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Edited by

 Con de Wet

     Elizabeth van Heyningen

     Chris van der Merwe


Marthinus Theunis Steyn features prominently in two earlier volumes published by the Van Riebeeck Society (VRS), viz. Die Konvensie Dagboek van F.S. Malan (1951) and Selections from the Correspondence of John X. Merriman, vol. 4 (1969). In both, however, what he said or wrote are parachuted into the text as they form only part of larger narratives not focussed on him. The run-up to his words in these volumes is thus absent, making it difficult for readers to appreciate how and why he reached the opinions he expressed. This is the gap which this volume fills above all, for, in making available for the first time a wide selection of his letters between 1904 and 1910, it allows readers to follow his transformation from being a man whom the less-than- friendly 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica called the most irreconcilable of the Boer leaders’ to a person whom it felt was distinguished for his statesmanlike and conciliatory attitude. His role in the negotiations which produced the first new South Africa’ in 1910 was pivotal and these letters show how and why his outlook mellowed sufficiently for him to gain such behind-the-scenes influence.


For enabling readers to follow Steyns transformation as evinced in the letters in this volume the VRS is indebted to two committed editors, Con de Wet and Elizabeth van Heyningen, to a dexterous translator, Chris van der Merwe, to four sharp-eyed copyeditors, Russell Martin, Tom McLachlan, Sandra Commerford and Rolf Proske, and to three generous benefactors (the Otto Foundation Trust via the Department of History at the University of Stellenbosch, the Fonds Neerlandstiek and the Van Ewijck Foundation) for their significant subsidies towards publication. The editors and the translator have laboured long, hard and skilfully at this project, for it was first mooted to the VRS as long ago as 1996 by the then Director of the Free State Archives, Piet du Plessis. However, it was 2004 before Dr de Wet was able to start work on it and 2016 before Dr van Heyningen was able (despite the short notice) to shape and polish so insightfully what he had compiled into the finished text that follows. The editors and the translator readily gave their all to the laborious tasks of selection, transcription, translation and annotation of documents which illuminate a key period in the sub-continent’s history, and for this the VRS is most grateful.

These tasks they undertook just as a second new South Africa’ was unfolding, raising issues which echoed those which Steyn and his contemporaries had faced 100 years earlier, like language, identity, education, social upliftment and race relations. Indeed, if Steyns use of the word race’ in a speech at the National Convention in 1908 had had the meaning not of Afrikaner and English races’ (as was then common) but the meaning it has today of Black and White races, it could well stand as a telling message to 21st Century South Africa. He told the delegates, Once the races are assured that whoever gains control of affairs, there will be no danger of either race as such being menaced, Parties will be formed on more sensible and useful bases than those of racial divisions.

        Howard Phillips (chair of the VRS).   27 April 2017.


Below is an extract from Chris van der Merwe's speech during the launch of the book in Bloemfontein on 27 November 2017.

Unlike Elizabeth and Con, my connection with Steyn is not a Free State one, but a literary one. Through Die pluimsaad waai ver (‘The seeds spread widely’), a drama by N P van Wyk Louw, my interest in Steyn increased greatly. Steyn is a main character in the play, and Louw depicts Steyn as a role model for Afrikaners – not Paul Kruger, who was regarded by most Afrikaners of the time as the suffering hero of the Anglo Boer War. Louw appreciated in Steyn the combination of broadmindedness and loyalty to his people. Unlike Kruger, who went into exile, Steyn remained on the battle field until the end of the war. Unlike Kruger, Steyn was an educated man; he was less conservative, and had good relationships outside Afrikaner circles – but he was also unwavering in his loyalty to Afrikaner independence and freedom and in his opposition to (what he saw as) grave British injustice.

Steyn was vir Van Wyk Louw ʼn toonbeeld van ‘Liberale nasionalisme’, ʼn konsep waarin Louw sterk geglo het; ʼn konsep wat twee skynbaar teenoorgestelde kenmerke bymekaar bring, naamlik ‘liberalisme’ en ‘nasionalisme’.


President Steyn recuperating in Europe 1903


General Christiaan de Wet giving a speech at President Steyn's funeral 1916

While I translated the letters, the relevance of Steyn’s letters for the present South Africa became clear to me. Steyn realised the importance of education for the well-being of his people. Today we need to realise the vital importance of education again; although we should broaden Steyn’s view of education to include all the people of the country.

Steyn wrote his letters in Dutch, English and Afrikaans, depending on the recipient. He did not make a choice between Dutch and Afrikaans – he did not enter into the debate among Afrikaners on the desirability of Standard Dutch, Simplified Dutch or a developing new language, Afrikaans. The important point for him was to maintain Afrikaner identity, which was linked to language, and both Afrikaans and Dutch could serve that purpose.