I might almost say it was a treble life, for his career in Oxford and his career in politics overlapped. Thus he took his seat in the Cape Parliament on 7th April 1881, and he kept his Michaelmas term and took his degree that same year. It is worth while at this point to attempt a broad view of the politics of South Africa as they were then. There are three main factors in the problem—the racial factor, the geographical factor, and the imperial factor. As to the first, there are again three main divisions, English, Dutch, and Native. The English were chiefly concentrated in the coast towns—Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, and Durban; but they also occupied most of the colony of Natal and most of the Eastern Province of Cape Colony. They worked the diamond industry of Kimberley, and they formed a trading population even in up-country towns like Bloemfontein and Pretoria. In the Cape Colony the professional men and the Civil Service were largely English. They were besides the engineers, the railway builders, the prospectors, the schoolmasters, of South Africa, the banking, the shipping, and the export trade were mainly in their hand. Thus they formed a fringe along the coast and islands in the interior, and were the brains and progressive force of South Africa. But politically they were divided, for Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and Durban were rivals for the trade of the back country. They all commanded roads to Kimberley and to the interior republics. They fought a continuous war of trade rivalry. Kimberley, again, had nothing in common with the coast ports except race, for the coast ports were traders and Kimberley was a producer. When the railway came, it divided rather than united, for the coast towns strove to maintain high railway rates so as to make Kimberley and the interior pay the Government revenues. Natal, of course, was a separate colony; but Durban was none the less a trade rival. The English, therefore, were politically weak, for they had no common interest except the interest of race to bind them together.
The Dutch, on the other hand, were mainly farmers with a sprinkling of rich and professional men—attorneys, predikants, civil servants. They were the farmers and pastoralists of South Africa, and formed a continuous and related population over the larger part of Cape Colony, and the two republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. In the republics they ruled in name and in fact. In the Orange Free State, President Brand, a wise and moderate Dutchman, maintained an attitude of friendliness to the British Government. In the Transvaal President Kruger was already supreme. His burghers had just ended a successful war against England with the victory of Majuba on 27th February 1881. They had defeated the British power in South Africa, and had regained an independence which they had lost through their own inability to rule their own territories. From that time Kruger pursued a policy of growing ambition. He made constant attempts to extend his territory by raids upon the surrounding natives. He used all the means in his power to reach the sea, so as to have an independent port; he intrigued both with the Radicals in England and with Germany to weaken the Imperial power, and, as time went on and the gold fields developed, he tried by economic pressure to bring the coast colonies under his influence and domination. But this policy developed, as we shall see, from year to year. In the Cape Colony, while the British were nominally in power, Mr. Hofmeyr, a wary and able Dutch politician, handled his block of Dutch votes with such skill and address that he usually had much his own way. Each English Prime Minister in turn made his compact with Hofmeyr; Sprigg was the Mikado, Hofmeyr was the Shogun of Cape Colony. Thus, in political influence we find the Dutch supreme in the two republics, and with much power, sometimes dominating power, in the Cape Colony. As to the natives, they were already broken up into islands. Zululand had been completely subjected by the Imperial troops; the Cape Colony was gradually extending her rule eastward towards Natal, but had failed to break the strong Basuto nation embattled in its Switzerland round the head-waters of the Orange. The Transvaal, freed from the Zulu menace, raided the natives round its borders—the Zulus and Swazis on the east, the Bechuanas on the west. These native races looked to the missionaries and to the Imperial power behind the missionaries for protection. All these native powers lay at the white man's mercy, even although the white man might occasionally suffer defeat. They were divided or surrounded, or had their backs against sea or mountain range or desert. They could only put up a defence which in the end was bound to be overborne. But away in the north, beyond the Transvaal, lay the great power of the Matabele, a power comparable to the power of the Zulus under Chaka. They were Zulus by race; they occupied a country whose size and limits were unknown—an enormous country, high and healthy. On the east lay the Mashona people, whom they held in subjection, and on either side—in Angola, in Mozambique, the feeble white power of the Portuguese. Behind them stretched illimitably the great plateau of Central Africa towards the Congo, the great lakes, the Soudan. The Matabele, warlike, numerous, disciplined, unconquered, held the gates of the North.
The Imperial factor we have already seen defeating the Zulu power, but defeated by the Dutch at Majuba. It held the sea, its Lieutenant-Governor ruled Natal, its Governor and High Commissioner occupied a position of constitutional supremacy in the Cape Colony, and watched over the welfare and independence of the interior natives. It was a factor uncertain and incalculable, great in potential but weak in actual force. It was unwilling to rule except with one foot in the sea. It gave the Orange Free State its independence against the wishes of the inhabitants; it gave the Cape Colony responsible government against the wishes of a majority of its inhabitants; it annexed the Transvaal unwillingly and relinquished it eagerly; it abandoned its own subjects in Bloemfontein and Pretoria; and to the natives it afforded a reluctant and uncertain protection. It was generally well served by its soldiers and civilians on the spot; but, having no policy, its influence was weak, treacherous, and, as I have said, incalculable.
And lastly the geographical factor. The great plateau of Africa is approached from the low land of the coast line by a series of mountain steps. That is the general configuration. In the south the coast land and the mountain valleys are healthy and valuable; to the east and west they are unhealthy, and therefore uncoveted. For that reason, a feeble power like Portugal has been allowed to occupy Angola and Mozambique for centuries. South of Angola, the Germans were about to occupy Damaraland, a more southerly, and therefore more healthy country, but waterless and harbourless. Thence to Portuguese territory at Delagoa Bay was either British or under British influence. The interior republics were forced to do their trade through British ports—forced, that is, until the Delagoa Bay Railway should be opened, for the road through that territory was so unhealthy as to be uneconomical. The road from Natal was difficult and mountainous. The Cape had thus a practical monopoly. It followed that the Cape could impose its own transport and customs rates upon the republics. If it exercised this power wisely and moderately, it might hope to retain the republican trade; if unwisely, it might force the Transvaal to develop the Delagoa Bay route. As to the great regions of the interior, the road lay north from Kimberley through Bechuanaland, a strip of territory bounded on one side by the Transvaal, and on the other shading away into the Kalihari Desert. He who held that territory held the key to the North.
These, in broadest outline, were the conditions—some permanent, others transitory—which ruled South Africa when Rhodes entered Parliament in 1881.