My father returned to the Cape in 1870, having qualified as a barrister. Before settling down he became a diamond digger, entered the Cape Parliament and married a beautiful Norwegian girl. Then he practised at the Bar and, in 1875, the infant Free State Republic having set up a Supreme Court of its own, he was offered and accepted the position of its first Chief Justice.
He and my Norwegian mother started by ox-wagon for their new home, a journey that took them nearly three months, and thus it came about that my brothers and I were born and bred in Bloemfontein, the Free State capital. There were five of us, two older and two younger than myself, and we led a carefree, Tom Sawyer-like existence. There was no piped water, no railways, telephones or electric lights, and motor cars and aeroplanes and wireless were still undreamed of. We had a string of Basuto ponies in the stables and the wide uplands teemed with game, so we hunted, fished and rode to our heart’s content.
Sir John Brand was President of the Republic. When he died in 1889 my father was elected in his stead, and to us boys life became even more interesting.
The country was run on simple lines. When my father wished to summon his executive, he sent my brothers and myself on horseback to collect the members of his Cabinet from their distant farms, and on arrival they lived with us until the deliberations were over, after which they went as they had come.
Sometimes my father had to go on long tours through the country districts and we accompanied him, riding our ponies beside his state coach. He was invariably escorted by a squad of mounted artillerymen. We promptly fell in with the gunners, and we viewed the ancient Krupp muzzle-loader they took along with them as part of the family plate, so to speak.
In the back blocks, commandos would assemble to greet my father, and we sat on the roof of his coach to watch the shaggy horsemen galloping by, firing blank charges from their Martinis as they came. At the conclusion of these parades the men dismounted, and the President had to walk down the line to shake hands with all of them. On one such occasion there was a family joke we never forgot.
It was my father’s custom to say to each burgher as he went down the line: “Good day, good day, how are you?” To which would come the stereotyped reply: “Very well thank you, Mr President,” whereupon he said: “I’m glad, I’m glad,” and passed on to the next man. But once when he asked a greybeard how he was, the old man answered: “Sir, my wife died last night,” to which my father automatically said: “I’m glad, I’m glad,” and moved on, unconscious of the brick he had dropped.
In such manner life flowed easily enough, and we spent a happy childhood. But this idyllic condition was too good to last. Unknown to us, storm clouds were gathering. Up north in the Transvaal there was increasing friction between the older Boer population and the newcomers who had flocked into the country on the discovery of the goldfields. In the Free State we had hitherto lived on a friendly footing with the British, but in 1896 Dr Jameson’s ill-starred Raid changed everything overnight; and where goodwill had reigned, now came suspicion and distrust. My brothers and I were too young to realise it, but the Jameson Raid was a harbinger of war in which we were to be deeply involved and which was to shatter our little universe entire.