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
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. ·