From Nationalism to National Identity The Anglo-Boer South African War Reinterpreting Old Heritage for the New South Africa

This paper is perhaps a little of a self-indulgence, in many ways a recollection of a personal journey of understanding that may hold value for others working in our sector. A journey through events that meant much in my family, which like many South African families, misunderstood, misinterpreted or obscured facts in order to provide a shield from a truth we disregarded through ignoring what we knew was there or because we had insufficient knowledge to face it. The events in question were, in the recent past given great significance, but are perhaps no longer considered as important, or of major symbolic import. However, for the purposes of this paper how perceptions have changed in the past eleven years has served a significant professional purpose to those of us tasked with reinterpreting South Africa’s history and using its heritage to bond its diverse people. As is well known, in the post-second world war era South Africa has been amongst the countries that have experienced the worst distortions of their past for purposes of propaganda and ideology. The advent of democracy has hence brought many challenges for those looking at re-interpretation of heritage which was protected prior to 1994, not least of all undoing negative perceptions of or indifference to events that were subject to particularly strenuous propaganda efforts under apartheid. Most South Africans went through a school system that dished up a particular view of the two historic justifications of Apartheid ideology, one of which is the so-called ‘Great Trek’, or migration of Afrikaans speaking settlers into the interior of the sub-continent, and the other the Anglo-Boer South African War of 1899-1902, an aspect of the latter of which this paper is the subject. At this point I must own up to my identity as an English speaking South African, descendent of mid-19th Century British settlers and Central European immigrants who came to South Africa as refugees many years after the events that are the subject of this paper. Inevitably what I say will be clouded by this identity. Hence in part the need to put this over as a personal journey. The Great Grandfather whose last name I carry died in this great war between the British Empire and the Afrikaner descendants of earlier Dutch, French and German settlers. It was a war that drove a deep wedge between the two colonising communities of our country, creating historic divisions (probably similar to those wrought by the

American Civil War) that have only really healed due to their irrelevance in the post-Apartheid era. Amongst Afrikaners the War was known as the Vryheids-Oorlog (Liberation War), whilst English speakers called it the Anglo-Boer War or simply the Boer War, named for the Afrikaners against whom they fought. In Britain and other corners of former empire this last major conflict of the 19th century is most often known as the South African War. As a child raised in an English speaking family, I was subjected to very mixed interpretations of this war and only really came to understand its true significance much later in life. Misunderstanding of it was something common to most South Africans who left school before the advent of the post-1994 school history syllabus. One’s perspective depended largely upon cultural background. Its meaning was grossly distorted in the interests of Afrikaner nationalism with further confusion being added by the angst of English speakers seeking to justify or find meaning in a contradictory existence between privilege and wealth protected by the ideology that it largely professed to abhor and the need to excuse itself from responsibility for. In the bad old days all South African children were, regardless of background, and usually in several phases of the school history curriculum, subjected to the Afrikaner nationalist interpretation of the war which was briefly along the following lines: A small population of heroic Afrikaners, who in the 1830’s had fled the rigours and atrocities of British rule in the colonies (the Great Trek) and set up two free and democratic republics in the north were provoked into a war with the British who wished to control the mineral wealth associated with the goldfields in and around Johannesburg. Despite initial military success the lightly armed Boers were ultimately beaten in the field by a far larger British force brought in from all corners of the hated empire. In order to defend their homeland against its occupiers they hence resorted to unconventional, guerrilla tactics. Unable to suppress this insurgency the British resorted the destruction of the landscape on which the Boers depended for their survival. A scorched earth policy saw the destruction of farms and removal of the Boer civilian population (non-combatant elderly and women and children) to extremely unsanitary concentration camps where, if the British did not add ground glass or poison to the food, interns died of disease or starvation.



As with most successful propaganda, there is between the gross exaggeration and equivocation much that is true. The British did disgrace themselves through the use of a scorched earth policy and the disorganisation of the concentration


camps to which the rural population of large tracts of the country were removed. Many did die due to lack of adequate shelter, hygiene, rations and medical care. Where the tale takes a dangerous diversion is firstly in conveying the message that the British actions were anything more than a military strategy gone horribly wrong and that those affected were only white and Afrikaans speaking. These two fundamental aspects of the tale told in schools and enshrined in monuments and memorials around the country served to create the impression amongst the faithful that Afrikaners were alone in their suffering; had been subjected to genocide; that their nationalism was their phoenix; and that the Apartheid ideology that went with it was there for no other reason than to ensure that other South Africans could not repeat the atrocities. These other South Africans were dished up the same story in order that they might understand why things had to be the way they were. From the perspective of English speakers the attitude towards the propaganda was generally one of regret that the Empire that had won the war had contrived to lose the peace. That if this had not happened the English community would have been in control and everyone would have been better off. Whilst grave mistakes had been made in the war, the need to continuously repeat them was not much appreciated. Amongst the vast majority, the Black South Africans, whilst the War as justification for apartheid was not accepted, by and large the mythology was not questioned. It was understood that the English and Afrikaners had fought a long and bitter struggle, but it was the ‘white mans war’ and hence of very little concern to those who, as the propaganda had it, had not participated in or been affected by it. Coming to the heritage aspects of the matter, in order to maintain the myth, memorials and places of homage were created on countless battlefields and cemeteries and on the sites of many, though not all former concentration camps, some of which where for good reason forgotten and allowed to be reclaimed by Mother Nature. On important days the faithful gathered at places of commemoration to pay their respects to ancestors who had suffered; to have recounted to them the tales of the horror and the justifications for the ideology they followed and to renew their vow that it should not happen again. These gatherings were broadcast around the nation for other communities to see, appreciate and understand. However, as with all nationalism the energy eventually waned the faithful slowly deserted. Events became less fanatical as the dogma lost some of its rigidity. Attendance at commemorative days declined and many places of homage fell into disrepair as energy and resources were directed elsewhere, partly into the struggle to beat off the threat of national liberation that Apartheid had been designed to prevent. After liberation in 1994 commemoration of events of 100


years previously practically ceased, in part because the great days were no longer holidays, but principally because the faithful simply no longer believed. It was in this climate that planning for the centenary of the War commenced with very mixed feelings as to the significance of the events to be commemorated and how, if at all it should be undertaken. Most post-Apartheid heritage conservationists and government decision makers held the view inculcated by the former propagandists that the war was irrelevant to the majority of the people as it had not involved them. However, under pressure from military history buffs around the world; a little out of fear that reactionary elements might take the initiative if government did not and finally, as a result of revisionist research in academic institutions and museums, due to the revelation of forgotten or deliberately obscured facts and places associated with the War, it was decided that something should be done. Revision of the history of the war revealed what is obvious: A war involving hundreds of thousands of soldiers and covering around 50% of the countryside could not effect only two of the communities that inhabited those lands. It had affected black communities in many and profound ways that cannot all be recounted here. As far as the scorched earth policy went it took very little effort to ascertain that this applied as much to this aspect any other of the conflict. White farm owning families who had supported Boer guerrilla bands/commandos by feeding them from farm produce had been supported by the black labourers who tilled the soil and cared for the livestock. When the farmsteads were burned and crops and livestock destroyed the entire populations of scorched sectors were removed to concentration camps. Black labourers made this journey with their landowning employers and whilst most often settled in camps that were separate from whites, they frequently found themselves housed alongside of, or together with their Afrikaner countrymen. They too died from the same causes and in comparable number often suffering greater depravation due to the lesser regard in which they were held by colonial authorities, receiving even fewer rations, inferior shelter and less medical attention. In the lead up to the centenary a co-ordinated effort was made to identify the camps occupied by black South Africans and the names of those who died in them and the locations of their graves. This, as part of the illumination of the role of and impacts of the war upon all South Africans, formed a major thrust of the centenary. In the three years of the commemoration a new perspective was conveyed to South Africans who now generally have a different understanding of events and the way all are affected by them. New memorials have been erected alongside the old and, where detailed records exist, new names added to those of the victims already listed.

The primary purpose of this paper is to illustrate what is perhaps a peculiarly South African irony, that is how the propaganda of the past and its meaning has


through attempts to achieve a more objective view of the past changed perceptions to the extent that suffering in the past and the understanding thereof that was created through the old propaganda machinery has become a vehicle for national reconciliation. This was brought home to me through the celebration the provincial government I work for, in co-operation with Freedom Park, a new national institution created to foster national identity, organised for our national Reconciliation Day, 16 December 2004. National reconciliation and celebration of freedom for all South Africans has been an important aspect of government policy since 1994. It was a relatively easy thing in the early years. There was relief at our narrow escaped from the fate of many other nations that have travelled the ever deepening spiral of ethnic conflict. There was self-congratulation that we had done it together and on our own, and many other reasons for a general spirit of goodwill. However, eleven years on the honeymoon is past. South Africa is no longer just an extraordinary country. The harsh realities of recovery from 300 years of colonialism and five decades of apartheid are there to be dealt with. Without creating much tension, people have gone their own way and, as they are entitled to under constitutional government, do as they please in terms of who they choose to associate or identify with and why. The new national days, carefully chosen and named so as not to create reason for offence, whilst still drawing large numbers of black participants have failed in their mission to foster mutual understanding and the growth of a single national identity. Few from the white and other minority communities, that make up about or 15% of the population, attend. This despite diverse programmes that should cater to all cultures; the holding of festivities in neighbourhoods where minorities live and many other strategies to attract all South Africans to nation building events. Perhaps those of us working for the new bureaucracy are naïve in our belief that mass festivals are appropriate building blocks for a culturally diverse nation and in recent years fewer black participants have shown an interest in attending the types of event that remain attractive to our political heads. However, last year’s Reconciliation Day was different. The budget was tight and the usual stadium event with speeches and a free concert was out of reach. It was hence decided that the provincial celebration would consist of a commemoration at the cemetery of the Orange River Station Concentration Camp, a site where black and white interns lived, suffered, died and were buried side by side. Being far from a large city most of the several hundred participants were from surrounding villages and for many it provided a first opportunity to formally commemorate an event that had effected their ancestors, whilst for others it was probably the first time they had done so in congregation with countrymen from across the racial divide. For the latter, probably also the first time that they had visited the site since the forgotten and heady days of Afrikaner nationalism.


People from all communities attended in appropriate number. I was struck by the peculiar irony of seeing black and white South Africans commemorating a horror that they all understood simply because it had been paraded before them as part of the propaganda of the former times. What the re-interpretation work of the previous ten years had achieved was simply to broaden the understanding and scope of the tragedy, making it a shared one. In the formal part of the proceedings events were recounted by the wife of the farmer on whose land the site is located. Commitments to reconciliation and avoidance of similar events in the future were read out by leaders of the communities present and so on and so forth. The event was not without some interesting tensions. At one point local clergy and their congregants offered prayers at gravesides. They were followed by a colourful group of traditional healers from various African cultures who, in their animist traditions, conducted a cleansing ceremony, burning herbs on the graves and offering incantations to the ancestors who reside there. A few staunch Calvinists objected that since the graves were not marked these sangomas were performing their rituals over the remains of Christians who had not shared their beliefs. However, the objections were quickly forgotten when the plaintiffs were reminded that they had on several occasions over the past hundred years undoubtedly offered their prayers over the graves of the ancestors of those who still did not share their faith.

It was a simple event that showed me how the re-interpretation of the past and use of a heritage site can do more than an over-organised festival to create a shared experience that contributes to mutual understanding of rituals and cultural practices that, whilst not shared by all our countrymen, contributes to the wealth of the nation. As an English speaker, from a community that forms only two percent of the province, I for the first time and in an unthreatening way profoundly felt and appreciated the terrible role of my own people in this war. It was something that, had things been different, I should have felt many years before. I also appreciated the irony that those events were, 102 years after they ceased, bringing together antagonists from a far later conflict.

In conclusion, through this event and the work that has gone before it I have come to realise that a lot of our interpretative work is about symbolism and sentiment. What symbols do we choose to use and which sentiments we stimulate determine whether we divide or bring together. In this case old, much abused symbols are playing a new role in fostering understanding by all South Africans of their contribution to the creation of our nationhood. As I said earlier, perhaps a peculiarly South African irony. I hope it is also relevant in a broader context.



ICOMOS South Africa 05.05.05