South African National Society, The


Also National Society for the Preservation of Objects of Historic Interest and Natural Beauty

The earliest recorded step to preserve and protect relics of South Africa’s past was taken was on the 18th February 1905, even before the establishment of Union, when a number of persons imbued with a real interest in the preservation of places and objects of historical interest and natural beauty formed themselves into the South African National Society. Sir (later Lord) Henry de Villiers, Privy Councillor, Chief Justice of the Cape and Parliamentarian, in January 1905, presided at a meeting in Cape Town of persons interested in preserving objects of natural beauty and historic interest including the old houses, trees and avenues, and wild flowers, all of which were then fast being destroyed. The persons interested had included the Anglican Archbishop, the Minister for Public Works Dr Thomas Smartt, the archivist Rev HVC Leibbrandt, Mrs Henry Cloete (sister of Johanna van Warmelo of South African War fame) and Dorothea Fairbridge. On the 22nd February the first meeting of the National Society for the Preservation of Objects of Historic Interest and Natural Beauty in South Africa, later known as the National Society was convened. Its president was the Chief Justice Sir Henry de Villiers, its vice-president the Speaker of the Cape House Sir William Bissett Berry, its Honorary Secretary Francis MASEY (then partner of Herbert BAKER), its treasurer Charles Struben and its committee members Dr Harry Bolus (botanist), Mr Sclater, Monsignor Kolbe, Colonel Stanford and Rev Leibbrandt. Its aim was to give the people of South Africa a sense of nationhood through the preservation and enjoyment of their national heritage as a prelude to a vision of Union which consequently followed in 1910.

This body led the public to appreciate more keenly the necessity for preserving all monuments - in the broadest sense of the word - within what was to become the Union (now Republic) of South Africa. Branches of the parent body were later established at Grahamstown, Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Memorials from the past that had suffered and continued to suffer most damage were the thousands of prehistoric rock paintings and engravings scattered throughout the length and breadth of the land. Expeditions were sent to South Africa to remove and collect them. Paintings were cut from the walls of caves, and in breaking out the desired picture others were destroyed. Engravings were cut out of rocks and much damage was inevitably done. Among the hundreds of examples of these early human works of art that found their way into the museums of Europe were some of the best the country had yielded, and for each one removed probably at least one was destroyed. In addition, the lack of appreciation among South Africans themselves led to much damage and disfigurement. The wide interest that followed the National Society's appeals demanded some protective action, and it was therefore only natural that the first fruits of the activities of the Society should have resulted in the passing of the Bushman Relics Protection Act soon after the establishment of Union in 1910.