The travels and researches of w. M. Macmillan in southern africa, 1915-32

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William Miller Macmillan is best remembered today as the founder of the liberal school of South African history and as a kind of grandfather to, or inspiration of, the later radical school. Writing as his son, I have always had doubts as to whether there is a liberal school of South African history or whether Macmillan is its founder or a member. Macmillan certainly had no interest in founding such a school himself and, if there is one, it was founded by others. He had a number of South African students, including Margaret Hodgson (Ballinger), A. L. Geyer, C. W. de Kiewiet, Lucy Sutherland, Mabel Jackson and Daphne Trevor, who went on to do postgraduate work in history. Sutherland worked in eighteenth century British and Indian history and was the first and only woman to be offered the Regius professorship of modern history at Oxford - she was probably also the first person to decline the offer. Macmillan did not only work as a historian, but also did pioneering work in socio-economic studies. It is hardly surprising that an even larger number of his students went on to do work in economics, social anthropology and sociology - they included Herbert Frankel, Eileen Krige, Max Gluckman, Leo and Hilda Kuper, Ellen Hellman, and Hansi Pollak. The historian, working in the South African field, who most fully accepted the socio-economic dimension of his work, and with whom he had the closest relationship as teacher, collaborator, and life-long friend was Cornelis Wilhelm - ‘Dick’ - de Kiewiet. There is, perhaps, a sense in which they formed a school of two.
De Kiewiet’s History of South Africa, Social and Economic, which was published in 1941 and is still the best one volume history of South Africa, is to a large extent a synthesis of Macmillan’s trilogy, The Cape Colour Question, Bantu Boer and Briton, and Complex South Africa, and of de Kiewiet’s own major books British Colonial Policy and the South African Republics, and The Imperial Factor in South African History. Macmillan suggested that an economic and social history of this kind was necessary and the book did a great deal to bring to a wider audience his most significant insight - the view that South Africa is a single society and that the history of South Africa is the history of all its people regardless of race or colour. That was a radical idea in the 1920s and has only gained general acceptance recently.
It is a view that rejects settler history, though it also rejects Africanist history, and, indeed, any kind of nationalist history. I have argued elsewhere that this view was important in the creation of the idea of South Africa as a common society - a view that was, a little paradoxically, the inspiration of the Freedom Charter and of the ANC from the 1950s onwards. This is, of course, a view that can be traced back into Cape liberalism, but it was one that had to be restated in the 1920s and 1930s in the context of the union of South Africa and of the drive towards segregation.2
My doubts about Macmillan’s relationship to liberalism and to the liberal school of South African history stem primarily from the fact that he was not in the 1920s or 1930s a liberal in the normal sense of the word.3 He joined the Fabian Society in 1911 and was then a social democrat and an evolutionary socialist. He was greatly influenced by Christian socialists such as the historian, R. H. Tawney, a founder of the Workers Education Association, and by other social and economic historians such as J. L. and Barbara Hammond. His politics were broadly those of the British Labour Party and of the Attlee government of 1945. Macmillan was never a Marxist, but he tended towards historical materialism and economic determinism, and he used concepts such as those of the proletariat and of class consciousness which may be either Marxist or Weberian, but they are not much used by South African liberals.
These concepts were more important to Macmillan’s work and thought than can be gauged by the frequency with which he used them in his published books, but his frequent references to the proletariat in his journalism and evidence to commissions in the 1920s and early 1930s were sufficient to mark him out as a man of the left. Beginning work on poor whites in Grahamstown in 1915 he sought to explain their predicament in terms of landlessness. Even before he began to work on black history and poverty he had realised that the nature of the competition between blacks and whites for jobs in urban areas in South Africa could be explained in terms of differing rates, or degrees, of proletarianisation. He concluded that the problem of white poverty could not be solved by the provision of additional land and that what he saw as the excessively extensive nature of white farming militated against agricultural efficiency. More land for whites would only make the situation worse. Competition between black and white people for jobs in the towns could best be reduced by the provision of the additional land for Africans that had been promised, but not delivered, in terms of the 1913 Land Act.
He pointed to the contradictions between the different provisions of the Land Act. This not only gave recognition to existing reserves, but sought to end share-cropping by blacks with whites and to create labour tenants, thus immobilizing labour on the farms. At the same time taxation was used to drive black people from the reserves into the labour market. In a further contradiction white labour policies were already in 1923 - before the Pact Government - reserving urban jobs for white people. There was as yet no serious problem of black urban unemployment, but there was the risk that these contradictory policies would create black serfdom on the farms, on the one hand, and a black proletariat in the towns, on the other hand. In his view the provision of additional land for the reserves would increase African security, and encourage Africans to invest in agricultural improvement. This would not necessarily reduce oscillating labour migration, but it would slow down the process of proletarianisation, and the drift to the towns, and reduce competition between black and white. Macmillan presented most of these arguments about land and labour to a conference on Native Affairs organised by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1923, and he presented many of them in a private interview with General Hertzog, the new prime minister, in October 1924.4
The idea that white and black people were the victims of the same socio-economic processes under capitalism lay at the root of Macmillan’s idea of South Africa as a single society. There were, of course, elements of protective segregationism in Macmillan’s own thought - the protection of whites from black undercutting in urban employment, and the protection of both black communal land and black privately owned land from white encroachment. Some of his earliest unpublished statements on the ‘Native Question’ reflected the proto-segregationist view of the South African Labour Party and include references to ‘separate institutions’ and ‘parallel development’. But as he learnt more about the situation of African people in the early 1920s, and moved towards the idea of South Africa as a single society in which the interests of black and white were fundamentally interdependent, he moved away from the views of the Labour Party. He also distanced himself from the views of most of his liberal contemporaries and friends - people such as J. D. Rheinallt Jones, R. H. Hoernlé, Edgar Brookes, or Sarah Gertrude Millin. They remained protective segregationists and were largely unable to accept the idea – in the 1920s and 1930s anyway - of a single society. There were very few people who shared his vision - among those who did were his former students S. H. Frankel, and Margaret Ballinger. (De Kiewiet also did so, but he left South Africa soon after graduation.) Of course, another former student, Ballinger’s contemporary at Rhodes, A. L. Geyer, accepted much of his socio-economic analysis, but went the other way and became an Afrikaner nationalist during the First World War - he became editor of Die Burger in 1924, and was in the 1930s and 1940s the grey eminence behind Dr D. F. Malan’s wing of the National Party.
Macmillan left South Africa at the end of 1932 after clashes with members of the Afrikaner Nationalist government of the day, in particular with E. G. Jansen, Minister of Native Affairs, and Oswald Pirow, Minister of Justice. He left South Africa for a variety of reasons. Some of these were personal and some political – they included the incipient breakdown of his marriage, a new interest in tropical Africa, and increasing despair about the possibility of progressive change in South Africa. If he was unable to persuade his liberal contemporaries that South Africa was a single society and that segregation was impossible, what chance was there of his changing the mind of the government or of wider public opinion? In all probability the most decisive factor was, however, the determination of the University of the Witwatersrand, under pressure from the government, to end his role as a public intellectual. In an unpublished memoir, which was written in 1931-2, he took some pride in identifying himself as the first South African academic to take public positions on political issues. Referring back to his early work on poor whites, he wrote:
Till I began it was unheard of for a South African professor let alone a mere lecturer to have an opinion on nearly political matters….and I had done the hitherto impossible and dealt with public affairs quite bluntly, even ‘fearlessly’! And so impartially as to hit Government, Opposition, and Labour Party hard in turn, or all three at once! Wherefore no one was concerned to hit back, they merely rubbed their eyes and sat up to take a (very little) notice. Since then, as now, there has been a steady volume of ‘academic’ criticism of South African politics from several universities, but I think I really blazed that trail – and I hope it may, is even now, bearing fruit in slightly growing intelligent discussion of South African politics: to that small extent I may even, some day, be seen to have made a little South African history!5
Writing in the early months of 1932 he could say that the objects of his criticism had not ‘hit back’, but in the latter half of the year this was no longer the case. In a letter written on 10 November 1932, H. R. Raikes, principal of the University of the Witwatersrand told him:
I feel very strongly that the university should not muzzle members of its staff. But that naturally implies that members of the staff should not take such action as may jeopardise the relations between the university and the government, without being authorized to do so by the Council.

I am not prepared to say that the action you have taken in this instance has jeopardized our relations with the government, but I feel that it may well have serious repercussions in that direction.

Under the circumstances I feel bound to say, both as a private citizen who is keenly interested in the development of the native, and as principal, that the publication of the letter can have do no good and may do very great harm, both to the development of the native and the position of the university.6
Raikes was reacting to a public clash between Macmillan, in his capacity as chairman of the Johannesburg Joint Council of Europeans and Natives, with Jansen, the Minister of Native Affairs, and to correspondence with the minister that Macmillan had published in that day’s Rand Daily Mail. Macmillan was summoned the same afternoon to a meeting with Raikes who was preparing for a meeting of the university council on the following day. According to an instantaneous account, which Macmillan sent to his future wife, Mona Tweedie, Raikes

professed to think the Govt. can only be wheedled – I of opinion it must be kicked! And moreover I offered to resign, refused to be under any but my own control: whereas he doesn’t want to make the university notorious by victimizing me – so that we are no ‘forrarder’ and may have to find a less dramatic way out: tho’ it’s also true he has also sent me a letter which I could use as an excuse, heaven sent tho’ small.7

In the end Macmillan settled for the ‘less dramatic way out’. When he left South Africa for a year’s sabbatical leave in December 1932 he was not sure whether or not he would return to South Africa. He was compelled to make up his mind in September 1933 and chose to resign his chair. He asked for an unpaid research fellowship at Wits and hoped that this would enable him to retain a toehold in South Africa, while based in Britain, but there was no real commitment to this on the part of the university, and he failed to do so. He did not return to South Africa until 1949 and then only for a short visit.
If Macmillan’s relationship with liberalism is complex and ambiguous, his place as an inspiration of the Radical School of South African History is less debatable. It rests on the social and economic research that he did between 1915 and 1930 on white and later black poverty. In two books, The South African Agrarian Problem and its Historical Development (1919) and Complex South Africa (1930) he asked questions about poverty, land, and labour that no one else was then asking. In his travels and researches between 1915 and 1932 he did something that no one else was doing - socio-economic fieldwork. He went all over the country asking questions about wages, working conditions, land tenure, and landlessness. On his own, and at his own expense - he received no funds for research before 1930 and none even then from within, or for research in, South Africa - he did work on social and economic conditions which both anticipated and inspired the work of the two major commissions that reported in 1932 - the Carnegie Report on white poverty, and the official Natives Economic Commission, also known as the Holloway Commission, which investigated black poverty. Scholars such as Martin Legassick, Colin Bundy, Charles van Onselen and William Beinart, who began working on land and labour issues in the late 1960s or early 1970s were a little surprised to find that he had been there before them fifty or sixty years previously.
Why was it that Macmillan took such a different view of South African society from most other intellectual observers? There are many reasons which include his Scottish birth, but South African upbringing - factors that made him simultaneously an outsider and an insider. His father had been a Free Church of Scotland missionary in India and a founder of what became the Madras Christian College, as well of the Nellore Christian College. He had been a pioneer of university teaching in India and taught English literature and Classics at Victoria College, Stellenbosch, then part of the University of the Cape of Good Hope. Macmillan acquired from him a positive view of India and of the intelligence and educability of people who were not white. His eldest brother – he was older by seventeen years - became a Free Church of Scotland missionary on the island of Tanna in the New Hebrides, now Vanuatu, in 1895 and remained there for nearly forty years. Macmillan’s membership of the Free Church of Scotland’s network was to be very important to him when he turned his attention from white to black poverty. People like Dr James Henderson and Dr Neil Macvicar, at Lovedale in the Eastern Cape, were deeply interested in issues of poverty, health and welfare in their area. This network was also important to him when he began at the same time to forge links with members of the emerging African nationalist elite, many of whom, including Sol Plaatje, R. V. Selope Thema, D. D. T Jabavu, and Z. K. Matthews, were Lovedale ‘boys’. Clements Kadalie was, of course, educated by the Livingstonia Mission in Nyasaland, a northern extension of the Free Church’s educational network. Macmillan’s personal and family-based knowledge of land tenure issues in the Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland, of the ‘highland clearances’, and the land wars and crofting legislation of the 1880s, was also an importance influence on his approach to the problems of bijwoners (white squatters), of black share-croppers on white farms, and of the African reserves, in South Africa.
Macmillan’s own upbringing in Stellenbosch gave him a knowledge of Cape Dutch - the taal - as well as of High Dutch, and a much closer knowledge of the Dutch Reformed Church and of Afrikaner nationalism than any other English-speaking intellectual. Many of the leaders of both had been students of his father at the Victoria College in Stellenbosch, as were many other Afrikaans-speaking politicians including J. C. Smuts and F. S. Malan. Some younger leaders of the church and of Afrikaner nationalism, such as C. V. Nel and Tobie Muller, were Macmillan’s own contemporaries at the Victoria College. His own training in divinity/theology in Aberdeen and Glasgow, and his knowledge of liberal Protestantism and higher criticism, must also have been useful in this regard.
His Oxford training in the then new and Germanic discipline of history was obviously important - he was, with Eric Walker and Leo Fouché, among the first academically trained historians to work in South Africa. Macmillan’s relationship to Leopold von Ranke and Ernst Troeltsch, as well as with Bishops Stubbs and Creighton, was ambiguous. He combined scientific rigour and accuracy in relation to facts with the almost Marxian feeling that the point of writing history was to change society. In an early article – the only one he ever published on historiography – he emphasised that the modern study of History was based on ‘scientific method’, but wrote:
There are those who make the determination of facts, by the most careful and exhaustive weighing of evidence, the one goal of the historian and make that the limit of his province. The apostle of this school, and a great deal more, is Ranke; its ideal is Impartiality. And this must be our starting point: the severity of its discipline is one essential part of any historical training….There is one danger arising out of the pursuit of impartiality against which noble war was waged by Lord Acton whom I constantly commend to you as the most stimulating of modern historians. It is the familiar modern tendency to white-wash the villains of history; but we are exhorted never to ‘debase the moral currency or to lower the standard of rectitude… to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong.’ It remains that scientific method and the elevation of view which this last high standard demand are alike in establishing as the first objective of the historian the attainment of Truth.8
He also accepted Lord Acton’s view that the main theme of modern history should be ‘a record of the growth of freedom’. Writing in the middle of the First World War he was sceptical of the demand that national history, specifically South African history, should be given the foremost place in the curriculum. He had grave doubts about the legitimacy of the war, resisted social pressure to enlist, and deplored anti-Teutonic talk of ‘Huns’ and ‘Boches’, but he professed himself ‘utterly opposed to the stress that is being placed everywhere on the teaching of national history, which for our warning has not a little helped to drive the German Empire into aggressive war’.9
Macmillan had some other rather unusual advantages. His knowledge of High Dutch made it relatively easy for him to learn German, which he did at the University of Halle in 1908, and then in 1910 he spent a semester at the Kaiser Wilhelm University in Berlin where he attended the lectures of the ecclesiastical historian and apostle of liberal Protestantism, Adolphe Harnack, and, more importantly, of Gustave Schmoller, the economic historian, economist, and sociologist. Schmoller, who is regarded as the founder of ‘the younger German historical school’, was also the teacher of Max Weber and of W. E. B. Du Bois, the African-American sociologist and political activist, as well as being an inspiration to the major British social and economic historians, including Tawney and the Hammonds.
Another of his teachers in Berlin was Franz Oppenheimer, a Zionist socialist, advocate of producer cooperatives, and the architect in 1903 of the kibbutz movement in Palestine. Oppenheimer was also a founder of the Frankfurt School of social research, and he has been variously described as a liberal socialist, and as a political, and an economic, sociologist. He was, at Frankfurt in 1919, the first person to hold a chair of sociology in Germany. He was the teacher of Ludwig Erhardt and, though he died in 1943 in exile in the United States, where he was a founder of the New School of Social Research in New York, he was the inspiration behind postwar German social market economics. It was the influence of Schmoller and Oppenheimer, as well as that of English Quaker researchers on urban poverty, such as Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree, and the Scottish public health reformer, James Burn Russell, that inspired Macmillan’s socio-economic work and his fieldwork. It was, of course, R. H. Tawney who said that what a historian needed more than anything else was ‘a stout pair of boots’.
Macmillan’s first ventures into socio-economic research did not involve travel, but were focused on Grahamstown where he began work as the sole lecturer in history and economics in 1911. He always attributed his introduction there to work on public health, sanitation, and poverty, to the influence of the remarkable doctor, and medical officer of health for the town, Frederick Anastasius Saunders. Born in England in 1859, and trained at Edinburgh University, Dr Saunders moved to Grahamstown in the early 1890s. Professing to be a Scots Tory, he was in turn a staunch supporter of John. X. Merriman, Louis Botha and Jan Smuts. A freemason, a critic of organised religion, and a recruiting sergeant for the Grahamstown City Volunteers, he was also a radical social reformer and the scourge of the city’s town council and mercantile establishment. Described by his obituarist as ‘fiery, impetuous [and] resolute’, he was once arraigned for slandering the dean of Grahamstown. He became superintendent of the Prince Alfred Hospital and was said to care for the sick ‘without distinction of race, caste or colour, as the mighty tribute paid to him on his death [in 1934] by all – native, coloured, and European alike’, demonstrated. It was then reported that there had been no more remarkable funeral in Grahamstown in fifty years – flags flew at half mast, the shops were closed and ‘citizens of every race, degree and colour lined the thoroughfare from the cathedral to the cemetery which also was densely crowded’.10
Macmillan provided this contemporary tribute to Saunders in an unpublished memoir:
…my health crusade brought me into firm alliance with a stout old Scotch doctor – made a good doctor my favourite hero yet – and taught me a good deal about Public Health (almost first essential for Africa). Even more, a born and practising soldier, and ferocious Tory, he taught me another lesson: that there is a constructive Conservatism – we both wanted a better world to live in, agreed about ends, and often and well enough about the means – close friends, at opposite poles of politics. I owe a lot to old Dr F. A. Saunders.11
Saunders not only inspired the work that resulted in Macmillan’s first published pamphlet, Sanitary Reform for Grahamstown, but also paid for its publication early in 1915. In sending a copy of this pamphlet to Sir Frederic de Waal, administrator of the Cape province, Macmillan expressed the hope that it might be ‘a first step I hope in what may develop into a Grahamstown Crusade for Public Health and Reform.’ He expressed the view that ‘public health and sanitation are for various reasons very weak spots in ordinary municipal administration, and that strong central supervision is desirable and indeed necessary.’12 With the encouragement of both Saunders and the Bishop of Grahamstown (Francis Phelps, later Archbishop of Cape Town) he went on to work more specifically on poverty in the town, and published a second pamphlet, Economic Conditions in a Non-Industrial South African Town, later in the year. This included the first poverty datum line – for white households – that had ever been constructed for a South African town. He estimated that a family needed an income of £10 a month and that eight per cent of the population was by that definition poor – half of them were absolutely poor. A third pamphlet, Poverty and Post-War Problems, was published in the following year, and drew on the work of the Grahamstown Social Welfare League, which he had helped to establish in October 1915 - this had, among other things, established a labour bureau in the town.

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