The man who took the job that no one else wanted
Farmer's Weekly|June 19 - 26, 2020
History has not been kind to Thomas Burgers, who was asked to save his ailing country, the Transvaal. Lack of judgement and misfortune contributed to his failure. Graham Jooste reports.
Graham Jooste

By 1872, the South African Republic (also called the Transvaal) was almost bankrupt. The communities of Lydenburg, Potchefstroom, Rustenburg, and Pretoria disagreed on numerous issues, and the cantankerous farmers refused to pay their taxes.

President Marthinus Wessel Pretorius had resigned the year before, and the burghers were at a loss to name a suitable candidate for president; they wanted someone who had not taken any part in their internecine struggles or even had friends or relatives involved.

This meant that they had to search beyond the boundaries of the Transvaal. So desperate was the Volksraad that it even advertised for the post!

Finally, thanks to various recommendations, it approached Thomas François Burgers, a 38-year-old Dutch Reformed minister in Hanover in the Karoo

A STORMY START

Burgers was born in 1854 on the farm Langefontein in the Cambedoo District of Graaff-Reinet. He studied theology in the Netherlands, was ordained in 1858, and in the same year married a Scottish woman, Mary Bryson, by whom he was to have 10 children. He and his wife returned to the Cape Colony, and he became the parson of Hanover at the age of 25.

Burger was a fine orator with an understanding approach to problems and life in general. He was a liberal thinker, even becoming a freemason later in life, and did not believe in the literal truth of the Bible.

This brought him into conflict with the Dutch Reformed Synod, and in 1864 he was accused of heresy and suspended. Undaunted, he took his case to the Supreme Court, won it, and was reinstated.

His victory was certainly no recommendation to the fundamentalist Doppers of the Transvaal and got him off on the wrong foot with Paul Kruger (then the country’s commandant-general), and his followers, who were all Doppers.

Burgers was elected president of the Transvaal by 2 964 votes to 388. He embraced nationalism, with a good dose of liberalism thrown in, which ruffled more feathers.

One of his first actions was to travel to Cape Town to raise a loan for recruiting and paying public servants. But this represented only a fraction of the funds the new president’s plans called for.

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