The forgotten treason trial: Folly, war, law and legacy

30 January 2023 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Supplied. Read time 8 min.
Justice Owen Rogers (seated) untangled the web of connections in the annual UCT Legacy Society President's lecture, “South Africa's forgotten treason trial”. He was introduced by Registrar Emeritus Hugh Amoore, president of the UCT Legacy Society.
Justice Owen Rogers (seated) untangled the web of connections in the annual UCT Legacy Society President's lecture, “South Africa's forgotten treason trial”. He was introduced by Registrar Emeritus Hugh Amoore, president of the UCT Legacy Society.

It’s a largely forgotten South African treason trial, but it once “had the world agog”. It also significantly shaped the country’s political development, with two of the 64 accused later linked to University of Cape Town (UCT) institutes, and several others founding renowned law firms that still grant bursaries to law students – including UCT’s.

This was the treason trial that followed the botched 1895 Jameson Raid in the South African Republic, or Transvaal. Although the two villains of the piece – Dr Leander Starr Jameson and Cecil John Rhodes – did not stand trial in South Africa, they became strongly associated with UCT’s history, said Justice Owen Rogers, who untangled the web of connections in the annual UCT Legacy Society President’s lecture, “South Africa's forgotten treason trial”. This was hosted in the Kramer Law Building on 21 January.

A UCT alumnus with a distinguished academic career, Rogers served on the Western Cape Division of the High Court and was appointed to the Constitutional Court in August 2022. Among the audience were Albie Sachs, South African activist, writer, and former judge appointed to the first Constitutional Court of South Africa; and Trevor Manuel, Minister in the Presidency for the National Planning Commission from 2009 to 2014, who delivered the lecture last year.

State capture

The raid’s ill-fated leader, Dr Jameson, after whom UCT’s Jameson Hall was named before it became Sarah Baartman Hall, was a British colonial administrator under Cecil John Rhodes’s employ.

The raid, launched across the Transvaal border from Bechuanaland, now Botswana, on 29 January 1895 by an undercooked force, was meant to coincide with an internal uprising by uitlanders (foreigners) in the Transvaal. They were mainly expatriate workers from the British colonies of the Cape and Natal who, along with Jews, were disenfranchised in the Transvaal under President Paul Kruger.

In secret, they had established the Reform Committee, a group of big mining and business players supported by Rhodes. Gold had become a lucrative find on the Transvaal’s Reef.

“The uitlanders’ grievances focused on corrupt and inefficient government, what nowadays we might call state capture, cheating the granting of monopolies and concessions to cronies who had previously also complained of their inability to vote,” said Rogers.

Political agitation from the uitlanders had intensified between 1886 and 1895. Within a few years of the Reef’s discovery, a bankrupt Transvaal fiscus was “overflowing with money generated by the industrial activity of the newcomers”, said Rogers.

‘Farcical incompetence’

To what extent they really wanted the vote has been debated, he said.

“They were financial cormorants, who were unlikely to want to give up their British citizenship to come to the Transvaal to make money.”

The Johannesburg conspirators were expected to recruit an internal force to augment Jameson’s armed band of a measly 500 men, which had dwindled from the planned 1 500. But that never materialised. Instead of aborting his mission, Jameson and his armed raiders crossed the border only to be met by a superior Boer force and arrested, following what Rogers described as a mission of “farcical incompetence”.

Jameson surrendered on 2 January 1896 at Doornkop. The raid left 22 Boers and uitlanders dead and 45 wounded.

President Kruger saw to it that Jameson and the other British prisoners were sent back to Britain for trial. There a subdued Jameson was sentenced to 15 months in Holloway Prison for leading the raid.


“Only black people underwent the death penalty.”

But for conspiring with Jameson, 64 Reform Committee members, including Charles Leonard, Frank Rhodes, Lionel Phillips, John Hays Hammond and George Farrar, were tried in 1896. All the accused pleaded guilty. In the end, four were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death.

But Kruger, showing political acumen, commuted the sentences to 15 years’ imprisonment, and in June 1896, the surviving committee members were released on payment of hefty fines. 

Interestingly, in the Transvaal race played a large part in awarding the death sentence, Rogers noted.

“Only black people underwent the death penalty.”

This formed a large part of the defence’s argument, said Rogers.

The trial

The trial was reported as The State v Phillips, Rhodes and others, and was heard before Judge Reinhold Gregorowski, then only 24. To accommodate the accused, the legal representatives and others, it was held in the Market Hall, which had been transformed into a temporary court room. The trial was conducted in Dutch and translated into English.

Formidable legal teams were appointed for both the State and the accused. The prosecutor was state attorney Dr HJ Coster, with advocates WH Lohman, JK Hummel and FET Krause. Counsel for the defendants were JH Wessels (later chief justice), Richard Solomon QC, E Esselen, JG Dickson, A Muller and HB Sauer.

It’s worth noting that among the accused was WH Bell, who went on to become the first editor of the Cape Law Journal, later the South African Law Journal, and president of the Transvaal Law Society.

Also in the dock was Sir James Percy FitzPatrick, author of Jock of the Bushveld and a member of the Transvaal parliament who sensationally defeated Prime Minister General Louis Botha in the first election for the Union parliament.

Among the accused were also Sir Abe Bailey and top mining industry analyst Lionel Phillips (later Sir Lionel Phillips). Phillips became president of the Chamber of Mines, a member of parliament, and was instrumental in establishing the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.


“But it also made the Anglo-Boer War a certainty.”

Some of the defence lawyers went on to become luminaries in South Africa legal circles, such as James Rose Innes, Richard Solomon, Johan Wessels and Japie de Villiers.


The fiasco embarrassed the British government and saw Rhodes resign as the Cape Colony’s prime minister and return to England. But the events also changed the trajectory of the country’s history, Rogers said.

It bolstered Boer dominance in the Transvaal with its lucrative gold mines but further polarised Dutch and English in the country, which benefited Kruger. He was re-elected as president, winning by a landslide.

“But it also made the Anglo-Boer War a certainty,” said Rogers.

This mass treason trial was followed decades later by three apartheid-era mass treason trials. The first was the Pretoria treason trial from 1958 to 1961, in which, to start with, 150 people were charged. The second was the Rivonia treason trial of 1963 and 1964 , in which 10 people were charged. The third was the Delmas treason trial of 1985 to 1988 in which 22 people were charged.

Law and legacy

On the theme of legacy, Rogers said, “Since this is a Legacy Society lecture it is perhaps fitting that I end by identifying the two cues to or associations with institutes at this university. There is the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, founded in 1960 by Cecily Niven. Niven was FitzPatrick’s daughter and the institute’s founding was made possible by wealth inherited from her father.

“The other institute is the Abe Bailey Institute for Inter-Racial Studies at UCT, named after the funding organisation: the Abe Bailey Trust. It was founded in 1968 by Professor HW van der Merwe to conduct academic research on relations between racial groups, to foster acceptance and co-operation. It was renamed the Centre for Intergroup Studies in 1973 and in 1990 became the Centre for Conflict Resolution.”

But there is one major lesson from the saga, Rogers concluded on a lighter note.

“A criminal conviction is no obstacle to legacy.”

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