M. T. Steijn, President of the Orange Free State
Source: Rompel’s Heroes of the Boer War, 115.
“President Steijn felt as much at home in the dwelling of the poorest Boer as in his own circle. When Steijn was still a judge and went on circuit, he loved to go and rest in the simple dwellings where the Boer complained to him of the drought and the locusts and the wife talked to him of the neighbours and the "folk [the Kaffirs]." To hold simple converse with these people was to him a relief from his official duties. He talked politics with them, learnt their ideas, their needs, and always showed himself the born Africander, free of all pride in his superior knowledge. ” [continued below]
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To this intercourse the President owed the fact that he was well-known throughout his country and that he remained simply "Teunis" even after he had been elected Head of the Orange Free State. Almost every Boer knew Steijn personally, and found it difficult to talk of the "President," as is customary. . President Steijn felt as much at home in the dwelling of the poorest Boer as in his own circle. When Steijn was still a judge and went on circuit, he loved to go and rest in the simple dwellings where the Boer complained to him of the drought and the locusts and the wife talked to him of the neighbours and the "folk [the Kaffirs]." To hold simple converse with these people was to him a relief from his official duties. He talked politics with them, learnt their ideas, their needs, and always showed himself the born Africander, free of all pride in his superior knowledge.
To this intercourse the President owed the fact that he was well-known throughout his country and that he remained simply "Teunis" even after he had been elected Head of the Orange Free State. Almost every Boer knew Steijn personally, and found it difficult to talk of the "President," as is customary.
This wide-spread acquaintance, however, had its disadvantages. The burgher who had a complaint to make against the commissariat which refused him a new suit of clothes, or the commandant who refused to give him leave, made his way to Bloemfontein and laid his grievance before "Teunis," as he used to do in his own house. The complainant was not justified as against his superior: that would have undermined prestige; but he never went away uncomforted. If the Head of the State only knew of it, changes would be made. And then the President had such a fatherly way of soothing and consoling that most of the malcontents derived a sense of resignation from it and left the house with the conviction that things were not so bad after all and that, as a matter of fact, the commissariat or the commandant was in the right. But the hearing of all these tales cost the President a great deal of time, so that he generally had to work till late at night.
The advantage of this personal acquaintanceship was that Steijn, who was a quick and excellent judge of character, knew the good and bad qualities of all his officers. This was the reason why his choice of commanders was usually so excellent. This was the reason why he was able to state with decision that such and such a commandant was not fit for his post. This was the reason why he could deprive an officer of his rank in the full conviction that he was doing right, as he did on several occasions, by virtue of the powers given him by the Constitution.
The President was very rarely mistaken. He discovered new talents, and predicted the incapacity of commanders in whom the burghers had the firmest confidence. De Wet and Hertzog are instances of men upon whom he depended when no one else as yet saw anything in them. His knowledge of character, of course, became more extensive since, and we may taken it for granted that he gathered the best councillors around him, just as De Wet placed the strongest personalities at the head of the several commandoes from the moment when the appointment ot all officers was placed in the hands of the chief commandant and no longer left to the choice of the burghers.
Steijn himself is the personification of loyalty and honour. He is a loyal burgher of his country, a loyal patriot, a loyal friend. No matter how high he might rise, his old friends, who had been unable to follow him in his ascent of the social ladder, could always reckon on his affection. Loyalty and honour have marked all his actions: his sacred will to carry out his political programme; his determination to take up the rifle when the need was so urgent that the country required the help of all, from the highest to the lowest burgher; his noble last attempt to ensure peace, when war seemed no longer to be averted and when he conducted his masterly correspondence with the High Commissioner at Cape Town.
He never allowed himself to be led away by exasperation. He kept his head cool during all the difficult days from May 1899 to the outbreak of the war. Had there been but one chance of arriving at an honourable solution of the difficulties, he would have seized upon it and employed his powerful influence in that direction.
He never showed himself hostile to the English race; on the contrary, he entertained friendly feelings for it, however true and genuine an Africander he may be. He was the man who, with his European education, his knowledge of the character of Boer and Briton, could have brought about the amalgamation of the two races in South Africa. There was nothing he would have rather seen. His loyalty and honour, his lofty character pointed to him as the right intermediary between Africander and Englishman. The truth and honesty of his convictions never gave cause for suspicion. And now this man has been the soul of the Africander resistance to the British rule. His respect for Great Britain, his belief in England's generosity: these he has lost for ever.
He was never a daring optimist, like his predecessor, Reitz. He foresaw that there would be reverses. They did not come upon him unexpectedly; and his calm, firm belief in the greatness of Africanderdom remained unshaken, even in the face of uncontemplated disaster.
During his short political career, President Steijn showed himself to be a statesman who desired the progress of his country and who was able to further that progress. Under his government, bills were passed for the institution and maintenance of technical schools, a model farm and an agricultural experimental station. After deliberation with the German Government, he secured the services of an excellent economist, a German civil servant, for the establishment of the model farm. And, whenever this official had to combat the antipathy of some of the Boers for such novelties and for all that smacked of theory, it was President Steijn who supported the economist, arranged everything according to his wishes, and made him forget any unpleasantness by his personal kindness.
It was the same with the government veterinary surgeon, also a German; the same with the rest of the European officials. The President was their refuge and their consolation. If this unhappy war had never broken out, through Steijn's influence a net-work of railways would have been built, which would have made the eastern districts the granary of all South Africa. In peace and in war, Steijn has shown himself a great man, a noble man.
In spite of his European education, his easy ways, his pleasant manners, which made him a welcome guest and a popular host, he remained faithful to the simple manners and customs of his people. The mode of life was as plain in Steijn's presidential residence at Bloemfontein as in Kruger's house at Pretoria. Steijn's house too was open to every burgher. It was also the meeting -place of the patres conscripti, who came there to read and chat and smoke when the business of the State was done. His doors were always wide open for foreign visitors, even as his glance is open for all, as his honest eyes reflect his loyal soul.
But, with all his simplicity, he showed an innate distinction. His tall, broad figure, his bearing, his movements mark him out at once as an uncommon man. He is never lost in a crowd; on the contrary, the crowd as it were groups itself around him.
The mutual relations between the two Presidents were curious and interesting. Kruger was the simple Boer, grown grey in politics, hardened by a life full of cares, privation and suffering. Steijn was the educated, cultured man of Europe. One had studied in the school of theory, the other in that of harsh practice. Steijn was the typical representative of the younger Africander generation which was one day to hold sway; Kruger the venerable type of the sturdy founders of two free nations. [51-52, 55-56]
Rompel, Frederik. Heroes of the Boer War. London: “Review of Reviews” Office; The Hague and Pretoria: the “Nederland” Publishing Co., 1903. Internet Archive version of a copy in the University of California Library. Web. 22 December 2014.
Last modified 22 December 2014