Charlize Theron reminds us of a shameful episode in our history

Some of the excesses of the apartheid era derived from British military tactics against the Boers

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:30 ON Wed 11 Dec 2013

TO THE modern world, the ‘liberation struggle’ in South Africa means the campaign against Apartheid. But there were two other ‘liberation struggles’ in South African history, now rarely mentioned, because they don’t quite fit into the post-colonial liberation narrative - the two wars fought against the British Empire by the independent Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The First Boer War took place in 1880–1881 and the far bloodier Second lasted from 1899 to 1902. 

Taking up arms against the British Empire in the cause of freedom is felt to be an honourable thing in many parts of the world. The Indians make much of their ‘First War of Independence’ (to us merely the Indian Mutiny of 1857 - and some are to this day a little embarrassed that in the end the British ‘quit’ India without a fight). Politics in Ireland remains largely a matter of squabbling over the ‘succession’ – which group are the true heirs of the men and women who launched the Easter Rising of 1916.

But there are few liberation honours for the Boers, the most effective of all the internal opponents of the British Empire.

Unlike many guerrilla forces, the Boer units or ‘Commandos’ were more than a match for British regulars in pitched as well as running battles. The British military were so impressed that in the Second World War they adopted the word ‘commando’ for specialised raiding units in tribute to the effectiveness and guile of their Boer opponents.  The Royal Marines, of course, use the term proudly to this day.

In the end, to beat them, we had to dispatch a force of 450,000 men to South Africa. Even then, in May 1902, when the Boers surrendered they still had 20,000 men in the field.  

But it was the way the Boers were beaten that is illuminating and tragic. We ran a scorched earth policy, burning Boer farms and forcibly evicting their inhabitants - the pith helmets of the soldiers taking part the only clue in faded photographs that this was the British Empire in the early days of the last century rather than, say, Poland or the Ukraine in 1942.

After dehousing them, we confined Boer women and children in ‘concentration’ camps in vile conditions with little food or medical support. Of the 24,000 Boers who died in the war, 20,000 were women and children, mostly from starvation and disease.  

It wasn’t entirely deliberate but it was a shameful episode that hardened the outlook of many Boers and their descendants. They deserve at least a little understanding. Some of the excesses of apartheid – the forced removal of hundreds of thousands of ‘non-whites’ from their traditional neighbourhoods and districts - derive originally from British military tactics used against the Boers and enthusiastically endorsed by our commanders in the field and the government in London.     

The Boers were to many an enigmatic and peculiar people. In their stern Calvinistic world view they were the predestined elect. Everyone else was inferior, especially blacks and to some extent the English.  But they worked hard, worshipped God and loved their country. In the end they gave up control over South Africa voluntarily – certainly not as a result of military pressure from the vastly overrated armed wing of the ANC.

We know President Mandela admired the spirit of the Boer guerrillas, unveiling a memorial in Pretoria in 2002 to one of the most famous, Danie Theron, praising him for his bravery, humanity – he treated prisoners well - and desire to do the right thing for his country. He spoke, unusually for him in public, in Afrikaans.  

Theron, a supremely skilled scout and raider, was once described by Lord Roberts, the British commander in chief in South Africa, as “the hardest thorn in the flesh of the British advance”. Roberts offered a £1,000 reward for his capture, a stupendous sum.  At the same time, the Boers were offering a mere £25 for the recapture of an annoying young British officer who had absconded from one of their prisoner of war camps – Winston Churchill. 

President Mandela respected the Boer tradition and regarded Afrikaners as much a part of the future of South Africa as every other tribe or people living there.  But sadly it is not the universal view.  For some, their vision of a Rainbow Nation does not include whites, especially Boers.  Let’s hope it remains a minority view.  

Danie’s great, great niece, the actress Charlize Theron, was cheered to the echo when she appeared at President Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg yesterday. Of course she is glamorous and gorgeous and the only South African ever to win an Oscar. But it would be nice to think that at least some of the cheering was not just because she’s a celebrity actress - but because she’s a close relative of one of South Africa’s great military heroes. · 

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I like reading an article that inspires me to carry on reading about the issue at hand elsewhere. You've managed this Crispin.

I like the Brits and the fighting spirit of the Boers despite their views on race. A very brave and strong people. Also the Brits were the first to use Concentration Camps.. way before the Germans. Just a bit of convenient forgotten history.

PS. Gavin Hood also won and Oscar for Tsotsi

I'm glad someone remembered that British invention in the Boer War - the concentration camp, along with the "scorched earth" policy carried out against the Boers. I'm sometimes not too proud of being British - we did many things of which we should be to be ashamed.

Wrong ... 32000 Boer woman and children died ... Starved to death and diseased ... At the hands of the British. 7000 Boer soldiers died. 27000 British soldiers died. Not counting deaths of black woman and children subjected to the same.

Thank you Crispin for reminding the world about History and how it repeats itself. Very well written.

Thank you for a candid and sobering insight to another shameful chapter in our history. Of course the fact that many South Africans today have ancestry from both sides of that conflict does not make it any easier to point fingers and cry shame.

Actually the Spanish had concentration camps earlier in Cuba. The British just coined the phrase.

And black men.

Great article! Loved reading it. Sadly, Charlize Theron is not the tough type. She's the type that goes for the easy popular option. She carries a great surname, with no idea of the meaning. A sheep. Hollywood clone. I have more respect for Nelson Mandela as I have of her and many Afrikaners would agree.


Ronald Harwood won an Oscar for scripting The Pianist.

Thank you! It gives me hope when some journalists actually give a balanced view of the matter.

Thank you for some insight into Charilze Theron. Her Afrikaner people are also striving for self-determination and hopefully she will take some interest in it at some stage. Afrikaners are currently listed on level 6 of the Genocide Watch's 8-level scale for risk on genocide in South Africa.

Black people were not at a risk of getting wipe out because there was 8x more of them in South Africa at the time. 25% of Boer children in existence died in the British concentration camps.

Yes, I think Danie Theron would have had a few double takes if he was still alive. He gave his life for his volk - she is giving her volk for a honey covered life.

I would guess that Charlize is not proud of her Boerness and was there only to boost her lefty image

Her political stance indeed leaves a lot to be wished for. Unfortunately.

What nonsense, read Conan Doyles book the Great Boer War, then you will know the truth

Just a few gripes first. Not sure why Charlize should be the focal point of this article ... just to draw readers? Secondly, not the best example to use. She doesn't even correct people when they pronounce her surname incorrectly, not exactly someone who is proud of their heritage - so let's not sully Danie Theron's legacy. Thirdly, not the only South African to have won an Oscar. There are also MANY South Africans known for far more fundamental contributions to society than acting and looking good on a red carpet. But, I guess in a celebrity obsessed world that's our frame of reference. Also, let's not jump on the Robert Mugabe band-wagon and blame the colonialists for all the evil in the world. I don't think any Afrikaner would want someone to make excuses for us - we own our decisions - the good and the bad.

HOWEVER, I do appreciate the writer's attempt to have people understand where the Afrikaners come from. We are a feisty group of people. Precisely because we are the descendants of those who survived the wars. We carry the DNA of the women and children who walked out of the concentration camps. The strongest of the strong. Those who had to rebuild their homes and lives. We are fighters. We are survivors. Why are we not allowed to be proud of our history? Will we always be judged based on one part of our story?

I am proud to be white. I am proud to be an Afrikaner. I'm not always proud to be a South African - you cannot be proud of a country which is known as the murder and rape capital of the world. Where HIV and Aids is as common as the flu. Where corruption is no longer met with outrage as it has become part of every day life.

I sincerely hope that some day I can again say I am proud to be South African. Until then, we'll keep the 'boere' spirit alive and survive. And hope.

if she utters so much as a word of pride for her bloodline or her people wave bye bye to her lavish lifestyle and any chance of a job in hollywood ,,maybe she dont like her heritage and is ashamed of where she comes from self hating type

This is a non logical statement: "But sadly it is not the universal view. For some, their vision of a Rainbow Nation does not include whites, especially Boers. Let’s hope it remains a minority view." It is a majority view as majority people continue to vote DA AND ANC. Did he forget about race discrimination laws, Affirmative action, BEE adopted by Mandela himself (now DA and ANC), getting stricter and stricter by the day - already forced 10% of whites into squatter camps. You must think we are born yesterday? Get real this is no rainbow nation, this is not a view, it is neo-apartheid by fact enforced by laws.

She gets her 30 shekels from her ziowood masters to keep her silent.

Oh wow, 10% of white people? This is MUCH more than the percentages of other enthnicities. Sarcasm aside: boetie, kry jou feite in orde.

You just said nothing, it is estimated 400 000 whites from 4million are now in squatter camps since 1994, where is your facts that "disprove" me. my statement stays. Nee wat boet jy kan maar kom eks reg vir jou met backup.

Charlize Theron reminds us of a shameful episode in our history, a period when white women like Charlize were forced to abase themselves by adopting black kids.

Whats that you say? We're still living in that period? Oh dear.

[see also Sandra Bullock - forced to atone for the sin of being white, pretty and horror of horrors partly German]

Hopefully some people will now understand why Afrikaners vowed never to be oppressed again and where the system of self protection (apartheid) originated. It is estimated that if it weren't for the 27000-30000 women and children who died in concentration camps the white population of South Africa today would have stood at 9 million people instead of a mere 3 million. What a different political scenario this would have been in modern day South Africa! Why can the British not apologise for this genocide publicly? Milner and Kitchener were nothing but war criminals.

You just said nothing as well. The fact that white people are entering poverty just means that we are now liable to face the same poverty people of other ethnicities have had to face for much longer. There aren't more poor white people than there are of other races, percentage wise. If you think there should be a smaller percentage of white people in poverty, then you should just say "hey, ek's 'n rasis!" and get it done with.

Haha hey wessel you are the real racist here, supporting and defending BEE even if I prove to you it discriminates against non-black races I mean damn you have to be blind to not see it even the name BEE says it! You make statements without statistical backup so I can not take loose associations seriously.