenced, Botha was appointed aide-de-camp to Gen. Lucas Meyer, who commanded the Boer forces in northern Natal. Meyer's task was to secure the southern borders of the republic. Botha fought in the battles around Dundee (1899), where his resourcefulness first received attention. Meyer fell ill during the fighting near the besieged British city of Ladysmith—the gateway to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State—and Botha assumed command.

Sir Redvers Buller was coming up from the coast to relieve Ladysmith. Botha met him near Colenso and wrought havoc on the British forces. Buller regrouped his army, Botha withdrew during the night, and Buller bombarded empty trenches. Botha again mauled the British on Spion Kop. But the eventual relief of Ladysmith in 1900 was a bitter blow to the Boers.

Fortune was against the Boers. Their communications were poor, and discipline was at a low ebb. In February 1900 the commander in chief of the Boer forces, Gen. Petrus Jacobus Joubert, appointed Botha his deputy. After Joubert died in Pretoria on March 21, President Paul Kruger asked Botha to assume provisional command of all the Boer forces with the rank of acting commandant.

Botha did not have much of an army to lead. The British were converging on the Transvaal, and demoralization had developed among some of the Boers. He organized a crack force and was able within a few months to put it on the field. It was this army which was later to make him the hero of Bakenlaagte. The Boers continued to lose ground, and by June 4 Botha was forced to send a letter to Lord Roberts, the British commander, requesting an armistice to discuss the capitulation of Pretoria, the capital. Roberts could consider unconditional surrender only, and by September Pretoria had fallen.

For Botha and the Boers, however, the war was not over. Roberts's rejection of the armistice offer had transformed it into a people's war. The front line was wherever there were Boer men, women, and children. The British retaliated by burning farms suspected of harboring saboteurs. Concentration camps were built to restrict the rebels.

A second attempt to end hostilities followed. Botha met the British in Middelburg in March 1901. Negotiations broke down when the Boers insisted on the retention of their independence and wanted an amnesty for their followers. In September, Kitchener announced that the Boers who did not surrender would be banished permanently and that the cost of maintaining their families would be charged against their property. Botha replied to this with increased guerrilla activity.

Botha tried once more to find a way to peace, and the treaty of Vereeniging was signed with the British on May 31, 1902. Its terms displeased the Boers, and Botha joined a delegation to England to plead for modification. Failing in this mission, they returned to South Africa, determined to extort maximum advantage from the Vereeniging settlement.


World War I

The wounds of the war had not healed when World War I broke out. Botha was convinced that it was in South Africa's interest to fight with Britain. He persuaded Parliament to approve his declaration of war against Germany and led the army which marched into South-West Africa. The German governor, Dr. Theodor Seitz, surrendered near Tsumeb on July 9, 1915. Botha imposed provisional military rule over the territory and then returned to Pretoria to start preparations for the expeditionary forces he was to send to Tanganyika and Europe. The British asked him to sit on the War Cabinet, and in 1919 he was at Versailles, pleading for more humane treatment of the Germans.

The Statesman

In 1905 Botha and Jan Christiaan Smuts founded a Boer party, Het Volk (The People), which stood for conciliation and cooperation with the British. The Transvaal was granted responsible government in 1907, and on May 31, 1910, the Union of South Africa came into being, with Gen. Botha heading its first government. Among the problems he had to face were the rise of Afrikaner nationalism, the segregation of the Africans, discontented Indian labor, and restive white workers.

Botha's Boer critics were offended by his conciliation with the English, charged that cooperation served English ends at the expense of Afrikaner cultural interests, and demanded separate development for the Boers and the Britons. For Botha, their demands struck at the roots of Afrikaner security and survival. Crisis point was reached when James Hertzog insisted that the Dutch and English should be treated on a footing of real equality. Botha sympathized with Hertzog's demand but asked for his resignation, fearing that Hertzog's demand would split the nation. Hertzog refused and Botha formed a new cabinet—without Hertzog. This action widened the gulf between the Boers and the Britons and deepened the rifts in the Afrikaans community.

Like the Voortrekker leaders who had preceded him, Botha was an advocate of segregation of the races. He supported the bill that Hertzog had drafted in 1912, prohibiting the sale of land in white areas to the Africans and vice versa. This measure went through Parliament as the Natives Land Act of 1913 and created widespread ill-feeling among the Africans.

Botha's difficulties with the indentured Indian laborers transformed Mohandas K. Gandhi, a prosperous Johannesburg lawyer, into the father of nonviolent resistance. Botha also had to deal with two serious strikes by white workers in 1913 and 1914. He died in Pretoria on Aug. 27, 1919.


Further Reading on Louis Botha

Three important biographies of Botha are Harold Spender, General Botha: The Career and the Man (1916; 2d ed. 1919); Lord Buxton, General Botha (1924); and Frans V. Engelenburg, General Botha (1929). Recommended for general historical background is Eric A. Walker, A History of Southern Africa (3d ed. 1968).

Additional Biography Sources

Malan, Jacques, General Louis Botha (1862-1919), Pretoria: National Cultural History and Open-Air Museum, 1979.