Gender bias in Bloemfontein

Prior to 1968, I’d passed through Bloemfontein’s railway station six times on the way to or from somewhere else.  In that year I got off the train to spend a week in South Africa’s judicial capital, on account of my inaugural appearance at senior level swimming competition.  I was entered in the 100, 200 and 400 metre freestyle events; in the two shorter distances I would run up against Karen Muir who, by now, was setting records in any stroke or distance she turned her hand to.

The venue was the recently completed Stadium Swimming Bath, built to the new metric standard.  Like its aquatic cousins in Kimberley and Newlands (in Cape Town), the Stadium pool was a typical outdoor complex of the time, with a 10-lane competition pool, a separate diving pool, and a covered grandstand flanking one side; all topped off with a generous parking lot out the front.

This pool was different from the rest in one significant respect: depth.  The first thing I noticed in the warm-up sessions was that I could stand anywhere along the pool’s length.  Shallow pools are notorious for creating turbulence and it wasn’t long before whispers started circulating that no records would be broken at this meet.

A few weeks earlier Dad had put me on a course of medication to ‘rearrange’ my menstrual cycle.  Knowing that I’d have a clear run in Bloemfontein took some of the edge off the pool depth issue.

After having taken out the 200 metre title on day one, Karen Muir withdrew injured from the rest of the tournament.  I should have taken comfort from this even though there were several others between me and a berth in the final of the 100 metre event on day four.  As it was, I fluffed the heat, my 1:11 well outside the qualifying time for the event and a whopping three seconds off my personal best.  The following day my period arrived; either Dad hadn’t calibrated the dosage correctly or the drugs had failed in their task.

Towards the end of 1972 I returned to Bloemfontein for an intervarsity competition.  The pressure to swim fast had gone and I couldn’t care less about pool depths or menstrual cycles.  I was more interested in getting the boys to notice me.  I thought I could do this through my drinking prowess, matching it with them in boat races.  I didn’t even like beer back then.

The swimming teams were billeted at the university residences.  Unlike in Durban the year before where we’d been allowed to come and go at any time, the women’s residences at the University of the Orange Free State were governed by a strict 10 pm curfew.  At that hour, one of the stern-faced matrons locked the front door and no-one could get in or out until the door was opened the following morning.  It seemed unfair that the men weren’t subject to the same restriction.

On the third night a physiotherapy student from Zimbabwe – we’ll call her Alice – decided that she’d had enough. Sliding open the window on her first-floor room, Alice dropped onto the tin roof of the lean-to below and from there to the ground.  On her return, she shinned up a drain pipe and had just enough height to lever herself through the window and into her bedroom.  Every night she repeated this manoeuvre.  The rest of us were in awe but too scared to try the same trick.  The matrons, tucked up in bed, never knew about Alice.

On the last night of competition – the penultimate of our stay in Bloemfontein – a University of Cape Town student had arranged a party at his parents’ house.  They had also organised, with the full knowledge and consent of the matrons, that those of us who wanted to party on beyond 10 pm could sleep at the house.  The taste of freedom was so delicious that we knew we could never go back to the curfew.  The only solution was to spend the last night in the men’s residence.

I don’t know how I came to be in the male student’s room but I remember not sleeping at all and not because of the hard floor or the risk of him making a pass; I knew that he wouldn’t.  In the morning, I slunk back to the women’s residence.  I wasn’t alone.  I’ve always wondered if the matrons knew.

By the time I was finished with Bloemfontein, I’d transited through its station a few more times.  I should have paid more attention to it.

Taxation without representation…

There seems to be a general idea that Pretoria is a raw and unpleasing frontier town, with all the objectionable features of the Boer embodied in its buildings and general layout.  Such is very far from the truth, thanks to the energetic and progressive uitlanders who have settled here and done much to beautify the place.  It is a town of trees and hedges and flowers.  It has wide avenues and good buildings and can boast of the modernity of electric lights.  [Los Angeles Herald, 30 October 1899]

At the time of the filing of the article from which this extract was taken, the South African Republic (Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek – ZAR) and Orange Free State had been at war with Britain for nineteen days.  At the centre of the conflict was a failure to resolve the Uitlander – or foreigner – question.

Formed in 1852, the territory to the north of the Vaal River was initially occupied by around 40,000 Boer people and governed by a Volksraad (parliament) of 24; Pretoria became its capital in 1860.  The early years of the republic’s existence were marked by uncertainty, mismanagement and threats of a Zulu invasion.  In March 1877, a bankrupt ZAR agreed to being rescued by Britain and was henceforth known as the ‘Transvaal Territory’.  Among those in favour of annexation, and who accepted a salaried post under the British administration, was one Paul Kruger.

Not all Transvalers were happy about this deal and on 13 December 1880, a triumvirate of Boer leaders spearheaded by Kruger proclaimed restoration of the Transvaal Republic, at the same time providing the catalyst for the First Anglo-Boer War.  The few British troops stationed in the territory were no match for the combined forces of the Transvaal and Orange Free State and, after an ignominious defeat at Majuba, Britain – in August 1881 – granted the territory ‘complete self-government, subject to the suzerainty of Her Majesty Queen Victoria’.  Three years later the name, ZAR, was restored.

With its newfound control over internal affairs, the ZAR government put in place a requirement that Uitlanders could only vote in the Volksraad if they had resided in the country for at least five years.  Kruger, now President, saw the ZAR as being intricately bound up with the language, customs and attitudes of his people; anyone who did not manifest those attributes had no right to a share in the government of his country.

In 1886 gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand, a 56-kilometre ridge coterminous with modern-day metropolitan Johannesburg.  Within a few years the region, some 40 miles from Pretoria, became the single largest gold producer in the world, filling the coffers of the Boer republics and making the ZAR a major player in international finance.  It was quickly populated with mining camps and townships, and prospectors streamed to the goldfields from all corners of the globe.  Many were Englishmen.

The discovery of gold made Kruger even more skittish about the presence of foreigners in his country.  In 1890 the ZAR government raised the restriction on full voting rights to ten years’ residency but agreed to give rights in a second Volksraad to those foreigners who had lived in the country for seven years and had been naturalised for two.  The scope of this parliament’s dealings was limited to local matters in Johannesburg and on the mines, and its bills could only be passed if endorsed by the first Volksraad.  The perception of the second Volksraad was that it was ‘really of no account and can only submit suggestions on certain industrial and commercial matters to the First Volksraad, which suggestions are generally disregarded.’[1]

This new restriction not only caused tension between the ZAR and British governments, it upset Uitlanders who felt that their contribution to exploiting the ZAR’s wealth entitled them to a say in how the country’s affairs were run; more so because they were also paying the bulk of the taxes.  In 1892 the Transvaal National Union, formed to advocate for Uitlanders, petitioned the ZAR government for equal rights for all citizens of the state.  To a deputation of seven Union delegates Kruger said, ‘Go back and tell your people that I shall never give them anything.  I shall never change my policy.’[2]  Two years later a law was passed that prohibited any foreigner from obtaining the franchise until he had lived in the ZAR for 14 years.  Subsequent Uitlander petitions were met with a similar rebuttal.

In the wings, Cecil Rhodes had his eye on the main prize.  With the imperialist Joseph Chamberlain now installed as Colonial Secretary, Rhodes watched and waited for an opportunity to strike at the resource-rich republic.  It came in the form of a railway line.

In 1895, at roughly the time the landlocked ZAR was building a line to Delagoa Bay in Mozambique, the Cape Colony government completed a railway line between the Cape and Johannesburg, offering competitive rates as a means of capturing as much of the ZAR traffic as possible.  Kruger promptly slapped a prohibitive tariff on the 40 miles of railway that ran through the ZAR.  Keen to circumvent the tariff, merchants in Johannesburg used ox wagons to bring goods from the southern bank of the Vaal River through the drifts – there was no road bridge – and on to Johannesburg at low rates.  Kruger responded by blocking access to the ZAR side in what became known as the Drifts Crisis.

The crisis passed but the resentment it caused was used by the British government – with the tacit support of Rhodes – to try to force the ZAR into the colonial fold.  Towards the end of 1895, an uprising of Uitlanders in Johannesburg was planned to coincide with an invasion of the ZAR led by Dr Leander Starr Jameson, a British doctor with a practice in Kimberley and friends in high places across the political spectrum.  The plan unravelled after the Uitlanders failed to reach agreement about a future form of government, and Rhodes’ instructions that the raid be aborted were ignored.  Jameson and his men were swiftly despatched by Kruger’s forces and the incident forced Rhodes to resign as premier of the Cape Colony.

In 1896 Chamberlain, bent on achieving a South African union, invited Kruger to London for talks on the Uitlander franchise.  The President declined and the following year Chamberlain sent Sir Alfred Milner to become high commissioner in South Africa and governor of the Cape Colony.  After Kruger was re-elected President in 1898 Milner continued to press for equal representation for foreigners in the ZAR.  Attempts to mediate a solution in Bloemfontein the following year broke down and in September 1899, Chamberlain sent an ultimatum to Kruger demanding full equality for British residents in the republic.  At the same time, Kruger issued a demand that British troops withdraw from the ZAR’s borders within 48 hours, otherwise his country and the Orange Free State would declare war.  11 October 1899 marked the start of the Second Anglo-Boer War.

Six months earlier Harry, having passed the examination for admission and being enrolled to practise as a law agent in the ZAR, took premises opposite the Landdroskantoor (Magistrates Courts) in Pretorius Street, a couple of blocks from Church Square, Pretoria’s civic heart.


Rentia Landman, a Pretoria genealogist, sent me this photo of the Landdroskantoor as it would have appeared at the timeKnowing its location, I can see that the building’s western elevation is captured in morning light, and that the people congregated on the footpath were most likely waiting for the doors to open. The front facade has a lovely symmetry, with its twin gables and ‘mini-me’ counterparts above the doors, and its cascading window recesses.  I wonder if the covered verandah and canvas awnings were an afterthought.

The Legislative Chambers and Law Courts were a central focus of activity in Pretoria.  Mackenzie remarks that there was ‘never any lack of work’ in the law courts ‘because the gold fields of the Rand ensure endless litigation.  There are very many lawyers in Pretoria, and one whole street, known as Dasvogelsnest (Vulture’s Nest), is filled with their offices.  Many of these lawyers are British colonists, and nearly all have been in England to receive their training.  This legal element forms the most cultivated and leading section of society not but that the leading Dutch families also supply well-educated representatives from their younger generation.’  The Africanisation of Pretoria’s street names has since wiped Dasvogelsnest off the map although I expect that it wasn’t far from the hub of legal business around Church Square.

Apparently even after the failed Jameson raid, feeling against Britons was much less marked in Pretoria than it was in Johannesburg.  The capital had an English flavour to it, thanks to its many English residents and two English-language newspapers.  It was a natural magnet for freshly minted English-speaking graduates wanting to make their fortune.  The outbreak of hostilities between the ZAR and Britain put an end to all that.  Before the month of October was out, Harry left Pretoria and the ZAR.

[1]              South Africa, its history, heroes and wars.  Professor Douglas W Mackenzie, assisted by Alfred Stead, Horace Marshall & Son, London 1900

[2]               A History of South Africa, Dorothea Fairbridge, Oxford University Press 1918.