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South Africa and the Perils of Forced Union in the Middle East

Having learned nothing from history, the West is compelling warring tribes to coexist against their will.

On May 31, 1902, Lord Kitchener, second-in-command of British forces operating in South Africa, met with Boer delegates to negotiate terms for an end to the Second Boer War. The Boers were represented by some of their most talented field commanders, including Koos de la Rey, the “Lion of West Transvaal,” and Christiaan de Wet, who fought at Majuba Hill — the 1881 battle that forced London to recognize Boer independence for a further twenty years.

De la Rey and De Wet passionately argued over the necessity of surrender. According to an interpretation by Joyce Kotze in her novel, The Runaway Horses, De Wet maintained that the religious honor and dignity of the Boers would be destroyed and Boer commandos should fight to the bitter end. De la Rey, emotional, retorted, “Fight to the bitter end? Is what you are saying? But has the bitter end not come?”

Whereas Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in order to avoid sending his shattered army off to fight as guerrillas, that was exactly what De la Rey had done so successfully for the better part of a year. His admission of the futility of continued resistance resonated; the alternative to surrender was, perhaps, to subject the Boers to the fate of the Jews after the Second Revolt: complete destruction and forced exile.

The Second Boer War completed Britain’s domination of Southern Africa. The Boers had tried to get away from British rule since the Great Trek of the early nineteenth century and staved off Her Majesty’s government for many a decade. In the end, having absorbed the defeat of 1881 and crushed the Zulu in Natal, the British deployed half a million men to finish off the heavily outnumbered and internationally ignored Boers. The Boer delegation, functionally led by Louis Botha, acceded to the end of their people’s independence and swore loyalty to the British crown in exchange for the preservation of Afrikaans, a promise of future self-government and the avoidance of punitive economic measures in connection with the War.

Perversely, Kitchener excluded from the de facto amnesty provisions of the Treaty of Vereeniging those Boers who engaged in “certain acts contrary to the usage of war.” This was the same Kitchener who supervised the wholesale destruction of Boer farming communities and herded thousands of women and children into concentration camps to die of starvation. Now, the Boers smashed, Britain wanted a quick settlement and to consolidate control of the gold and diamond assets which served as primary drivers of the conflict.

Viewing the terms of Vereeniging in context, one could almost believe Britain had an on-off switch to prosecuting its colonial wars. To achieve victory, it was prepared to do almost anything, no matter how mendacious. Once secured, priority was given to a rapid exit.

In exchange for laying down their arms and professing loyalty to the British, the Boers were promised no interference in their day-to-day affairs and an end to the military occupation of their former states, now reclassified as the Transvaal and Orange River Colonies.

Furthermore, as was the case in Ireland with the Irish Free State and India under the Raj, Britain was eager to elevate credible local leaders — in the case of the Boers, Jan Smuts and Louis Botha — to political prominence for ease of oversight. Although the British Parliament could legislate on behalf of the colonies and British industrialists expanded their access into formerly Boer-controlled territories, there is little to suggest (as intimated at Vereeniging) that the British were ever interested in a protracted presence in South Africa akin to what existed in Ireland prior to 1922.

The path toward devolution culminated in the South Africa Act of 1909, which merged the Cape, Natal, Orange River and Transvaal Colonies into the Union of South Africa — a British dominion. For administrative reasons, the British had foisted a country upon South Africans that none of them really wanted. The Boers and the Zulu, among others, had unsuccessfully fought to preserve their independence and were theretofore content with their political enclaves. Now they were politically joined, given a legislature and prime minister and basically told to manage their problems themselves with limited direct involvement from London. Although the king would be represented by a governor-general and Parliament retained supremacy over the South African legislature (this functionally ceased in the 1930s), most matters were left to the locals.

The forced Union of South Africa, meant to improve governance and bring uniformity to its peoples, engendered enmities and hatreds which plague the country to this day.

The Afrikaner minority was split between nationalists and British loyalists, with the Boer community yearning for a restoration of their independence (a hope dashed by a National Party fearing an erosion of its then political dominance).

The Bantu tribes effectively lost any ability to gain political recognition on their own terms — the British army began imposing curfews and racial restrictions during and in the years preceding the Second Boer War and the Afrikaner-dominated National Party adopted apartheid as official policy in the aftermath of the 1948 election.

The English-speaking community, concentrated in Cape Colony, became a minority within a minority and had their sectoral interests effectively supplanted by the larger and more organized Afrikaners.

Instead of a shotgun marriage by British bayonets, everyone would have been better off with a restoration of the Second Boer War status quo ante bellum. The English speakers would have remained in the Cape with a stable plurality, including loyalist Afrikaners who sided with Britain against the Boers in the conflict; the Boers would regain their forfeit republics (the South African Republic and the Orange Free State) while the Bantu peoples would reign in Natal and northern tribal areas. Each community would, in other words, have a sphere of influence where it could preserve its culture and interact with its neighbors on its own terms.

The historical record strengthens this approach as, far from incessant hostility and forced segregation, early interactions between South Africa’s black and white peoples were anchored in negotiation. The Boer trekkers negotiated with the Zulu king for land access and settlement rights and Britain initially acquiesced to the existence of the Boer republics. This does not discount tension and occasional bloody conflict (see the Battle of Blood River) but the tone of relations was more begrudging respect than ignominious contempt.

Repeating the South African mistake

Just as Britain imposed a bad union on people who did not seek it in South Africa and exited before the full consequences of that error became apparent, so Western powers are trying to impose false political realities across the wider Middle East. Especially American policy in the region is driven by a national unity fetish that does not correspond with the wishes of the region’s residents nor with the unstoppable forces of history. As in South Africa, the consequences can be seen in exacerbated tribal and religious hatreds, loss of life and systemic instability.

Of all the case studies that demonstrate how much the West continues to get wrong, none are as illustrative as Iraq and Syria.

In Iraq, Western policy has shifted from the unwise to the near schizophrenic. Instead of using its leverage in Baghdad to put the Kurds on a path toward independence, a move which would simultaneously put pressure on Turkey, help check the Islamic State in Syria and weaken Iranian expansion toward the Gulf and the Levant, Washington has done everything in its power to compel the Kurds to seek redress with a hostile, weak and untrustworthy Shia government in the name of keeping Iraq together.

What Iraq was — a creature of convenience handed to Emir Faisal by the British as a consolation prize for dashing his hopes of a Pan-Arab state with a capital in Damascus — hardly appears relevant. What Iraq is — a geographically united but politically splintered construct — is also unimportant. All that matters for American policymakers, it seems, is to keep up appearances that your grandfather’s Middle East is still there. Without an Iraq that only exists on paper, regional balance will be permanently disturbed.

There is no unified Iraq and perpetuating the fiction will only yield more chaos and bloodshed. Justice and conduct on the battlefield dictate that the Kurds should no longer outsource their political aspirations and economic security to Baghdad. Neither should the Sunnis — ousted from power and, as of quite recently, targeted for death by Shia militias loosely affiliated with Iraqi security forces — be compelled to accept sectoral democracy where tribal loyalties guarantee their permanent marginalization. The status quo should not continue and a tripartite partition of Iraq has been overdue for years. At a minimum, special administrative areas should be considered for the three dominant communities with arrangements for an equitable distribution of resource revenues.

In other words, let the actions of the Iraqi people, not the imaginations of Western analysts, determine Iraq’s future.

In Syria, the yearning for unity has led the West to alternate support between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its adversaries. Instead of working with the northern Kurds to secure a path toward their independence or autonomy, providing Assad loyalists with a rump state in much of the south and working with regional partners to destroy the Islamic State (with the understanding that a united Syria would not be on the table given existing political realities and the status of forces), Western policymakers have searched in vain for an all-or-nothing silver bullet (i.e., work to keep Assad in total control of Syria or find an acceptable rebel coalition to force his departure).

The son is not the father and what Hafez could get away with against the Muslim Brotherhood during the Cold War is not something Bashar can achieve now. The center of regional gravity has shifted so profoundly that Syria’s relevance in the Middle East has effectively devolved to that of North Korea with respect to East Asia (Syria is a stand-in for Iran and Russia as North Korea is for China). Surely this was not always the case but Syria’s moment in the Arab sun, reaching its zenith between World War I and the Yom Kippur War, has ended. No matter what the objective of a shrewd policymaker — thwarting Iran, balancing Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs or restraining Turkey — a united Syria, with or without Assad, will not get him where he wants to go.

The British created South Africa out of convenience and a desire to maximize short-term returns. Less than ten years after crushing the Boers in one of the cruelest military campaigns in African history, they washed their hands of the matter and moved on to bigger things. The peoples of South Africa, defeated by the British and mistrustful of each other, had to figure out a way to get along within the false construct London imposed. The result was almost a century of racial hatred, violence and resentment.

The West now wishes to repeat the South African mistake in the Middle East. Having learned nothing from history, American and European policymakers are struggling to keep artificial states united and compel warring tribes to coexist against their will. Just as this model failed in Pretoria and Cape Town, so too will it surely fail in Baghdad and Damascus.

One comment

  1. This article was an amazing read, I take my hat for you and share all your opinions.
    Why people are trying to deny the sectarianization of Iraq? It’s almost as if the political level behind western armies were deficient or completely absent. They send their armies to the middle east, yet they don’t have any political goals or coherence to this action (unlike the british during the boer wars, who at least prized gold and diamonds). Maybe americans thought they could make Iraq into a vassal state, but ended in deep failure, only strengthening Iran?

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