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Winifred Holtby and ‘Benign Imperialism’

Bringing the League of Nations message to South Africa
Pencil sketch of Winifred Holtby Jburlinson

Pencil sketch of Winifred Holtby

In 1926 British author, Winifred Holtby (1898-1935), travelled in Africa, later recording her experiences in her 1933 novel, ‘Mandoa Mandoa: A Comedy of Irrelevance!’, a satirical novel which considers the founding principles of European civilisation. Her aim was to disseminate to South African ‘White settlers’ the League of Nation’s  socialist philosophy of ‘benign imperialism’ – shared in the early decades of the twentieth century by most socialists and liberals involved in international politics.

This philosophy drew on Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations (June 1919), written in response to the disintegration of Europe’s empires as a result of the First World War. Her audiences included powerful, well-educated white officials with liberal leanings, South African academics and members of the political elite. The League broadly believed ‘benign imperialism’ would be possible if educational, political and commercial organisations adopted non-segregated co-operative methods. However, Holtby, Leonard Woolf and others – who had many reservations about the term ‘imperialism’ – embraced a stronger socialist view than the widespread liberalism shared by others in the League of Nations. By the late 1920s, disillusioned with the League’s lack of progress in promulgating Article 22, Holtby turned her focus to resisting South Africa’s escalating institutionalised racism, where her journalism was widely published.

References/Further Reading:

K. Ewins, 2012. The Idea of Africa in Winifred Holtby’s Mandoa, Mandoa! The Review of English Studies 63 (258), pp.118-138.
Spartacus Educational. Winifred Holtby.
Wikipedia. Winifred Holtby.
Yale Law School. The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. The Covenant of the League of Nations.