Brutal Boer War left a bitter special legacy

Today marks the centenary of the start of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), a brutalising experience which seared itself into the…

Today marks the centenary of the start of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), a brutalising experience which seared itself into the collective South African psyche and, to quote Rudyard Kipling, gave the British "no end of a lesson".

With the advantage of hindsight a marked contrast emerges between the situation of the Boers in 1899 and that of their Afrikaner descendants in the last decade of white rule - where the Boers won international sympathy, the Afrikaners found themselves isolated as international pariahs.

One dimension of foreign sympathy for the Boers is recorded by the historian, Thomas Pakenham. He notes that no fewer than 2,120 foreign volunteers from countries as far afield as Ireland and Russia fought alongside the Boer combatants.

Support for the Boers - often based on antipathy to Britain and its desire to "paint the map red" - helps to explain another difference between the leaders of the Boer Republics, the South African Republic (SAR) and the Orange Free State, and the Afrikaner notables at the helm of South Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s.


The difference can be summarised succinctly: faced with pressure from the British High Commissioner, Alfred Milner, to enfranchise the Uitlanders (foreigners) who flocked to the SAR after the discovery of gold in 1886, the Boer Republic's president, Paul Kruger, decided to fight; whereas, confronted with growing pressure to enfranchise the black majority in 1990, the last president of white-controlled South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, decided to negotiate a settlement.

Modern scholarship has demonstrated conclusively that Milner's real aim was the destruction of the Boer Republic and that he used the second-class status of the Uitlanders as a means to that end.

Kruger's words after meeting Milner for discussions on the Uitlander question in May 1899 ring across a century of time: "It is our country that you want".

Milner's rejection of Kruger's eleventh-hour offer to met his terms - retrospective enfranchisement of Uitlanders who had lived in the SAR for five years - stands as clear evidence that Kruger's conclusion was right.

Any doubt about that is eliminated by Milner's education policy of seeking to anglicise Boer children after the defeat of the Boers in 1902.

The attitude of Mr De Klerk's main adversaries during the negotiations which led to the birth of a non-racial South Africa in April 1994 is in antithesis to Milner's stance against the Boers.

The historical records shows that the African National Congress and its leader, Mr Nelson Mandela, made concessions to Afrikaner sensibilities, acceding to demands for a government of national unity, offering guarantees to the white-dominated civil service, concurring that the voting system should be proportional representation and pledging equal language rights to Afrikaans.

Where indigenous black South Africans hardly merited mention in early accounts of the Boer War, modern scholarship acknowledges their presence on the stage. While the war is still portrayed as primarily a struggle between Boer and Briton, the role of blacks as auxiliaries in the British and Boer armies now forms part of the historical narrative.

The political dominance of the predominantly black ANC ensures that the impact of the war on blacks is discussed and recorded in contemporary popular histories and newspaper articles, and not confined to the bookshelves of academia.

Where the Anglo-Boer War was once projected as a white man's war or, more accurately, a war between white men, it is increasingly interpreted as a South African war involving black people as well as white. For that reason some historians refer to the war as the South African War rather than the Anglo-Boer War.

Black involvement in the war is manifest in a variety of ways. They include:

British enlistment of armed black auxiliaries to augment their forces. Afrikaner historian Fransjohan Pretorius notes in an account timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the start of the war that black combatants fighting for the British outnumbered Boer diehards or bitterenders at the end of the war.

Boer use of blacks as labourers - in some of their earlier spectacular victories over the British the Boers fought from trenches dug by blacks - mounted attendants and, more rarely, ancillary forces. Pretorius tells poignant tales of black attendants who remained loyal to the Boers to the end and who even prayed for a Boer victory.

Internment of blacks in segregated concentration camps. While Afrikaners have ensured that successive generations have been told of the 27,927 Boers who died in British concentration camps, the majority of them women and children, the deaths of black internees is less well known.

The South African historian, Dr S.B. Spies, who has made a special study of the camps, puts the number of blacks who died in them at 14,000. Peter Warwick, author of the ground-breaking book Black People in the South African War, writes: "[British] scorched-earth tactics led to the uprooting of black as well as white families. By the end of the war 115,700 black refugees had been settled in 66 concentration camps. The black camps were used as a source of cheap labour for the British army and prevailing conditions were worse even than in the camps of white refugees."

It is pertinent to note that the scorched earth policy deployed by the British was a response to the Boer decision to switch to guerrilla warfare after they were defeated in the conventional phase of the war, Boer guerrillas, notably Christiaan de Wet, having scored spectacular successes in that period of the war.

While Afrikaner folklore has presented the war as a heroic struggle by a united Boer people against a powerful enemy, the truth is that the war saw bitter divisions within Boer ranks as it entered its guerrilla phase.

Afrikaner historian Albert Grundlingh records that towards the end of the war Boers were divided into two hostile camps: diehards determined to fight to the bitter end and "hands-uppers" who accepted the British offer of amnesty (which exempted their farms from being burnt to the ground).

Grundlingh notes that some of the "hands-uppers" went a stage further and joined British counter-insurgency forces. To quote Grundlingh: these men numbered nearly 5,500 at the end of the war, "a not insignificant number bearing in mind that there were about 17,000 bitter-enders in the field when hostilities ended".