Why did the United Party loose the 1948 General Election?

Essay, 2007

23 Seiten, Note: 1c


The reasons why the United Party in South Africa lost the 1948 General Election must be scrutinised in the context of changing international dispositions and the impact of competing ideologies of liberalism, Nazism communism, and capitalism. These ideologies went some way to structuring South African society, both during the war and in the post-war era prior to 1948, influencing the way in which the United Party governed South Africa. The structure of society placed Smuts’ United Party in an invidious position between the divergent and increasingly prominent nationalisms of radical Afrikaners and that of a developing African identity and citizenship. The manner in which the United Party managed these pressures is crucial to this discussion. Within this context, the reasons for the United Party’s General Election defeat will be ascertained by examining the effects of World War II on South African politics, the impact of international affairs on Smuts’ government, together with the policies of the United Party, National Party and the emergent articulate black intelligentsia at the forefront of a resurgent and politicised African nationalism. The role of trade unions, urban and rural economics, will also be analysed, as will the electioneering of the protagonists during the election preliminaries, together with the parliamentary and voting system.

During the 1940s the pre-existing schisms in the South African political structure and society widened. These enlarging schisms were partly the result of the fear of, and the eventual defeat of, Nazism, and the ensuing flood of liberalism, together with the threat of communist ideology. The widening gulf between English-speakers and Afrikaners created by Smuts’ controversial decision to enter World War II further fractured the white population. The threat of fascism, abroad and at home, threw together alliances of African nationalism, Coloured people, Indians and communists seeking a “united, greater and free South Africa.”[1] This in turn further engendered the fear of ‘black swamping’ in the Afrikaner community and the paramountcy of Afrikaner self-preservation. According to Giliomee, “the main ideological influences on apartheid were not Nazi racial dogmas.”[2] However, as Furlong[3] convincingly argues this was not so. The association of Nazi style organisations such as the anti-Semitic Greyshirts and the Ossewabrandwag to the Nationalist cause - however minimal and short-lived - fostered racial hatred, heightening fears amongst liberal whites and non-Europeans alike of a fascist revolution in South Africa. Indeed, as late as January 1948 Malan’s National Party was being accused of fraternizing “with organisations [Broederbond and Ossewabrandwag] which aim at overthrowing the constitution.”[4] Meanwhile, the perceived optimism generated internationally by the Atlantic Charter of 1941, with a more liberal and anti-colonial “wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them,”[5] infused African nationalism in South Africa with new found hope and vigour. The impact of these ideologies on South Africa is not offered as an excuse or a reason for the defeat of the United Party in 1948. Nevertheless, the schisms they created placed the United Party in an invidious and difficult political position, creating a conducive climate for their General Election defeat.

World War II not only deepened the existing rift between white Europeans in South Africa, it provided monomaniacal motivation for the United Party. This motivation was directed by Smuts as a recognised international statesman of repute following his involvement with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and with the resulting League of Nations. The United Party under Smuts’ leadership pursued international policies to the detriment of internal affairs and politics, as Dubow correctly states, this “served to create a stasis in the governing party.”[6] Smuts’ inclusion in Churchill’s war cabinet, his preoccupation with the prosecution of the war, expansionist aims in South West Africa and the aggrandizement of the British protectorates of Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland were all at the expense of attempting to resolve domestic problems. Dr. A.B. Xuma, President of the African National Congress, recognised this when commenting on Smuts’ expansionist aims in 1946 that “South Africa must first remove colour bar, restrictions, discriminations at home.”[7] Such was Smuts’ single-mindedness in international affairs, Sir William Clark, British High Commissioner to South Africa, bemoaned that once he had “made up his mind, General Smuts can be very determined and ruthless.”[8] Smuts’ expansionist policies received severe censure at the United Nations, particularly “the racial discrimination to which the South African nationals of Indian origin are subjected by the Government of the Union of South Africa.”[9] Any hope of achieving his expansionist aims was dependent on the acceptance of a perceived attempt to address racialism in South Africa before the international community would relent. It is arguable, therefore that the introduction of a more ‘liberal’ racial policy, as discussed hereunder, was intended to advance imperial aims in Africa, rather than the creation of a more egalitarian society. Therefore, the United Party lost the 1948 General Election because it alienated the party from large sections of voters by pursuing monomaniacal international policies.

Smuts’ Holism in international affairs did not extend to domestic problems. Food shortages, war angst amongst Afrikaners created by the use of internment camps and the huge urban influx of African labour to the disadvantage of agricultural areas were not addressed adequately by the United Party. Moreover, the threat of a “Hitlerite victory” meant for non-white people in South Africa “the adoption of a rigid policy of racial discrimination and segregation,”[10] clearly stated the concerns of non-whites to a possible Nationalist government with perceived Nazi tendencies. This should have galvanised the United Party to introduce far reaching reform to prevent these concerns arising. Indeed, Smuts’ Holism meant “the ultimate ‘unity and oneness’ of mankind under the dominance of the Teutonic peoples,”[11] and did not extend to non-Europeans in South Africa. Discontent with United Party domestic policy was evident as early as 1943. According to Alexander and Seekings, the United Party “handsomely” won the General Election of 1943[12]. However, Tothill argues that victory gave only the “illusion of a triumph,”[13] and should not be construed as being indicative of either United Party dominance or National Party weakness. Later defeat could only be staved off by “extremely vigilant and efficient government in the next five critical years”[14] - a course of action that the government was either unwilling or unable to pursue. As late as 1947, in the aftermath of World War II, rising white poverty, rising trade unionism and protests from the Natives’ Representatives Council, Smuts was still blaming his involvement with the war for making it “practically impossible for me to move much among the people and get in touch with various sections of our people”[15]. Hence, the 1948 Election was lost because efficient government had been lacking.

Crucial to the demise of the United Party was its failure to adopt ‘liberal’ reform, particularly on the issue of race relations. Smuts’ deliberation that “our native policy would have to be liberalized at a modest pace”[16] bore fruit in the early 1940s, giving rise to hope by non-whites and liberal whites of a reformed, more egalitarian post-war society. Hopes for welfare reform were raised with the National Health Services Commission in 1944; the social conditions of African urban workers were investigated by the Smit Commission in 1942, with the 1944 Lansdown Commission investigating the economic and working conditions of black mineworkers. A plethora of other commissions and anticipated resultant legislation, together with the relaxation of segregationist policies to accommodate the growing need for labour caused by growing urbanisation and capitalism, raised expectations of a new future. Uys avers that the United Party’s preservation of white paramountcy was “conditioned by acceptance of the fact that the survival of the White man’s paramountcy rested on his ability to accept change when change was due.”[17] The contrary was in fact the case. The United Party’s reluctance to make ‘liberal’ change was a contributory factor to its demise. The fact that the United Party failed to follow through on ‘liberal’ reform was partly reaction to a direct and prolonged attack on the party’s racial policy by the National Party. In the face of charges of Communism for envisaging an egalitarian society and the portrayal of Finance Minister J.H. Hoffmeyr of “being in favour of equality for Europeans and non-Europeans”[18], an allegation he strongly denied, and therefore of being dangerously liberal. Thus, the United Party retreated from relative ‘liberalism’ to entrenched conservatism. Rather than trying to contain or assimilate the rising tide of Afrikaner nationalism to the United Party, it reacted to the pressure of a concerted Nationalist campaign by failing to legislate sufficiently on the proposals of Commissions of Enquiry, reinforced the pass laws and sought succour in conservatism. The United Party thus lost the 1948 General Election because it failed to assimilate Afrikaner nationalism. Instead it reacted to Nationalist pressure in failing to adopt liberal reform and retreated to a conservative position.


[1] Joint Declaration of Cooperation by Dr. A.B. Xuma, Dr. G.M. Naicker and Dr. Y.M. Dadoo in March, 1947 in Dadoo Y.M., South Africa’s Freedom Struggle: Statements, Speeches and Articles including Correspondence with Mahatma Ghandi (London: Kliptown Books 1990), p. 43.

[2] Giliomee, H., The Afrikaners: Biography of a People, (Cape Town: Tafelburg Publishers, 2003), p. xvii.

3 Furlong P. “Apartheid, Afrikaner Nationalism and the Radical Right: Historical revisionism in Hermann Filiomee’s The Afrikaners” in South African Historical Journal 49 (November 2003),

4Honourable Member Friend of the House of Assembly in Union of South Africa: Debates of the House of Assembly fifth Session – Ninth Parliament Volumes 62 and 63 (Cape Town, Parliamentary Printers 1948), p. 410.

5 “African Claims in South Africa” at http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/claims.html (accessed on 15 October 2007).

[6] Dubow S., “Introduction: South Africa’s 1940s” in Dubow, S. and Jeeves, A. (eds.), South Africa’s 1940s: Worlds of Possibilities (Cape Town: Double Storey c2005), p. 12.

[7] “Cable from Dr. A.B. Xuma to the General Assembly of the United Nations” at http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/library-resources/letters/1946_cable-united-nation-xuma.html (accessed on 20 October 2007).

[8] Sir William Clark, British High Commissioner to South Africa, quoted in Henshaw P. “South African Territorial Expansion and the International Reaction to South African Racial Policies, 1939 to 1948” in South African Historical Journal 50 (May 2004), p. 67.

[9] “Letter from P.P. Pillai, Representative of India to the United Nations” at http://www.anc.org.za/un/undocs1a.html#2 (accessed on 22 October 2007).

[10] Communist Party of South Africa, Communists Plan for Victory: Reports of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of South Africa to the National Conference quoted in Furlong P.J., “The Bonds of War: The African National Congress, the Communist Party of South Africa and the Threat of ‘Fascism’” in South African Historical Journal 36 (May 1997), p. 78.

[11] A.P. Mda quoted in Edgar R., “Changing the Old Guard: A.P.Mda and the ANC Youth League, 1944 – 1949” in Dubow S. and Jeeves A. (eds.), South Africa’s 1940s: Worlds of Possibilities (Cape Town: Double Storey c.2005), p. 162.

[12] Davenport T.R.H., “South Africa’s Janus Moment: The Schizophrenic 1940s” in South African Historical Journal 52 (2005), p. 199.

[13] Tothill F.D., “The South African General Election of 1943” in Historia (May 1989), p. 77.

[14] J.L. Gray, Professor of Sociology, University of Witwatersand quoted in Tothill F.D., “The South African General Election of 1943” in Historia 34 (May 1989), p. 77.

[15] Prime Minister J.C. Smuts in Carter G.M. and Karis T. (eds.), From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882 – 1964, Volume 2 Hope and Challenge, 1935 -1952 (California: Hoover Institution Press 1972), p.234.

[16] Prime Minister J.C. Smuts quoted in Davenport T.R.H., South Africa – A Modern History (Basingstoke: McMillan 1991), p. 311.

[17] Uys S., “Apartheid: Opium of the Afrikaner” in Transition 19 (1965), p. 15.

[18] The Cape Times quoted in Tiryakian E.A.,“Apartheid and Politics in South Africa” in The Journal of Politics 22 (November 1960), p. 689.

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Why did the United Party loose the 1948 General Election?
University of Stirling
Apartheid and resistance in South Africa, 1948 – 1994.
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Resistance, United Party, General Election
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Murray Baird (Autor:in), 2007, Why did the United Party loose the 1948 General Election?, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/203302


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