The civil service in the South African Republic under Paul Kruger, 1890 to 1895

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The civil service in the South African Republic was often the target of scathing criticism during the early 1890s. Both the Dutch and English language press exposed the shortcomings mercilessly during the years 1890 to 1895. One of the most serious points of criticism by the English language press was the role that patriotism played in the appointment of officials. This had led to the appointment of Dutch-speaking patriots who were not necessarily suitable for the functions involved. This state of affairs, coupled with a lack of proper training and education, led to poor service being rendered by the incumbents. Moreover, officials who did not perform well were seldom dismissed and in some cases President Kruger even defended them.

The three key government departments of police, mines and election administration provide ample proof of the serious shortcomings in the civil service.

In the Johannesburg police department, which was established in 1889, Commandant D.E. Schutte had to operate for five years without any legal framework to guide him. Schutte eventually became so frustrated with conditions within the force that he wrote a public letter to the Standard and Diggers’ News in October 1894 bemoaning his helpless situation. When Ewald A. Esselen was appointed attorney-general in May 1894 he was given carte blanche to reform the police force. With the permission of the Cape Colony authorities he temporarily appointed Andrew Trimble, an experienced senior detective officer of Kimberley, as head of the force. The police force was transformed within the following year into an effective unit and this improvement was generally welcomed by the residents of Johannesburg. When the possibility was raised late in 1895 in the Executive Council of making Trimble’s appointment permanent, Esselen insisted that he be naturalised as a citizen of the Republic. The Council refused this request, Trimble was dismissed and Esselen resigned.

The circumstances surrounding these events became clear only later, when it was revealed by the press that the decision to dismiss Trimble had been taken by only three members of the Council, namely Kruger, J.M.A. Wolmarans and J.M.H. Kock. State Secretary W.J. Leyds was allegedly in favour of Trimble’s permanent appointment, but he, Gen. Piet Joubert, the commandant general, and Gen. N.J. Smit, the deputy president, were all absent when the decision was taken. According to speculation in the press the decision in the Council was largely due to the opposition of its conservative members to the progressively minded Esselen, whose appointment they had never approved.

These events proved how difficult it was to effect reform in government departments in the face of such conservatism. Even the pro-government paper De Volksstem expressed its despair over the clique within the government which opposed any kind of reform.

In the case of the Department of Mines the incompetence of its head, Christiaan Joubert, justified the criticism regarding the appointment of patriots who were not equal to the task. During the so-called stands scandal on the Johannesburg gold diggings in 1892–93, stands to erect houses and business premises were illegally awarded to persons who did not qualify for them. The resultant speculation in stands caused an uproar.

The weaknesses in the Department of Mines exposed by the stands scandal were vehemently condemned in the press and Joubert was severely taken to task. Although the scandal was thoroughly investigated by a commission of the Second Volksraad its condemnatory revelations of the dubious actions of the officials of the department were finally simply ignored by the government and the officials were exonerated.

The stands scandal reflected very poorly on Christiaan Joubert’s ability as head of the Department of Mines. He refused to accept responsibility for the conduct of his officials and later declared in an official report that nothing untoward had been done regarding the allocation of stands. He was not reprimanded by Kruger and was kept in office because he was a staunch supporter of Kruger’s and a prominent member of the Hervormde Church, whose support the president needed to prop up his government.

Christiaan Joubert was a supreme example of President Kruger’s tendency to appoint and protect patriotic persons on whom he could rely for political support. The whole stands affair ended in a complete whitewash with the adoption of a resolution by the Second Chamber to the effect that nothing irregular had been done and that there was no justification to call the matter a scandal.

During the investigation of the stands scandal several related unsavoury matters emerged which affected Kruger’s reputation as president. Bension Aaron of Johannesburg, who was a confidante and supporter of Kruger’s, was found guilty of attempting to bribe officials to remain silent about a large and valuable portion of stands which had been erroneously allocated to him. He was sentenced to imprisonment for one month and a fine of £500. Kruger’s association with Aaron did not do the president’s reputation any good. It also appeared during another court case arising from the stands scandal that Joubert’s personal finances were in a deplorable state, and the judge in this case declared that the witnesses’ testimony – which included that of Joubert – was utterly unreliable. Joubert’s image was also dealt a blow when he clashed with the mining engineer in his department about the qualifications of a boilermaker he wished to appoint. The quarrel led to Joubert’s temporary suspension from his post for about six weeks. In the light of the circumstances he should rather have been dismissed.

The third government function which came in for severe criticism was the administration of elections. This became especially clear during the presidential election of 1893, in which Kruger beat his biggest rival, Piet Joubert, by an unusually narrow margin.

Both the Dutch and the English language press were unanimous in their condemnation of the poor handling of the election. Allegations were made by Joubert’s election committee of irregularities during the voting process and the press was vociferous in this regard, De Volksstem even declaring that the administration had been so poor that it was possible for convicted criminals, lunatics, minors and unenfranchised persons to vote.

After the provisional election result had become known a commission of the First Volksraad was therefore elected to recount the votes and submit a report. It was pointed out by the press that this matter should rather have been referred to the High Court instead of being entrusted to a Volksraad commission. The commission had only a few days, from Friday, 5 May 1893 to the following Tuesday, to perform its task and this was quite insufficient time for such a task.

The commission eventually confirmed the provisional result, but in the Volksraad and the press there were still serious doubts as to its reliability. After the election result had been confirmed, Eugène Marais, the editor of Land en Volk, published a report by advocate J.W. Wessels which stated that the election had taken place in terms of Act No. 4 of 1871 and not in terms of Act No. 13 of 1891, as claimed by the government. This legal opinion cast further doubt over the election result.

It is clear that there were serious shortcomings in the civil service of the South African Republic during the early 1890s. Obviously it is the head of state who is ultimately responsible for good governance, which in turn necessitates an efficient civil service. The conduct of the civil service of the Republic did not reflect well on Kruger’s presidency.

Keywords: accountability; Constitution; election administration; Esselen, Ewald; financial control; franchise requirements; Grondwet; Joubert, Christiaan; “landzoons”; mining department; nepotism; patriotism; police service; presidential election; Schutte, D.E.; stands scandal; Trimble, Andrew; Wolmarans, J.J.H.; Wolmarans, J.M.A.

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die staatsdiens van die Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek, 1890 tot voor die Jameson-inval van 1895

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