The Horrible History and many names of Thaba Tshwane

The featured photo of the South African Army College in Thaba Tshwane has a lot of hidden history. South Africans just love re-naming things in pursuit of one political party’s agenda over that of another one, all in the interests of political narrative – all of them serving to either change or hide South Africa’s strong military and cultural heritage to suite this or that political likeness.

Take the military compound in Pretoria as an example – First it was called Roberts Heights – then Voortrekkerhoogte – now Thaba Tshwane  – even the changes in language used in the name and subsequent name changes speaks volumes.

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Lord Roberts

The complex was founded around 1905, just after the 2nd Anglo Boer War by the British Army to garrison the city of Pretoria, and they called their new garrison area Roberts Heights after Lord Roberts.

Field Marshal Frederick Roberts (Lord Roberts) VC, KP, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, KStJ, VD, Pc was one the most successful British commanders of the 19th century and the overall commander of British Forces during the 2nd Anglo Boer War.

It was however. renamed Voortrekkerhoogte (“Voortrekker Heights”) to commemorate The Great Trek in a flurry of Afrikaner nationalism which accompanied the Great Trek centenary – and what better than re-naming the hated “English occupiers” military base and removing the name of Lord Roberts – a man loathed by Afrikaners – and for good reason for many Afrikaners – the Boer war left this community deeply scarred, how the British and English South Africans felt about it at the time – different matter, to many of them Lord Roberts is a hero.  So, a controversial move that deepened social differences.

Following the end of the National Party and their influence of Afrikaner Nationalism as an ideology to govern South Africa, it was renamed again on the 19 May 1998 by the incoming ANC regime, this time called Thaba Tshwane instead.   This was done by the ANC to rid the area’s heritage of both its much hated ‘Colonial’ heritage and ‘Apartheid’ heritage with something more ‘universally shared’.

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The inaugural ceremony of the Voortrekker monument at Voortrekkerhoogte, held on 16 December1949

So, Thaba Tshwane it is then, meaning of which is a little lost in translation, but some say its named after Tshwane, son of Chief Mushi, an Ndebele leader who settled near the Apies River, although there is some debate to whether he actually even existed as a historical figure (there’s a problem – there is no written or historic record – its all deeply back in a mystical oral tradition).

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Chief Tshwane statue

In any event, the name was changed again, and once again it was done to suit the next incoming regimes’ political narrative – the replacement of Black African culture and history over that of White African culture and history and scrubbing out anything the National Party or United Party or even the British did in the name of Afrikaner or English identity and heritage in South Africa.

The casualty in all this re-naming and one-upmanship is the actual history, the actual legacy, the golden thread that links our combined journey together – that it was British military compound established and named after Lord Roberts – was sadly even lost on the thousands of  South Africans who served there in the 70’s and 80’s who simply knew it as Voortrekkerhoogte and now even that will be sadly lost to the next generation of South Africans who serve there – who will in time just know it as Thaba Tshwane.  The actual “History and Heritage” lost forever.

To give an idea of  just how much of this rich tapestry is lost in ‘Thaba Tshwane’ can be found in one simple little cornerstone. The oldest building in the military complex is the one pictured – the “South African Garrison Institute” what is now re-named as the “South African Army College”. But here’s the really interesting bit – Lord Kitchener laid the cornerstone of this College on the 12th June 1902.

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Lord Kitchener

During the Second Boer War, both Lord Kitchener and Lord Roberts (the chap they originally named Thaba Tshwane after) arrived in South Africa together on the RMS Dunottar Castle – along with massive British reinforcements in December 1899.

Following the defeat of the conventional Boer forces, Kitchener succeeded Roberts as overall commander of British Forces in November 1900. He subsequently inherited and expanded the successful strategies devised by Roberts to force the “Bittereinder” (Bitter End) unconventional Boer forces to submit.

The “Bittereinder” Boer Commandos had changed their tactics and were now using highly controversial and relatively new “hit and run” guerrilla tactics. The British in turn – in order to figure out how to stop “guerrilla war” – came up with the idea of containing the Boer’s supply line (their horse feed, shelter and food which where been provided by their families/homesteads) and placing all involved in supply (families and farm workers /servants alike) into both “White” and “Black” concentration camps respectively – and then burning the farms (a policy known as “scorched earth”).

Conditions in the concentration camps, which had been conceived by Roberts as a form of control of the families whose farms his forces had destroyed, began to degenerate rapidly as the large influx of Boers outstripped the ability of the minuscule British force to cope. The camps lacked space, food, sanitation, medicine, and medical care, leading to rampant disease and a very high death rate – especially among women and children (children particularly).

41cMeyjGDRL._SY450_You’ll recognise Lord Kitchener anywhere – he became the poster model for the “Your Country Needs You” campaign to spur British and Commonwealth men to sign up and fight in the trenches of World War 1. The poster is funnily seeing a little contemporary resurgence in celebration of the centenary of WW1.

It’s a “Horrible” history – but it’s history none the less – and for this very reason – that it is “horrible” that this history really needs to be told – lest we forget the sacrifice that it took.

Covering over it by re-naming everything, for the sake of a political one-upmanship merely washes out the country’s history, heritage and cultural understanding – it cleanses the rich tapestry that makes us unique as a nation.

In effect it takes us ‘off’ our combined journey as South Africans and does exactly the opposite of all the ‘good’ intentions for getting us to the best and most ‘shared’ option  – it separates us again, it deepens racial and cultural divide and perpetuates South Africa’s deepest problem, its on-going race politics.


Written by Peter Dickens

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