From No Outspan
by Deneys Reitz
General Hertzog, in the course of his lengthy speech to the Cabinet, had indicated that on Monday 4 September he was going to move a resolution in Parliament declaring South Africa to be neutral in the war.
He was such an autocrat by nature that I verily believe he had never paused to consider whether he could carry his motion through the House. In the past, his method had been to walk into our caucus and lay down the law with a slap of his fist on the table. He brooked no opposition, and at any hint of criticism he would threaten to resign and appeal to the country.
This generally sufficed to bring his own immediate followers to heel, and on our side Members had more or less let him have his way for the reason I have already indicated – they had accepted General Smuts’s advice not to precipitate a break on minor differences.
I am convinced that he thought he could walk into Parliament in the same way on the Monday morning and force his neutrality motion on us by sheer domination of his personal prestige. Relying on this ascendancy, he had never troubled to count heads, and he had no idea how Members were likely to vote on a fundamental issue such as this. Had he done so, an interesting, but not reassuring, problem would have faced him.
The South African House of Assembly consisted of one hundred and fifty three Members of Parliament, of whom all but six were now in Cape Town. Of those present, a hundred and forty seven in all, a hundred and four belonged to the United Party, twenty-nine were Nationalists forming the official opposition under Dr Malan, a dour old Calvinist, seven were Dominionites (the British equivalent of Malan’s Afrikaner extremists) under Colonel Stallard, a Tory of the mid-Victorian school, four were Labour Members, and three were so-called Native Representatives.
On paper, therefore, General Hertzog had a large majority against all comers, but his snag was that of the hundred and four United Party Members serving under him, sixty-six were supporters of General Smuts, and he could only rely on a personal following of thirty-eight, a fact he had never seemed to realise during the six years of his reign.
On the other hand, the twenty-nine Nationalists, all violently anti-British, would vote for anything anti-British, and they would support a neutrality motion. With his own tail of thirty-eight, and with the twenty-nine Nationalist recalcitrants, he commanded sixty-seven votes against our sixty-six, but we knew that the seven Dominionites, the four Labour Members and the three Native Representatives were with us, giving us a majority of thirteen.
We had made a preliminary canvass, and we were sure of our ground, but General Hertzog in his blind arrogance thought that he had a majority in the House and that he could carry his neutrality motion. Indeed, he had told both the Governor-General and General Smuts so, and now he had blundered into a pit for his own undoing.
That evening, Gerneral Smuts and I, and the five Cabinet Ministers who had supported us at Groote Schuur, met in the Civil Service Club in Cape Town and drafted a counter-resolution, which General Smuts was to move the next day.
By the Monday morning, dame rumour had been busy. The House was to open at ten-thirty, but from nine o’clock onwards Members were thronging the Lobby, and we were eagerly questioned. Was it true that the Cabinet had broken up? Was it true that General Hertzog was to introduce a Neutrality Motion? What right had we to decide without consulting the Party? And so on, and so on. They were understandably indignant, for General Hertzog should at any rate have consulted his wing of the Party. But that was his affair, and we left him to explain things to his own people, while we hastily ranged for battle.
The Speaker droned the stereotyped prayer, and the Bill to extend the life of the Senate was passed. Now came the real business before us. The public galleries were crowded, and there was breathless silence when General Hertzog rose to put his motion for neutrality. He spoke for a long time, and he repeated the arguments he had used on us at Groote Schuur – Hitler was justified, the British connection would always drag us into wars, and we in South Africa should remain out of the conflict.
Then General Smuts put his counter-resolution. He briefly stated our case for participation in the war. A long debate followed which lasted until nine o’clock that evening, and then the bells rang for the most dramatic division I have ever attended. The tellers took a long time to check their lists, but we did not need them to inform us that we had won the day.
I watched General Hertzog where he sat across the floor of the House. His face was ashen, and it seemed to me that only now had it dawned on him that he was staring at defeat. The other five Cabinet Ministers who had voted with him looked angry and perturbed, and I gained the impression that they were furious at the way their leader had bungled himself into an impasse.
But it was too late. The tellers completed the talley of the votes and handed the lists to the Speaker. He stood up to announce the result: ‘Ayes in favour of the Honourable the Prime Minister’s Neutrality Motion – 67; noes, in favour of the motion to enter the war – 80; the noes have it.’
We had won by a majority of thirteen.
It is possible that General Hertzog might have secured a small majority had it not been for his blundering tactics in eulogising Hitler, and had it not been for the forceful and powerful speech by General Smuts in reply, which brought round many waverers.
The decision was quietly received, for during the count we had sent a whispered message to our side: ‘Men, don’t rub it in – let there be no gloating.’ We felt that it was too grave a crisis for noisy demonstrations, and now all the Members filed out, most of them deep in thought, for the full significance of what had taken place had scarcely come home to them as yet.
Firstly, it meant that we were at war with Germany and that we might soon be at war with the Italians.
It meant, too, that General Hertzog was beaten, and that he would be obliged to hand over the government of the country to General Smuts.
Only that morning General Hertzog had called on the Governor-General, Sir Patrick Duncan, to tell him that he was introducing a neutrality motion, and that he had a majority for it in the House. Now, a few hours later, he went to Government House to resign his office after having been Prime Minister of the Union for fifteen years. With all his faults, we were sorry for him, but we rejoiced that General Smuts was at the head of affairs once more and that South Africa would have his wisdom to guide us, instead of being at the whim of a man who – though possessed of great qualities – was too obstinate, and too erratic and illogical, to be relied on in times like these.
The Governor-General immediately called upon General Smuts to form a new Cabinet. From the voting in the House it was clear that we held a majority only by the grace of the Dominionites, the Labour Members and the Native Representatives, all of whom had sunk their party differences in the common cause.
General Smuts therefore decided to create a National Government.