Jacobus Wilhelmus Sauer

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Jacobus W Sauer - Cape Colony Liberal MP.png

Jacobus Wilhelmus ("J.W.") Sauer (1850 - 24 July 1913), was a prominent Afrikaans liberal politician of the Cape Colony. He served as Minister in multiple Cape governments, and was influential in the (failed) attempts to enshrine equal political rights for Black Africans in the constitution of the Union of South Africa.

Government service in the Cape Colony[edit]

Little is known about his early life. He was the son of a Landdrost farmer in the Orange Free State, and attended South African College School before practicing as an attorney for several years in Cape Town.

"Government Sauer", here caricatured in the 1880s.
Already in the 1880s Sauer was attacked by the reactionary fringe press for his liberal views. Here the radically imperialist Lantern newspaper attacks his work in Basutoland under the title "When Jamie Comes Marching Home!"

He was first elected to the Parliament of the Cape of Good Hope under the Molteno Ministry in 1875 to represent the constituency of Aliwal North, and served continuously until 1904. He was then re-elected to serve from 1908 until his death. In total, he sat in the Cape Parliament for over twenty years. At the beginning of his career, he was greatly influenced by the pragmatic and racially-inclusive policies of early Cape parliamentarians such as Saul Solomon, and he adhered to the principles of this "Cape Liberal Tradition" for the remainder of his life.

The Cape Colony had recently acquired a sizable Xhosa population in its expanding frontiers. Initially, due to their inaccessibility in the remote frontier mountains, most rural Xhosa people of the Cape failed to register as voters. In the 1880s, Sauer engaged himself in an intense campaign to mobilise and register the Xhosa voters, who light-heartedly dubbed him with the nickname of "Government Sauer". In 1883, he invited the Xhosa politician and journalist John Tengo Jabavu to stand for Parliament in Cape Town, but Jabavu declined.

Sauer was also a strong supporter of women's suffrage and the local Cape Women's Enfranchisement League. On 4 July 1907, together with fellow MPs Dr Antonie Viljoen and James Molteno, he supported the Cape's first parliamentary attempt to give women of all races the vote.[1]

As a politician he was described as "solid, cautious and well-balanced", and although English was not his mother-tongue, he was described as a strong and forceful orator. His lifelong political alliance with John X. Merriman led to them being dubbed as "political Siamese twins", with Sauer's down-to-earth practicality complementing Merriman's erratic excitability.[2]

Sauer was a minister in the governments of the Prime Ministers Thomas Scanlen (1881–84), Cecil Rhodes (1890–93), W P Schreiner, (1898-1900), J X Merriman (1908-1910), and in the national government after union.

In 1876, early on in his political career, he broke with Prime Minister Gordon Sprigg after taking issue with Sprigg's discriminatory "native policy". However he returned to government in 1881 as "Secretary for Native Affairs" in the cabinet of Prime Minister Thomas Scanlen.

He was invited to form a government after Sprigg's second Ministry collapsed in 1890, but declined.

Opposition to Rhodes and leadership of the South African Party[edit]

Sauer was appointed to serve as Colonial Secretary in Cecil Rhodes's Ministry, but after the "Logan Scandal" in 1893 revealed the degree of corruption in Rhodes's business dealings, he left Rhodes's cabinet and, with help from several powerful political allies, brought down Rhodes's government. Though Rhodes succeeded in reforming his government, Sauer consolidated the liberal opposition to Rhodes as the new "South African Party", which among other things stood for free trade, multiracial government, compulsory education and an excise. Sauer was elected as the party's first leader.

He opposed Rhodes for the rest of his career, with the powerful support of John X. Merriman and John Tengo Jabavu, and made no secret of his opposition to the "Imperial interest" in the Cape Colony. Together with Merriman and future parliamentary speaker James Molteno, he even attempted to abolish the rights of Rhodes's Chartered Company. He famously attacked Rhodes in 1894 for Rhodes's statement that the Xhosa were to be treated as "poor children", unfit for franchise. [3][4]

Anglo-Boer War[edit]

At the time of the Boer War, Sauer was accused of supporting the Cape Rebels, though in fact he repeatedly tried to persuade the Afrikaners of the Cape not to rebel against British rule. His brother however, was convicted of being a rebel and imprisoned.[5]

In early 1901, he travelled to London with fellow liberal Cape politician John X. Merriman, to attempt to persuade the British Government not to make war on the Boer Republics. However they were publicly accused of being "Pro-Boer", the House of Commons refused them a hearing, and the public meetings that they held were disrupted by increasingly large numbers of pro-war demonstrators. The fact that Sauer was a liberal and an Afrikaans speaker, probably did not help the image of the anti-war mission. Their gathering for peace in June 1901 at Queen’s Hall was attacked by a particularly violent crowd of protesters, and their overall mission was a failure.[6]

Having lost his parliamentary seat in 1904, he regained it when Merriman became Prime Minister in 1908, and he was invited to join Merriman’s government.[7]

The states of Southern Africa, before Union; with the Cape Colony coloured blue, Natal red, Transvaal green and the Orange Free state orange

The Union of South Africa[edit]

In the lead-up to Union he served as a delegate for the Cape Colony at the National Convention for Union in 1908. Here he joined Merriman, and his old friend the powerful politician and businessman Percy Molteno, in supporting a system of non-racial franchise for the constitution of the new Republic of South Africa. However, this idea was very unpopular with the elected leaders of the other Southern African states and with their (exclusively white) electorates. Even in the Cape Colony it was seen as political suicide to support it.

He then proposed the extension of the multi-racial "Cape Qualified Franchise" to the whole of South Africa, explicitly as a temporary lead-up to the granting of full political rights to all Africans. When this also failed, he successfully fought for the retention of the Qualified Franchise in the Cape Colony only. While Molteno thought this compromise "pathetic", it was at the time the only remaining way to keep a semblance of political rights for Black Africans, without scuppering the entire union. Sauer was also under the mistaken belief that these very limited civil rights could later be extended and expanded after union had been secured. He nonetheless viewed the results of the Union Convention as a bitter disappointment.[8]

He later declined the offer of a knighthood for his services to the Cape Colony.

After union he served as Minister of Railways and Harbors in the first South African national government, and as Minister of Justice for the remaining years of his life. He died in 1913, survived by his wife, Mary Sauer (née Cloete), and his three children.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ J.L McCracken: The Cape Parliament, 1854-1910. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1967. p.52.
  2. ^ J.T. Molteno: The Dominion of Afrikanerdom. Methuen & Co. London. 1923.
  3. ^ F Garrett: The Garrett Papers. South Africa: Van Riebeeck Society,1984.
  4. ^ R. J. Barrett: The Anglo-African Who's Who and Biographical Sketch-Book. London: Routledge & Sons Ltd. 1905
  5. ^ Davey, Arthur (1978). The British pro-Boers, 1877-1902. South Africa: Tafelberg. ISBN 062401200X.
  6. ^ http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/4880549
  7. ^ Phyllis Lewsen (ed.): Selections from the correspondence of John X. Merriman, 1905-1924. South Africa: Van Riebeeck Society, 1969.
  8. ^ Vivian Solomon (ed.): Selections from the correspondence of Percy Alport Molteno 1892-1914. South Africa: Van Riebeeck Society, 1981. ISBN 0-620-05662-2
  9. ^ http://www.madameulalie.org/dlyexp/TheParrot41.html
Political offices
Preceded by
Joseph Orpen
Representative for Aliwal North
Succeeded by
Col. Charles Preston Crewe
Preceded by
William Ayliff
Secretary for Native Affairs of the Cape Colony
Succeeded by
J.A. de Wet
Preceded by
H.W. Pearson
Colonial Secretary of the Cape Colony
Succeeded by
P.H. Faure
Preceded by
James Sivewright
Commissioner of Public Works of the Cape Colony
Succeeded by
T.W. Smartt
Preceded by
Col. Charles Preston Crewe
Representative for Aliwal North
Succeeded by
Preceded by
T.W. Smartt
Commissioner of Public Works of the Cape Colony
Succeeded by
Office ended with Union
Preceded by
Office created
Minister of Railways and Harbors of South Africa
Succeeded by
Henry Burton
Preceded by
J. B. M. Hertzog
Minister of Justice of South Africa
Succeeded by
Nicolaas Jacobus de Wet