Too Clever by Half
John X Merriman: Paradoxical South Mrican Statesman Phyllis Lewson Yale University Press 431 pp £31
JOHN X MERRIMAN seems to have been the strangest of that strange race of giants that roamed the South African veld at the turn of the century: giants like Kruger , Rhodes , Botha and Smuts . Merriman had the quickest wits, the sharpest tongue and the highest motives . He was also the one who ultimately did most (not excepting Kruger and Rhodes) to destroy his own cause .
Today his fatal blunder as Cape Prime Minister- he hustled the Cape into a racist Union with the other three South African states in 1910 - is no better remembered than his other achievements. Out of the paradoxes of Merriman's character and career , Dr Lewson has constructed a compelling biography. It is a bizarre tale : how the most liberal of South African statesmen set his country's feet on the long road to apartheid and repression .
Perhaps M erriman had always been too clever by half, an enfant terrible to the end. When he had retired , after more than fifty years in Parliament, he took up the game of racing demon , and proved a champion. He attributed his success, he told Lord Buxton, the Governor-General, 'to a long arm and an easy conscience'. In fact Merriman's conscience was often too delicate for Cape politics, unlike his immensely tall , spiky frame and iron constitution. His father was a well-known South African eccentric, 'the walking predikant' (preacher); by origin an English missionary , and close friend of Gladstone, he had come out to convert the heathen Xhosa beyond the Fish River. His mother was a daughter of a Lancashire cotton-master, rich and of course Gladstonian too . It was her character that young Jack inherited: ardent, impulsive, idealistic, wild-tongued. (At first I suspected Irish blood , correctly spotting that the 'X'stood for Xavier , the Spanish Jesuit missionary . However Dr Lewsen reveals that Merriman's parents were English Protestants, from their high hats to their brown boots.)
After schooling in England, where he rowed for Radley against Eton , John X returned home and found a job as land surveyor in the wilds of the Cape, and a seat in parliament as the Member for Aliwal North . He spoke the taal (Afrikaans) and was soon to marry an Afrikaner. It was this that was his political strength in a country where Afrikaners made up the majority of the whites: he would identify with the backveld farmer totting Cape brandy on his stoep, rather than with the cigar-smoking English redneck ofthe cities . More surprising, and a mixed blessing for his career, Merriman developed an increasing sympathy for the overall majority of his countrymen, the blacks. One of his few consistent beliefs was his passion for the non-racial franchise of the Cape: restricted according to property and education (like its counterpart in England) but open irrespective of colour. On the other hand Merriman was South African enough to sneer at 'ExeterHall' and the English 'negrophiles'. He could never bring himself to make friends with Africans, as his father had done in those lonely rambles north of the Fish River.
By 1872 diamond fever had swept down the Cape and carried off the impressionable young Member for Aliwal North . Already forty thousand white miners , at least double that number of black miners, half the Grahamstown Church choir and half the Cape Parliament had trekked up to the New Rush diggings before him. Dr Lewsen makes Merriman's blunders at Kimberley seem hilarious. A brilliant financial administrator, he was as naive about business as a schoolgirl. Still, if he threw away his money - and his friends' money - on dud diggings, he reckoned to have profited by the experience. He developed a life-long aversion for capitalists: 'diamond-bugs'and 'gold-bugs' especially. He also became bosom friends with the most daring and unscrupulous of all the capitalists, Cecil Rhodes; a friendship that the most furious party warfare could never quite destroy .
It was Rhodes, as Cape Prime Minister in 1892, who gave Merriman the cabinet post of Treasurer-General, equivalent to Chancellorship of the Exchequer. Merriman, despite his wild tongue, proved to have a passion for public thrift of the strictest Gladstonian kind .
He was appalled by the ungodly way his predecessors at the Treasury had failed to balance the books . Under his beady eye, the Cape Treasury flourished like the Cape vines- carefully pruned . At the same time he began to emerge as the most eloquent spokesman for African rights . He deplored the disfranchisement ofNatives in the three neighbouring states: the Transvaal, the Free State and Natal. He was to warn his friend Jan Smuts:
What promise of permanence does this plan give? What hope for the future? These people [Africans] are increasing both in wealth and numbers. Education th ey will get, if not through us, then by some much more objectionable means . They are the workers and history tells us that the future is to the workers . . . Does such a state of affairs offer any prospect of permanence? Is it not rather building on a volcano, the suppressed force of which must some day burst forth in a destroying flood? Merriman broke with Rhodes soon enough, and then served again as Treasurer under William Schreiner from 1898 to 1900 . Schreiner, too , was an honorary Afrikaner; a German missionary 's son, he had married into the Boer aristocracy . In Schreiner's cabinet Merriman enjoyed the role· of Cassandra. These were the years when the sky seemed to be falling. Not that the Africans rose against their oppressors. It was the two white tribes that seemed to be tearing each other to pieces . Merriman looked on in agony. First the Jameson Raid : Rhodes' absurdly bungled attempt to take over Kruger's Transvaal for himself, the