The reviled British bureaucrat who helped shape South Africa

Review: Archie Henderson

Milner: Last of the Empire Builders, by Richard Steyn (Jonathan Ball)

It’s tempting to compare the South Africa of 1902 (not yet a united state) with the country almost a hundred years later in 1994. In both cases the people had emerged from traumatic events: in the first from war and in the second from apartheid.

In both cases, the nation was in need of urgent repair; there had been physical and human devastation across the land. When the Boer War (South African War, Anglo-Boer War) ended, the earth had been scorched and thousands of women and children confined to unsanitary camps where disease killed tens of thousands. Many thousands of black people also died in British camps. At the end of apartheid, millions who had been denied their basic rights, and forced into urban and rural ghettoes needed to be uplifted and granted equality and the illusion of freedom.

In the first case, Alfred Milner stepped up. He was Britain’s high commissioner who had provoked the war in the first place and was then given the responsibility of repairing its damage. He set about it with his renowned vigour, restoring agriculture to feed the nation and getting the railways, a vital element in the economy, up and running again. He was successful, even if the revival benefited mostly the white population.

Milner did this against a backdrop of relief rather than the jubilation. The jubilation came 92 years later with the end of apartheid. Nelson Mandela stood in stark contrast to Milner, one adored the other reviled. Milner was 48 at the time and full of imperial energy; Mandela was already 78 and would leave the heavy lifting to others.

Where Milner laid the foundations for a successful state, albeit with a minority holding the reins, Mandela’s reign was the starting point of its later destruction. Mandela’s ANC promised new beginnings for all, especially the previously downtrodden, but only a few of his party’s elite benefited, thanks to corrupt policies that led to widespread looting of the state.

The comparison is easy to make, but it reduces the role of Milner to a single role in the histories of the British empire and South Africa. He did a lot more than make the trains run on time. Some of it was good, like helping to revive South Africa’s economy, but there was also a lot that was not so good.

Milner operated in ivory towers, uninterested in those on the ground. He made little effort to understand Afrikaners, especially those in the Boer republics, when he came to the Cape as high commissioner. He was similarly guilty in Ireland and Russia where he failed to detect the stirrings of nationalism and revolution.

In South Africa he especially did not understand black people, or even try to. “There is no question of the black population ever becoming a danger to the supremacy of the whites,” he once said, totally unaware that they might like to share the running of their country and themselves. He “was by training and temperament a bureaucrat. He knew nothing of the populace that trod the streets outside the bureau,” Lloyd George said of him.

Milner was an austere figure and hugely complex. Where Richard Steyn’s book is so successful is in unravelling that complexity. He also gives Milner some humanity, through his various love affairs, one with Elinor Glyn, the 50 Shades of Grey writer of her time, and with another man’s wife, Lady Violet Cecil, whom he married late in life and who was devoted to him and his legacy.

Steyn’s achievement is all the more remarkable in that he did some extraordinary research in the time of Covid lockdown. Unable to travel widely, he got help from various people, especially Dr Stephen Massie in Oxford, who was able to read vital Milner papers in the Bodleian.

Of his five books, so far – three of them about famous personalities – this one of a forgotten character of South African history, may be his best.


One thought on “The reviled British bureaucrat who helped shape South Africa

  1. David Bristow

    In Milner Jan Smuts and his supporters found a champion to entrench white political and economic supremacy, while not everyone was so hell bent on that course. One of our great “what ifs ….”


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