Prime Minister Louis Botha, the conciliator

Prime Minister Louis Botha, the conciliator

By A Carelsen, Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History.

Museum collection

The DITSONG: National Cultural History Museum houses a fairly large collection of objects of Louis Botha, Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa (1907 – 1919). The significance of the objects is simply that objects pertaining to Botha should not only been discussed and placed in their cultural historic context but should also be supported by knowledge on the man and his contribution in his historical time frame.

Significant Louis Botha artefacts in the Museum collection:

  • Military gear, worn during the First World War.
  • Official state attire and accessories.
  • Ceramic dinner set with his monogram on each piece. Furniture such as chairs, which he received in his role as Prime Minister; a dining room set; desk and study chairs from his private home in Celliers Street, Sunnyside, Pretoria.
  • Photographs, paintings and sculptures of Louis Botha and his wife Annie.
  • Souvenirs and tributes received by Louis Botha – ninety nine of the six hundred tributes are from Africans. If related to the 1915 and 1919 military actions of the Union Defence Force and sometimes people physically approaching him when he visited rural destinations in South Africa.
  • 72 mementos consisting of medals, symbolic trowels for the laying of foundation stones, official keys for inaugurating buildings, a tea set, tea tray, model of a sailing ship and card cases. The quantity, quality and nature of the tributes received over a period of 15-years, is exceptional.

Monogrammed household objects


Figure 1: Monogram of Louis Botha carved in mahogany wood on his sideboard and embossed on the backs of a set of 6 leather chairs.

Figure 2: Monogram of Louis Botha on a dinner set

To contextualise the Botha collection, a brief description of his life and political significance in South Africa is discussed below.

Botha’s early years

Louis Botha was born on 27 September 1862 in Greytown (KwaZulu-Natal) as one of 13 children. He received formal schooling at the German Missionary station Hermansburg, near Greytown.

In 1884 (aged 22) he took part in military operations against the followers of Usibepu to ensure the rightful prince Dinizulu (son of King Cetshwayo) his throne. The Boers acquired 3 million acres of Zulu territory (per formal document) as a reward for their help. Botha met prince Dinizulu kaCetshwayo at this time and they maintained a lifelong friendship.

Botha married Irish lass Annie Frances Bland (Emmett) on 13 December 1886 in Vryheid, Natal. Six children were born from their marriage.

The young Louis Botha soon distinguished himself as someone with sound judgement, a leader who had a powerful and stabilized influence over people. a. He was considered far more open-minded, far-sighted and inclusive as President Paul Kruger.

Figure 3: Louis and Annie Botha,1900

Figure 4: Louis with his wife Annie, ca. 1918

His role in the Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902)
Louis Botha distinguished himself as soldier and leader during the Siege of Ladysmith. Botha and Gen Koos de la Rey were against the war and also the sending of an ultimatum to England regarding the possibilities of war. They were opposed to war. Once the ultimatum was sent, they supported the decision of the Volksraad under President Kruger’s leadership.

On 27 March 1900 (aged 38) he was appointed Commandant-General of the Transvaal Boer forces. Botha twice made serious efforts to find a way to peace and he was a co-signatory at The Peace Treaty of Vereeniging with the British on May 31 1902. Botha played an important role in securing the best possible terms. At this event Botha convinced his fellow burghers to lay down their arms and accept the British peace terms.

Botha joined a delegation to England to plead for modification of the harsh post-war terms for the Boers. Failing in this mission, they returned to South Africa, but determined to restore the self-respect of his own people and securing the best possible terms. He never regarded the end of the war as an end in itself and harnessed moral will to rehabilitate the Afrikaner people through social and economic upliftment.

Union of South Africa (1910 – 1961)

Botha’s political opponents were offended by his policy of reconciliation. It was deemed to serve the English at the expense of Afrikaner cultural interests. Separate development for the Boers and the Britons was proposed by political rivals. In a political speech in 1907 he stated that his Het Volk Party (The nation’s party) wanted a reconciled South Africa and this has been his policy from the start. His intention was to forge the white nations into one race through a spirit of goodwill and compromise.

Botha assisted to amalgamate the former colonies into a single Union during the National Conference of 1908. The former soldier became statesman and Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa (1910–1919) and maintained a staunch advocate of a policy of reconciliation between the Boers and Britons.

Botha showed political realism and downplayed the fostering of Afrikaner interests and stressed conciliation with Britain. The Het Volk Party became the South African Party in 1911. Botha pursued subtle policies for white (Boer-Briton) conciliation and greater autonomy for South Africa.

The release of Dinizulu from unjust imprisonment after the Bambata Rebellion in Natal became one of Botha’s first acts as Prime Minister. This Zulu Rebellion of 1906 was led by Bambatha kaMancinza (ca. 1860–1906), leader of the Zulu Zondi clan, who resided in the Mpanza Valley near Greytown, where Botha was born. The clan rebelled against British rule and hut taxation. Botha went further and arranged for Dinizulu to live out his days on a government-provided farm near Middelburg in the Eastern Transvaal (Mpumalanga).

FIgure 5: King Dinizulu , ca. 1908

Figure 6: Louis Botha ca. 1915, 2020 November 4.

World War I
Active support for the British Empire in its war with Germany during World War I (1914 – 1919) was a constitutional duty required from the Prime Minister. He respected and lived with the principle of conciliation. This rigid principal in Louis Botha’s character morally obligated him to honour duty towards the Empire. The 1914 Boer Rebellion against this decision had to be dealt with first to diffuse tension before German Southwest Africa (Namibia) could be attended.

Botha attended the post-war peace talks at Versailles in 1919 where he was a voice of reason, urging a peace which advocated leniency for the former enemies that would not totally humiliate Germany. The former foes could be summoned on 28 June 1919 at Versailles to sign the peace treaty with humiliation. Botha noted on his agenda paper that “God’s rights shall be justly administered to all nations under the sun; and we shall persevere in our prayers that they will be administered in love, amity and in a true Christian spirit. Today my thoughts go back to 31 May 1902.” (Meiring. Piet. Ons eerste ses premiers, p. 30)

Signing the Treaty of Versailles was also recognition that South Africa was an autonomous Dominion in the British Empire which secured South Africa of a higher status within the Commonwealth.

The strain of war and not having his confidant J. C. Smuts with him for much of the time had an effect on Botha. General Louis Botha died of heart failure in Pretoria following an attack of Spanish influenza or the Great Flu, on 27 August 1919. This was possibly the largest single fatal event in South African history with more than 200 000 mortalities. It is significant that Botha’s name is listed together with highly profiled international known people on the internet who succumbed to the flu. It gives some indication of his international recognition and status.

Dundee High School held a school parade on 29 August 1919 at 14h00 as a mark of respect to the late Gen Louis Botha. This note in Kevin Burge’s history of this school, raise the question how many similar events occurred without recording.

General J C Smuts remarked at Botha’s grave site that there would be no hope of recovery unless the spiritual path of humanity and compassion is followed in which injustices and old quarrels are forgotten. At his graveside General J C Smuts said that after his return from Versailles, both were more firmly convinced than ever that for South Africa, as for the people of Europe , there would be no hope of recovery except on the path of a new spirit of humanity, of greater compassions, and of forgiving and forgetting old quarrels and injustices. (Malan, Jacques, General Louis Botha (1862-1919), Pretoria: National Cultural History and Open-Air Museum, p.18.)

The above is an account of Botha’s personality, which he applied as a human and statesman. A person who conciliates or arbitrates is called a conciliator. Textbook definition refers specifically to friendliness, bringing things in agreement or harmony or making things compatible or consistent (3 November 2020).

Figure 7: Louis and Annie Botha’s tomb stones in the Rebecca Street Graveyard, Pretoria. Louis Botha ca. 1919

Louis Botha was a man respected by black and white, Boer and Brit. Richard Steyn compares his openness and acceptance as leader across racial and cultural barriers with Nelson Mandela. In Botha’s time he strove specifically to reconcile the great division between the Afrikaner and British people in South Africa after the South African War (1899 – 1902). He acknowledges a “generosity of spirit” and “a depth of understanding” which couldn’t be found in their contemporaries and which won them “the admiration of their former foes” (Steyn R, Louis Botha: A Man Apart. , accessed, 2020 November 1, )


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