07 APRIL 1900
I was standing one January day outside the Grand National Hotel, Pretoria, watching the passing of the funeral of Commandant Pretorius, the hero of Elandsfontein. A crowd of chattering, laughing, jibing well-dressed Englishmen and Englishwomen were around me. As I raised my hat when the gallant soldier’s coffin, draped with the flag of his country, passed, they stared at me insolently, and made jeering references to the dead officer,—for such is the nature of the British uitlander.
I followed the funeral procession across the Kerk-square, down Kerk-street West, past the Presidency to the cemetery. The crowd was enormous, and I could not approach the grave. I heard a voice suddenly upraised and then a hush fell upon all.
I have heard many great singers, many great actors, and many great orators, but never had I heard a voice like the one which reached my ears that evening in the cemetery of Pretoria. Its sweetness, its richness, its tenderness, its pathos, its nobleness—it was music—music of the gods.
Not one word did I understand—for it was the voice of a Dutchman speaking in the taal, and I was a newcomer to the Republic. But though it did not speak to my understanding, it spoke to my soul. It spoke of patriotism, heroism, gentleness, and devotion. When it ceased, the voices of the people swelled in a hymn, and as the twilight fell a rifle-volley rang out above the soldier’s grave, and they turned away.
I pressed in to look upon the owner of that glorious voice. I found him gazing sadly on the grave of his comrade. An old, white-bearded man, seeming small and slight, beside the herculean frame of President Kruger, who stood next to him. He turned his head as he heard my step behind him, and his eyes seemed to pierce me through. Once only had I met so piercing a glance, and that was from Charles Stewart Parnell.
That evening as I wandered past the Presidency with a friend I saw my angel-voiced sitting on the stoep with the President and some ladies. ‘That is—?’ I asked. ‘Slim Piet—General Joubert,’ returned my friend.
‘Shrewd Peter,’ as the burghers called him, was a familiar figure in the streets of Pretoria. Commandant-General; he never, save on extra-official occasions wore anything like uniform. In a little pony-carriage he drove about the town dressed in sober black and wearing a white helmet. He was fond—very fond—of Irishmen, and liked to have them about him. His secretary, Hogan, was one—the editor of his paper, Land en Volk,—O’Brien—was another.
Joubert represented for a long time what he called the ‘Progressive Party’ amongst the Boers. In 1893 he contested the Presidentship with Kruger, and was beaten only by a few votes. It was considered certain that he would become President at the next election—and he might have, but for the Jameson raid and the rise of Schalk-Burger.
The Jameson Raid damned Joubert’s chances of being elected head of the State. Even ‘Slim Piet’ had been deceived in the English, whom he had been urging on his countrymen were honourable men, with whom it should be their ambition to live and work in harmony. Practically what Joubert had been preaching for years was ‘Let us guard our independence—and live in trust with the English’—what Kruger had been saying was, ‘Guard your country from England. Distrust the English. They are enemies always.’ The Raid proved Oom Paul’s wisdom, and the General, though he never lost his place in the affections of his countrymen, lost caste as a politician.
Schalk-Burger took his place with a section—young, clever, thoughtful, travelled, and deeply-read-Burger dreamed of making the Transvaal the peer of European nations. He regarded, not too wisely, the old time beliefs and conservatism of the Boers as an obstacle to the progress of the country, and appealed to the younger section, who largely rallied round him. At the election of ’98 he stood for the Presidency against Kruger. So did Joubert. But the old man was returned over both his opponents by a majority of four to one.
One of the most beautiful incidents of that election was the fact that while they were fighting hard against each other for the headship of the State, the three patriots lived on close terms of friendship. During the thick of the contest I have seen them time after time in the evenings drinking their coffee, smoking their pipes, and chatting and laughing together on the President’s stoep, with their friends and supporters gathered round them. Not one single word of disrespect was uttered by any one of them during the campaign of either of his opponents. On the contrary, each paid in his speeches generous tribute to the patriotism of the others. Would we were half as civilised here!
One little incident, I recollect well, may illustrate the difference in attitude of Oom Paul and Slim Piet towards the English. The capitalist gang at one time thought they would nobble the Boers. They gave a banquet, to which they invited the President and the General. Speeches were delivered by the Englishmen, full of fulsome and insincere praise of their guests, and urging them to rely on the generosity, magnanimity, and inherent nobility of the great English people for the independence of the Republic. Joubert, in reply, spoke highly of the English nation. Then the old man rose and thanked his hosts. He had listened, he said, with interest to what they had said about the magnanimous desire of the English people to safeguard his little country. He was thankful to the great English people. ‘But, gentlemen,’ he added grimly, ‘we are a nation, and we rely for the safe-guarding of our independence not upon the generosity of the English, but upon the man with the gun!’
May the turf of Rustenburg lie light on Slim Piet! His lion-heart has ceased to beat—his patriot soul has fled—his angel-voice is hushed; but his name will go thundering down the ages.