Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger

Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger (1825-1904) was a South African statesman. Maintaining the independence of the Transvaal for a quarter of a century, he gradually became the champion of the entire Afrikaner nation and the symbol of their dogged exclusiveness.

Paul Kruger was born on Oct. 10, 1825, in the Cradock district of the Cape Colony, the son of Casper and Elsie Steyn Kruger. In 1836 the Krugers joined a group of Voortrekkers led by Hendrik Potgieter. Soon afterward Paul took part in the battle of Vechtkop, where a handful of Voortrekkers repelled an attack by Matabele. February 1838 found him in Natal, where he was eyewitness of the massacre of the laagers by Zulu warriors. His family hereafter took up farming in the Rustenburg district of Transvaal.


Life as a Pioneer

The only real schooling Kruger had was a 3-month course with a wandering master. Otherwise, the Bible was his only textbook. At the age of 16 he was entitled to choose two farms, one for grazing and the other for crops. His first marriage, to Maria du Plessis, ended after 4 years, when his wife died in childbirth. He married again, to Gezina du Plessis.

Kruger went through the perils of the Great Trek as a boy and fought in three battles before he was 13. With his natural boyish fancies thus slain early by circumstance, he grew up firm-willed and stern of mind, keen in brain and fearless in person. Physically he was cast in Herculean mold, with muscles steeled by his hard frontier life. His human qualities, like those of his body, were elemental. His association with pioneers made him gruff and rather crude. That narrow passion for his people, which later shaped so much history, was acquired when, as a boy, he suffered with the Voortrekkers. He feared God with the implicitness of the simpleminded peasant. As president, he delivered speeches interspersed with quotations from the Bible. He was no orator, as was to be expected from his slender education, but his facts were always arranged and expressed clearly, logically, and forcibly.


War Adventures

Appointed field cornet at 17, Kruger distinguished himself many times by bravery in battle. In 1852 he fought against Secheli, a Bechuana captain. The next year, in expedition against the chiefs Mapela and Mankopane, he brought off two more exploits. One night he crept through the enemy sentries and into a cave occupied by a large number of natives. He harangued them in their own tongue, urging that surrender was better than death by famine. He finally led several hundred women and children out of the cave.

In a skirmish some days later, Kruger effected the rescue immortalized by Van Wouw in one of the panels of the Kruger Statue. Despite heavy fire from the natives, he retrieved the body of commandant Piet Potgieter and carried it back to the Boers.


Statesman and Constitutionalist

From 1857 Kruger's personal destiny was linked very closely with that of the Transvaal government. First he served as adviser to President M.W. Pretorius. In 1863 Kruger was elected commandant general. During disputes which gradually resulted in civil war, he did not hesitate to use force to uphold the constitution.

After the return of political stability, Kruger served on various government commissions in connection with border and diamond-field disputes. Although he remained loyal to the government, he gradually withdrew from active politics after the election of the liberal-minded president T.F. Burgers. Kruger's personal following increased as a result of Burgers's failures, and he became the favorite for the presidential election in 1877. Owing to the annexation by Britain, the election did not take place.

As negotiator, Kruger could now match his wits against British diplomacy. Twice (1877, 1878) he led deputations to London in protest against the annexation, but in vain. He then resorted to passive resistance and advised his people to take up arms only when all his attempts at peaceful solution had failed. As member of a triumvirate, he led Transvaal during the War of Independence, which ended with the Boer victory at Majuba (1881). Britain then conditionally restored the independence of Transvaal.


President of the Last Boer Republic

In 1883 Kruger was elected president with a large majority. He made it his special task to restore complete independence to the republic. Eventually, at the Convention of London (1884), Kruger succeeded in restoring the absolute independence of his "Zuid-Afrikaansche" republic.

Kruger found his country in financial troubles and resorted to the much-criticized concession policy to improve the fiscal position. Then, in 1886, the world's largest gold-bearing reef was discovered in Transvaal. Within a few years Kruger presided over the most prosperous state in Africa.

Kruger regarded the maintenance of the independence of Transvaal and the protection of the rights of the original inhabitants as a task to which God had called him. In all his negotiations he laid down as a firm condition the independence of Transvaal. This brought him in direct opposition to Cecil Rhodes, who devoted his abilities and fortune to expanding British influence from the Cape to Cairo.


Kruger versus Rhodes

Rhodes effected the geographical encirclement of the Boer republics by isolating Transvaal from the sea and the German territories. Kruger, however, succeeded in building his own railway line through Mozambique to Delagoa Bay. This thwarted Rhodes's attempts to incorporate Transvaal economically with the British territories. Rhodes now began interfering with the internal affairs of Transvaal with the intention of ending its independence. Aliens (Uitlanders), mostly British subjects, flocked to the goldfields and soon outnumbered the republicans. Because they were hostile to the Transvaal government, Kruger decided to give them full citizenship only after 14 years' residence. In order to placate them, a Second Volksraad was instituted, to which the aliens could be elected.

The Uitlanders remained dissatisfied, and Rhodes plotted with them to overthrow Kruger's government. The Jameson raid (1895) failed, however, and Kruger emerged stronger than before. Then Joseph Chamberlain, British Minister for Colonies, and Alfred Milner, British High Commissioner in South Africa, decided to champion the cause of the Uitlanders by demanding full franchise. Kruger in the end was willing to make concessions on condition that Britain would no longer interfere in the domestic affairs of Transvaal and that all disputes would be submitted to neutral arbitration. Britain rejected these conditions as well as a republican ultimatum to withdraw British troops from its borders. War followed.

During the initial stages of the war Kruger stayed in Pretoria, offering advice and encouragement to the Boer forces by telegram. When British troops advanced on Pretoria, he retreated to the eastern Transvaal. In 1900 the Executive granted him leave to proceed to Europe to promote the cause of the republic. Although he found sympathy, especially in France and Holland, no foreign power would interfere on behalf of the Boers. As an exile, Kruger heard of the surrender of the Boer forces in 1902. He died on July 14, 1904, in Clarens, Switzerland.

Further Reading on Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger

Biographies of Kruger include F. Reginald Statham, Paul Kruger and His Times (1898); Marjorie Juta, The Pace of the Ox: The Life of Paul Kruger (1937); and Manfred Nathan, Paul Kruger: His Life and Times (1941). Political aspects of Kruger's life are discussed in Willem J. Leyds, Kruger Days (1939), and Johannes Stephanus Marais, The Fall of Kruger's Republic (1962). Recommended for general historical background are Eric Walker, A History of Southern Africa (1928; 3d ed. 1962); M. S. Geen, The Making of South Africa (1947; 4th rev. ed. 1967); and D. W. Kruger, The Age of the Generals (1961). See also Stuart Cloete, African Portraits (1946).

Additional Biography Sources

Fisher, John, Paul Kruger: his life and times, London: Secker and Warburg, 1974.

Meintjes, Johannes, President Paul Kruger: a biography, London: Cassell, 1974.