How a love affair changed South African history
Those endowed with the gift of storytelling, I realised again yesterday, have the power, much like a magician, to cast a spell on their audience. Abraham Lincoln conveyed many of his most important messages through stories; Walt Whitman, American poet and essayist, thought Lincoln’s stories were “a weapon which he employ’d with great skill.” Madiba also used storytelling to powerful effect. And yesterday those lucky few that happened to pass the tea room were enthralled by the spells cast by prof Sampie Terreblanche who, at 80, has a lifetime of stories to share.
Inevitably, the topic started with William and Kate’s newborn baby king. (I personally hoped for a Simba-moment, showing the baby to the world from Buckingham Palace’s balcony, but they decided for a more intimate event.) But the conversation diverged, and prof Terreblanche told of the almost incredulous events that lead to the National Party victory in 1948. I have not checked all the facts (I’m not sure they can be checked), but the story is simply too fabulous to be fabricated. Here goes:
Prince Paul, the Crown Prince of Greece, and Frederica of Hanover, his wife whom he married in January 1938, had to flee Greece during the Second World War. They first settled on the island of Crete, but when German forces invaded the island too, they moved to London and from there to South Africa. Here they met Jan Smuts, world-renowned statesman and leader of the ruling United Party. Smuts and Frederica became good friends – prof Sampie claims that this relationship was more than platonic – to the extent that Smuts was named the godfather of Princess Irene, born on 11 May 1942 in Cape Town. (Princess Irene, now Princess of Greece and Denmark, still lives in Madrid.) When the War ended, the Greek Royals returned to Greece, but Smuts kept in contact and hoped to visit them soon.
1948 was election year. The elections were scheduled for October, but Jan Smuts was confident of a United Party victory and had plans to travel abroad during the second half of the year. He was nominated to become Chancellor of Cambridge and was required to attend the graduation ceremony during July (which is, incidentally, also the first year women were accepted to Cambridge). His plan was to attend the ceremony, then travel to Israel to visit the new Jewish state and then to Greece to visit Princess Frederica. He thus requested his cabinet to shift the election to the first part of the year – 26 May – so that all would be done in time for him to leave for Cambridge. The shift left his party with little time to discuss election policy, canvass votes and, more importantly, to shift the electoral boundaries (as happens frequently in democracies) in favour of the ruling party. The Reunited National Party (Herenigde Nasionale Party) had a clear message: apartheid between black and white. The United Party’s policy on the ‘Native-problem’ was, at best, muddled.
The rushed election meant that the Reunited National Party won by 6 seats, even though they only gained 37.7% of the total votes compared to the 49% of the United Party. Had the election been in October, there would have been ample time to plan a better election strategy and redraw the electoral boundaries. Quite possibly there would have been no National Party victory.
Chaos theory’s butterfly effect suggests that a small change in the initial condition can have massive repercussions later. If Jan Smuts had not wanted to visit Princess Frederica in Greece, what would a history of South Africa look like today?