President Paul Kruger of the South African Republic had a rather strained relationship with the press. Because his political thinking was dominated by the maintenance of the Republic’s independence he regarded criticism from the press on aspects of his policy and the tenor of his administration with great suspicion. This was the case even though freedom of the press was guaranteed in the constitution of 1858. Kruger’s distrust of the press was not only confined to the English-language newspapers but extended also to critical Dutch papers such as Land en Volk, of which the young Eugène N. Marais took over the editorship in October 1890.
Kruger’s poor relations with the press had, however, existed long before that. One of the reasons was the subsidisation of certain newspapers by means of advertisements for which a sum of money was included in the annual estimates of expenditure. Government advertisements were allocated to certain papers in return for their support of government policy. One of the beneficiaries of this policy of the government was The Press and its Dutch counterpart De Pers, which had been founded in 1889 by A.H. Nellmapius with the specific aim of supporting the Kruger government. This infuriated the other Transvaal newspapers. The practice of allocating advertisements was not only fiercely criticised by other newspapers but was also denounced in the First Volksraad. Accusations of bribery and corruption were often made against the government in this regard. Fuel was added to the fire by revelations made by the first editor of The Press in a letter published in Land en Volk about special favours to the paper shown by the president and his officials. Kruger and his conservative supporters in the Volksraad nevertheless vehemently defended the practice of allocating advertisements and actually used the argument that there has to be a pro-government paper to prop up his government.
When Kruger was challenged by Eugène Marais in his paper about a claim he and the secretary of state had submitted for travelling expenses after an official visit to Colesberg in the Cape Colony in 1893 the tension between him and the press increased dramatically. The accusation that this was an unwarranted and illegal claim was disputed by Kruger and Marais was accused of libel. The resulting court case was a turning point in Kruger’s relations with the press. Marais was acquitted of libel because the charge in the warrant for his arrest was not fully proved. At the same time the court found that Kruger was not aware of the claim submitted and was therefore not to be blamed, and that although the article in Land en Volk left much to be desired it had been written in the public interest.
The president responded by having a strict new press law drafted which provided for fines for certain press actions as well as a prison sentence of a year without the option of a fine for the use of cartoons to belittle someone. A fierce debate took place on the proposed law in die First Volksraad during which strong opinions were expressed. There was a strong feeling that the bill should have been published first according to the constitution because a press law had never existed in the Republic before, all libel cases having been judged according to the common law. The more conservative members of the Raad felt strongly about unbridled attacks in the newspapers on policy and persons, but it was pointed out by progressive members that the proposed law was radical in that it would stifle freedom of expression in the Republic. Kruger, however, spoke strongly in favour of it and was supported by state secretary Leyds. Before the bill was put to the vote it was pointed out by one of the progressive members, R.K. Loveday, that it was no good to suppress the voice of the press and that proper criticism was good for the country and society. He was supported by Lucas Meyer, the member for Vryheid, who argued that the Transvaalers loved their freedom and that the proposed act would limit their very freedom of expression. However, the conservative members won the day and got their way.
Some of the articles of the act were adopted with rather small majorities, but the act was finally adopted and became operative late in 1893. It was the very first attempt in South Africa to muzzle the press since Lord Charles Somerset had closed down newspapers in the Cape Colony n the 1820s.
The press law was condemned outright by all the English-language newspapers in the Transvaal except the Standard and Diggers’ News and the Kruger propaganda organ The Press, as well as by Land en Volk, but De Volksstem defended it on the grounds that there was far too much licentiousness in the Transvaal newspapers in writing about official policy and government members. The Star declared that in a country which professed to be republican such a law was unimaginable and pointed out that when the press does its duty towards the public it is essential to sharply criticise the policies and actions of public figures because they occupy positions which affect the wider public. The Transvaal Advertiser used the opportunity to remind its readers that Kruger had narrowly beaten Piet Joubert in the presidential election earlier that year and that he therefore had reason to penalise the journalists whose criticism had nearly cost him the election.
Kruger obviously regarded the government’s right to govern and the independence and very existence of the state as one and the same thing. That is why he virtually saw strong opposition to and criticism of the government as treason against the Republic. Kruger’s attitude towards the press was therefore attributable to a phenomenon which one finds even in the case of modern democratically elected governments, namely an incapacity to distinguish between the state on the one hand and the government of the day on the other. Kruger’s strong belief in the right of the Republic to govern itself according to the wishes of the voters and his own insights and to maintain its independence at all costs was bolstered by his religious belief in the original Transvaal inhabitants as God’s own people.
Keywords: Eugène N. Marais; government advertisements; Land en Volk; libel; loyal criticism; Paul Kruger; press freedom; Press Law; South African Republic (ZAR); subsidisation of newspapers