Schreiner's views on race

For her time, Olive Schreiner was a progressive woman, advocating the extension of rights to black South Africans. Though a brave and unusual attitude for a white at the time, looking back at these writings through post-apartheid lenses, it is clear to see how she was still trapped in the patronising attitudes of the day. Schreiner may have been ahead of her time, yet she could not quite think out of the colonial box.

If by entering on a long and difficult course of strictly just and humane treatment, as between man and man, we can bind our dark races to us through their sense of justice and gratitude; if we, as a dominant class, realise that the true wealth of a nation is the health, happiness, intelligence and content of every man and woman born within its borders; if we do not fail to realise that the true crown of honour on the head of a dominant class is that it leads and teaches, not uses and crushes; if, as the years pass, we can point with pride to our native peoples as the most enlightened and the most free, the most devoted to the welfare of its native land of all African races; if our labouring class can in the end be made to compare favourably with that of all other countries; and if for the men of genius and capacity who are born among them there be left open a free path, to take their share in the higher duties of life and citizenship, their talents expended for the welfare of the community, and not suppressed to become its subterraneous and disruptive forces; if we can make our state as dear to them, as the matrix in which they find shelter for healthy life and development, as it is to us; then I think the future of South Africa promises greatness and strength.
We reduce this vast mass to the condition of a great seething, ignorant proletariat

But if we fail in this? If, blinded by the gain of the moment, we see nothing in our dark man but a vast engine of labour; if to us he is not man, but only a tool; if dispossessed entirely of the land for which he now shows that large aptitude for peasant proprietorship for the lack of which among their masses many great nations are decaying; if we force him permanently in his millions into the locations and compounds and slums of our cities, obtaining his labour cheaper, but to lose what the wealth of five Rands could not return to us; if, uninstructed in the highest forms of labour, without the rights of citizenship, his own social organisation broken up, without our having aided him to participate in our own; if, unbound to us by gratitude and sympathy, and alien to us in blood and colour, we reduce this vast mass to the condition of a great seething, ignorant proletariat - then I would rather draw a veil over the future of this land.

For a time such a policy may pay us admirably both as to labour and lands; we may work gold mines where the natives' corn now stands, and the dream of a labourer at two-pence a day which has haunted the waking visions of some men may be realised - but can it pay ultimately? Are we to spend all our national existence with a large, dark shadow looming always in the background - a shadow-which-we-fear?

I would not willingly appeal to the lowest motives of self-interest, yet it may be permitted to say this: As long as nine-tenths of our community have no permanent stake in the land, and no right or share in our government, can we ever feel safe? Can we ever know peace?

One dissatisfied man or woman who feel themselves wronged is a point of weakness in a community; but when this condition animates the vast majority of the inhabitants of a state, there is a crack down the entire height of the social structure. In times of peace it may be covered over by whitewash and plaster, and one may profess that all is well; but when the time of conflict and storm comes, that is where the social structure will give way...

For beneath the self-seeking and animal instinct which covers the surface of our lives, lies that which in its saner moments does recognise singleness of purpose where it finds I, and knows only that a wide justice and humanity between men is righteousness - the righteousness that exalteth a nation...
[South Africa] shall still attain to a political unification in some form or other, but it will be a poor, peddling thing when we have it - perhaps bloody

If among those things which fate still holds hidden from us in the hollow of her hand there be such a man, or such men, loving justice and freedom, not only for themselves or their own race, but for all their fellow-countrymen ... then I see a light where the future of South Africa rises; if not, she shall still attain to a political unification in some form or other, but it will be a poor, peddling thing when we have it - perhaps bloody.

- Schreiner, O, "The Native Question", 1908, in Barash, C (ed), An Olive Schreiner Reader: Writings on Women and South Africa, Pandora Press: London, 1987, pp. 186-197


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"If a race or class is willing to demonstrate and do and die for freedom they will ultimately be free"
Olive Schreiner
Olive Schreiner
Picture: © Sunday Times


In this lesson plan, learners are asked to find out about Olive Schreiner's attitudes, ideas and relationships from studying photographs, letters and pamphlets.

Lesson plan
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Archive Photo Gallery
Images from Olive Schreiner’s life.
Artwork images for the memorial
Take a closer look at the Heritage Project memorial to a lesser-known part of Olive Schreiner’s life.