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Edited by

 Con de Wet

     Elizabeth van Heyningen

     Chris van der Merwe


Marthinus Theunis Steyn features prominently in two earlier volumes published by the Van Riebeeck Society (VRS), viz. Die Konvensie Dagboek van F.S. Malan (1951) and Selections from the Correspondence of John X. Merriman, vol. 4 (1969). In both, however, what he said or wrote are parachuted into the text as they form only part of larger narratives not focussed on him. The run-up to his words in these volumes is thus absent, making it difficult for readers to appreciate how and why he reached the opinions he expressed. This is the gap which this volume fills above all, for, in making available for the first time a wide selection of his letters between 1904 and 1910, it allows readers to follow his transformation from being a man whom the less-than- friendly 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica called the most irreconcilable of the Boer leaders’ to a person whom it felt was distinguished for his statesmanlike and conciliatory attitude. His role in the negotiations which produced the first new South Africa’ in 1910 was pivotal and these letters show how and why his outlook mellowed sufficiently for him to gain such behind-the-scenes influence.


For enabling readers to follow Steyns transformation as evinced in the letters in this volume the VRS is indebted to two committed editors, Con de Wet and Elizabeth van Heyningen, to a dexterous translator, Chris van der Merwe, to four sharp-eyed copyeditors, Russell Martin, Tom McLachlan, Sandra Commerford and Rolf Proske, and to three generous benefactors (the Otto Foundation Trust via the Department of History at the University of Stellenbosch, the Fonds Neerlandstiek and the Van Ewijck Foundation) for their significant subsidies towards publication. The editors and the translator have laboured long, hard and skilfully at this project, for it was first mooted to the VRS as long ago as 1996 by the then Director of the Free State Archives, Piet du Plessis. However, it was 2004 before Dr de Wet was able to start work on it and 2016 before Dr van Heyningen was able (despite the short notice) to shape and polish so insightfully what he had compiled into the finished text that follows. The editors and the translator readily gave their all to the laborious tasks of selection, transcription, translation and annotation of documents which illuminate a key period in the sub-continent’s history, and for this the VRS is most grateful.

These tasks they undertook just as a second new South Africa’ was unfolding, raising issues which echoed those which Steyn and his contemporaries had faced 100 years earlier, like language, identity, education, social upliftment and race relations. Indeed, if Steyns use of the word race’ in a speech at the National Convention in 1908 had had the meaning not of Afrikaner and English races’ (as was then common) but the meaning it has today of Black and White races, it could well stand as a telling message to 21st Century South Africa. He told the delegates, Once the races are assured that whoever gains control of affairs, there will be no danger of either race as such being menaced, Parties will be formed on more sensible and useful bases than those of racial divisions.

        Howard Phillips (chair of the VRS).   27 April 2017.



Con has done the very considerable job selecting the letters for this volume and he also began the work of identifying the many individuals mentioned in the text. My task, then, has been to provide the historical context.

In some respects Steyn is a familiar historical figure - one of the great heroes of the South African War. We have a tendency not to look too closely at heroes, to take them for granted so, when I came to write the introductions to the letters, I thought I should try to see him through fresh eyes. These letters do not include the period leading up to the war, or those of the war itself. Instead, they deal with Steyn’s declining years when he might have been considered a lesser figure in South Africa’s political life. Yet he was not, and this is truly remarkable.

In the first place, Steyn was an ill man. At the end of the war he was struck down by a paralysis which has now been identified, perhaps, as an autoimmune disease called myasthenia gravis. It’s always uncertain identifying historical diseases because the symptoms are often inadequately described. However, in the case of Steyn the course of his illness is told in some detail. In effect, it left him able to use his hands only with difficulty. The most striking feature was the effect on his eyelids which always drooped after the war. But, if this was the ailment that he suffered from, one of the greatest problems was that the symptoms got worse with activity. In other words, Steyn was debarred from playing an active role in South Africa’s political life.

This takes us into the realm of ‘what might have been’. Historians should step warily here but I found myself thinking, on a number of occasions, what might have happened if Steyn had been well. To make a couple of suggestions:

(1) the Treaty of Vereeniging might not have been signed on 31 May 1902. Steyn was the ultimate bittereinder and he was strongly opposed to the terms of the peace. He told Christian de Wet that the Boers were selling out for £3 million - the amount granted in compensation. (On the other hand, the Boers might have gone with Louis Botha anyway, lessening Steyn’s prestige.)
(2) Steyn’s greatest moment in these post-war years was his role at the National Convention in 1908. Smuts and Merriman desperately wanted him to attend because they knew that his standing amongst the Boers was so great that he, more than anyone else, could perhaps bring on board the more reluctant Afrikaners. As a result, he was made vice-chair of the Convention and he did, indeed, prove his worth. Even old enemies like L.S. Amery and Dr Jameson remarked on his ability to reconcile conflicting parties. So, if he had been well, would Steyn have been South Africa’s first prime minister? And if he had been, would this have prevented the 1914 rebellion that broke out in opposition to South Africa’s invasion of German South West Africa at the start of World War I?

Another feature of these letters that I thought was both unusual and topical, was that this is a rare study of politics, power and disability. Increasingly now, we recognise that there is a place for people suffering from disability. We have relatively few accounts in South Africa of the inner life of someone so afflicted. Steyn’s stubbornness, which prevented him from surrendering during the war, stood him in good stead in the face of illness. With determination and good humour he struggled to learn to walk again, and even to write, something that was always a hardship. More than this, his wisdom, his sweetness of temper, and his status, enabled him to act as elder statesman in the aftermath of the war, even when he could not participate actively. From the stoep of his farm at Onze Rust he received visitors and wrote letters to South Africa’s leading politicians.

President Steyn recuperating in Europe 1903

So what were his achievements? They can be summed up briefly: language, education and reconciliation. I’m not going to dwell on the first two because Chris is going to say something about them. We don’t usually think of Steyn as the great conciliator - that accolade goes to Louis Botha. But, between 1906 and 1910 he conducted a remarkable correspondence especially with Smuts and John X. Merriman, in which the three men worked out their ideas on Union. One topic was Union versus Confederation and, with the American and Australian examples before them, they opted for Union as less divisive.

A second major, and difficult, topic, was that of the franchise. Who should have the right to vote? Women didn’t come into the picture. Interestingly, if female suffrage had been considered seriously, Steyn is the only one of the three who would probably have supported it. But the issue was, rather, the black vote. None of the three covered themselves in glory on this matter. But neither did the British. The reality was that none of them could envisage a world in which black people were considered equal to whites. Since they were all interested in social justice, they all knew very well that all male South African adults should have the vote, but they couldn’t face it. Instead, they brushed the subject under the carpet. It could be dealt with sometime in the future, when somehow black people had become ‘civilised’. They knew, of course, that it would be almost impossible to bring their constituents on board, but they were far too complacent in their discussions of the matter.

Steyn only agreed to attend the Convention after he had persuaded Louis Botha that the principle of the language question - the equality of Dutch with English - would be accepted beforehand. In the event, it proved to be the clause that almost broke the Convention. And it was Steyn who brought the more recalcitrant JBM Hertzog on board, and persuaded Brits like Jameson that Dutch should be accepted in government and education on the same basis as English. In the event, they did not get quite what they wanted - that all civil servants should be bilingual - but it was enough. Having got over this hurdle, Steyn played a critical role in soothing the sensibilities of isolationist English-speaking Natalians.

And afterwards Steyn and Hertzog had no difficulty persuading Free Staters to accept the terms of the Convention. Merriman in the Cape had far more trouble. He had to cope with people like WP Schreiner, who fought for an extended black franchise, and with F.S. Malan and Onze Jan Hofmeyr, whose loyalties were uncertain.

Steyn himself had one final decision to make. Should he stand for public office in the new South Africa? Sadly, his doctors did not recommend this and he was forced to accept his place as one of South Africa’s most revered elder statesmen, out of the hurly-burly of active political life.


Die rede hoekom ek besluit het om Steyn se korrespondensie te publiseer was omdat ek gevoel het dat Steyn nie altyd die aandag wat hy verdien in die geskiedskrywing gekry het nie. Na my mening is die rede daarvoor dat hy gedurende sy hele openbare lewe in die skaduwee van pres. Paul Kruger gelewe het. Ek was bly om te sien dat prof. M.C.E. van Schoor daarmee saamgestem het, want in die voorwoord van sy biografie van Steyn, Marthinus Theunis Steyn. Regsman, staatsman en volksman, wat in 2009 verskyn het, skryf hy dat 'n moontlike rede daarvoor dalk is dat pres. Steyn te lank "in die skaduwee van die oormatige verheerliking van pres. Kruger gestaan het" en dat inligting oor horn in Afrikaans, naas die twee toe nog enigste biografiee van Steyn, naamlik N.J. van der Merwe se Marthinus Theunis Steyn- (1921) - en Karel Schoeman, In lie/de en trou (1983), slegs in verspreide tydskrif- en koerantartikels, radiopraatjies en hoorbeelde te vinde was.

Hopelik sal hierdie publikasie van Steyn se korrespondensie die leser help om 'n veel beter begrip te vorm van die mens Marthinus Theunis Steyn. Hy word algemeen beskou as 'n vegter vir die regte van die Afrikaner-gemeenskap, en dit was hy beslis. Maar uit sy korrespondensie en sy gesinslewe is dit ook duidelik dat hy ander volksgroepe en gemeenskappe 'n regmatige plek gegun om hulle oortuigings uit te leef. Die duidelikste voorbeeld daarvan is sy huwelik en gesinslewe. Hy is in 1887 met Rachel Isabella (Tibbie) Fraser getroud. Haar oupa, ds. Colin Fraser, was een van die Skotse predikante wat in 1815 na die Kaapkolonie gekom het en was die predikant van die N.G. gemeente Beaufort-Wes. Haar vader, ook Colin Fraser, was die leraar van die N.G. gemeente van Philippolis. Daar het 'n besondere sterk liefdesband binne die Steyn-gesin bestaan, maar tog het elke lid van die gesin die vryheid geniet om sy/haar lewensideale uit te leef. Mev. Steyn het byvoorbeeld in Engels met die kinders gekorrespondeer en pres. Steyn in Nederlands. Hoewel dit onder die Afrikaners die gebruik was dat die oudste seun van die gesin na die oupa aan vaderskant vernoem is, is die Steyns se oudste en enigste seun na sy oupa aan moederskant vernoem - Colin Fraser Steyn. Dit is ook opmerklik dat Steyn en sy eggenote 'n groot invloed op die kinders uitgeoefen het, want hoewel hulle later jare uiteenlopende politieke menings gehuldig het, is die gesinsband nooit verbreek nie.

Nadat die Britte Bloemfontein in Maart 1900 verower het, het Steyn en sy regering as die sogenaamde Regering te velde saam met die Vrystaatse strydmagte die stryd voortgesit. By Reitz is die meeste van hulle egter gevange geneem, maar Steyn het ontsnap danksy sy swart agterryer wat sy perd aan die president gegee het om te ontvlug. Die ontberings het egter sy lot van Steyn geeis en op 30 Mei 1902, 'n dag voor die ondertekening van die Vredesverdrag van Vereeniging, het hy uitgetree as president en genl. De Wet as waarnemende president benoem. Op 11 Julie 1902 het hy en sy gesin na Europa vertrek om daar mediese behandeling te ontvang. In Januarie 1905 het die gesin na Suid-Afrika teruggekeer en hulle op hulle plaas Onze Rust naby Bloemfontein gaan vestig. Hoewel hy tot met sy dood in 1916 nie meer aktief in die politiek betrokke was nie, het hy nogtans op versoek van verskeie persone tog ingestem om in 1908-1910 as ondervoorsitter van die Nasionale Konvensie, waaruit die Unie van Suid-Afrika op 31 Mei 1910 ontstaan het, op te tree.


Generaal Christiaan de Wet hou 'n toespraak tydens  President Steyn se begrafnis 1916

Steyn se korrespondente het 'n groot getal beroemde persone in Suid-Afrika en in Europa aan die begin van die 20ste eeu ingesluit. Hulle het ingesluit genl. C.F. Beyers, genl. Louis Botha, Jaap de Villiers, Abraham Fischer, genl. J.B.M. Hertzog, J.H. (Onse Jan) Hofmeyr, dr. W.J. Leyds, dr. N. Mansvelt, John X. Merriman en genl. J.C. Smuts. Merriman was een van Steyn se getrouste korrespondente en in die versameling is daar 85 briewe van horn en Steyn se antwoorde daarop. Ek vertrou dat hierdie publikasie die lig sal laat val op die belangrike rol wat Steyn in die geskiedenis van Suid-Afrika gespeel het.

Vergun my ook om my dank te betuig teenoor persone wat 'n belangrike bydrae gelewer het in die publikasie. Eerstens aan die Van Riebeeckvereniging en in die besonder die voorsitter, Howard Phillips, wat 'n allerbelangrike rol gespeel het in die tot standkoming van hierdie publikasie. Hy was van die begin af entoesiasties oor die projek en het 'n belangrike rol gespeel om die publikasie die lig te laat sien. Verder ook aan die mede-redakteur, Elizabeth van Heyningen, wat die finale afronding gedoen het en die manuskrip persklaar gemaak het. Ook aan Chris van der Merwe vir die vertaling van die Nederlandse briewe in Engels. En laastens, maar allermins die minste, aan my eggenoote, Blanche, en ons dogter, Sonja, vir hulle intense belangstelling in die hele proses en die ondersteuning en verdraagsaamheid wat ek deurentyd van hulle ontvang het. Aan julle almal my innige dank!



In my capacity as translator, I will speak in English as well as Afrikaans.

Unlike Elizabeth and Con, my connection with Steyn is not a Free State one, but a literary one. Through Die pluimsaad waai ver (‘The seeds spread widely’), a drama by N P van Wyk Louw, my interest in Steyn increased greatly. Steyn is a main character in the play, and Louw depicts Steyn as a role model for Afrikaners – not Paul Kruger, who was regarded by most Afrikaners of the time as the suffering hero of the Anglo Boer War. Louw appreciated in Steyn the combination of broadmindedness and loyalty to his people. Unlike Kruger, who went into exile, Steyn remained on the battle field until the end of the war. Unlike Kruger, Steyn was an educated man; he was less conservative, and had good relationships outside Afrikaner circles – but he was also unwavering in his loyalty to Afrikaner independence and freedom and in his opposition to (what he saw as) grave British injustice.

Steyn was vir Van Wyk Louw ʼn toonbeeld van ‘Liberale nasionalisme’, ʼn konsep waarin Louw sterk geglo het; ʼn konsep wat twee skynbaar teenoorgestelde kenmerke bymekaar bring, naamlik ‘liberalisme’ en ‘nasionalisme’.

While I translated the letters, the relevance of Steyn’s letters for the present South Africa became clear to me. Steyn realised the importance of education for the well-being of his people. Today we need to realise the vital importance of education again; although we should broaden Steyn’s view of education to include all the people of the country.

Ons moet weet: Na die oorlog was Steyn se mense in ʼn haglike situasie – arm, verslaan, verslae. Hy het geweet opvoeding is die sleutel tot heropbou. Hy was in sonderheid bekommerd oor die lot van Afrikaner-meisies, want daar was geen Nederlandse meisieskool in die Vrystaat nie. Opvoeding was vir hom uiters belangrik, nie net vir seuns nie, maar ook vir meisies. Daarom het hy die inisiatief geneem met die stigting van die Oranje Meisieskool in Bloemfontein.

Steyn was in favour of mother tongue education – he feared that Afrikaner culture and identity would be overwhelmed if English would become the sole language of communication in the schools and government. He was convinced of the richness of his Dutch heritage, of its language and culture, and passionate in maintaining it. He argued for the equality of Dutch and English as official languages, because, as Howard Phillips mentioned in his Foreword: Steyn believed, once the Afrikaners’ fear of being overwhelmed by English were removed, the relationship between the two language groups would improve greatly.

Steyn wrote his letters in Dutch, English and Afrikaans, depending on the recipient. He did not make a choice between Dutch and Afrikaans – he did not enter into the debate among Afrikaners on the desirability of Standard Dutch, Simplified Dutch or a developing new language, Afrikaans. The important point for him was to maintain Afrikaner identity, which was linked to language, and both Afrikaans and Dutch could serve that purpose.

To some of his friends, especially Jaap de Villiers, Steyn wrote in Afrikaans. Thereby he showed his sympathy for the developing language, although he is sometimes uncertain about the correct use of Afrikaans.

Ons moet onthou: Sy Afrikaanse briewe is geskryf aan die begin van die 20ste eeu – lank voor die standaardisasie van Afrikaans, en slegs aan die begin van ontwikkelinge wat later die Tweede Afrikaanse Taalbeweging genoem sou word. Afrikaans was nog nie gestandaardiseer nie; daar was nog geen eenstemmigheid oor taalreŽls nie. Wanneer hy skryf aan Jaap de Villiers, regsgeleerde en politikus in die Transvaal, soek hy soms hulp vir die regte skryfwyse in Afrikaans; hy is onseker oor die korrekte formulering en spelling. Uit vandag se oogpunt sou ons sÍ hy skryf ʼn mengsel van Afrikaans en Nederlands, soekend na die korrekte skryfwyse. Dit sien ons onder andere in brief 23 (pp. 61-62), wat hy so afsluit:

Soos jy sien is my Afrikaans nog een beekie deur makaar. Wat maak jelle met de z en ch. Gooi jelle hulle weg. Ik schryf nou niet meer nie. Ons zal later praat.’

Brief 51, ook in Afrikaans aan Jaap de Villiers, eindig soos volg:

‘Trap vas en hou jullie lyf renosters. Julli zal nou van alles beschuldig word wat onder de zon is. Pasop net voor eeretitels, dit zal meer breek dan iets anders’ (pp.109-110).

‘Pasop net voor eeretitels’ – beware of honorary titles. Steyn was not someone who strived after honour or riches; his main concern was to remain true to his principles. Today there may be difference of opinion about the choices that Steyn made; there may be criticism against ideological views of his time which he shared; but there can be no doubt about his integrity – the integrity which is so sadly lacking in present South African politics. To return to Van Wyk Louw’s drama and the ‘liberal nationalism’ he found in Steyn: Steyn could play a vital role at the National Convention because he was liberal in his communication with people of different backgrounds and opinions; but he was also influential because he was respected by all, even by those who did not share his nationalism – respected for his suffering and self-sacrifice for the cause in which he believed.

To read some of the reviews published about this publication click here