“The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

smutsThere are still a handful of conservative ‘Afrikaner nationalist’ white people in South Africa who would still toe the old Nationalist line on Smuts, that he was a ‘verraaier’ – a traitor to his people, his death welcomed.  However, little do they know that many of the old Nationalist architects of Apartheid held Smuts in very high regard.

DF Malan, on the day of Smuts’ death, 11th September 1950, was the Prime Minister of South Africa, his Nationalist party had defeated Smuts’ United party two years earlier in 1948 whilst pushing the Nationalist proposals to further entrench racial segregation with a concept they called Apartheid.  Smuts on the other hand, foresaw the need to extend the ideas of ‘Union’ which had brought Afrikaner and Briton together to include Black South Africans. On voting rights, he had made his views clear to Hertzog as early as 1920 when in a private meeting he proposed a Qualification Franchise (not a Universal one though) for black South Africans (Hertzog was an ardent Nationalist and rejected the idea outright).

Smuts was born into a system of ‘Empire’ and that was the socio-political sphere everyone understood, including Smuts.  Over time Smuts’ views on racial segregation gradually evolved from the generally understood divided evolution edicts of his day (based on where nations stood on the ‘civilisation’ continuum).  On the international stage by the mid 1940’s, when Smuts was outside of the pressures of South Africa’s race politics (even from inside of his own political party) and not toeing his party’s line, here his views started to really shape up.

By the middle of World War 2 he had taken on a deep sense of individual liberty for all mankind, emancipation and freedom from any sort of oppression (including State).  These views, based on what he termed man’s universal “spirit” for freedom forged by two world wars, they were consolidated in his work on the United Nations and exposed on an international stage in a number of speeches.

Back in South Africa after the war, as a precursor to these views on universal liberty, Smuts had already changed from his old positions on segregation and proposed ‘integration’ instead of ‘separation’ and he had also already promised black community leaders greater political representation if they supported his war effort, voting rights under Smuts were already secure for South Africans of Indian origin and the Cape Coloured community.  On the Nationalists proposals of Apartheid he once said:

“The idea that the Natives must all be removed and confined in their own Kraals is in my opinion the greatest nonsense I have ever heard”.

The nationalists touted a fear of ‘black danger’ under this more democratically minded Smuts if he won, and it struck a cautionary chord with many white voters and the Nationalists won the day, surprisingly and against the odds, and not by a majority mind – but on a constitutional seat basis.

On losing the election Smuts made one of his greatest speeches in 1949 at the inauguration of the Voortrekker Monument to a largely Afrikaner crowd, it says everything of where he stood on integration and the future of South Africa, he said:

“Only on the basis of taking from the past what was beautiful could ‘fruitful co-operation and brotherhood’ between the two white communities be built. And only on this basis could a solution be found for the greatest problem which we have inherited from our ancestors, the problem of our native relations”. He went on to say, that this was “the most difficult and the final test of our civilization.’

Simply put, the country’s white community at Smuts’ death was very split down the middle on the issue of ‘Apartheid’ and what it would bring, the majority of South Africans did not favour it and they had heeded Smuts’ warnings of what entrenched race politics would bring to South Africa’s future.

The death of Jan Smuts

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DF Malan

DF Malan was attending a National Party political rally to the party faithful and whipping up support for the edicts of Apartheid when Smuts’ died.   An aide walked up to him and handed him a note with the news of Smuts’ death, what he does next would surprise even the hardest right-wing Afrikaner Nationalist.

Instead of gleeful celebration of the demise of this most hated enemy of the Apartheid cause, the man repeatedly called a ‘traitor’ by the Nationalists, a man who had the ‘blood’ of Jopie Fourie on his hands, the ‘hansopper’ and ‘joiner’ turncoat who favoured the union of the Afrikaner with the hated British to heal South Africa over and above separationist Afrikaner rule, the King’s ‘hanskakie’ puppet, old ‘slim Jannie’ who put global interests and governance ahead of his ‘volk’ (white Afrikaner peoples) – no Dr. Malan’s reaction to the news was somewhat different to what most people now would even think.

DF Malan immediately turned pale, he slowly sat down, slumped over and cupped his hands to his face. He had lost a lifelong and very close friend.  Their political positions aside, Malan had a deep sense of admiration for his old friend.

He had to be helped up to stand at the microphone, where he announced that “a great figure of our time” has just died, he called the Nationalists to silence and then cancelled the rally.  His colleagues reporting that they had never seen Malan so distressed.

DF Malan’s reaction says a lot about Smuts, the importance he had in the formation of South Africa, he was the original ‘reconciler’ of the warring nations in South Africa, his idea of union based his philosophy of holism – all parts of the sphere make the whole, made the state of South Africa as we know it, he was quite literally the ‘father’ of the South African nation, and now he was lost.

 

The universal appreciation of Smuts at the time, both by his supporters and his detractors, would see a nationwide and even worldwide outpouring of grief, Smuts’ funeral was something else, a funeral not seen since in South Africa and only seen again when Nelson Mandela died.

To even begin to contemplate Smuts’ importance to not only South Africa, but to the free world consider what Winston Churchill wrote to Isie (Ouma Smuts), his wife, expressing his condolences, and what he wrote sums up the loss perfectly.

“There must be comfort in the proofs of admiration and gratitude that have been evoked all over the world for a warrior-statesman and philosopher who was probably more fitted to guide struggling and blundering humanity through its suffering and perils than anyone who ever lived in any country during his epoch.”

In his lifetime, Smuts had advanced to a level of greatness that is more substantive and more far-reaching to the modern human race than any South African before and even after him (with all respect to Nelson Mandela and his legacy).

Add to this what King George VI wrote Ouma Smuts and you start to see a pattern.  He wrote:

“the force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”.

To understand his impact to humankind by way of an obituary to his milestone accolades, consider the following:

The birth of South Africa

The establishment of the state of South Africa in 1910. His proposal of ‘Union’ with the British colonies of the Cape and Natal brought South Africa out of the devastation of the Boer War and the resultant decimation of the Boer nation. Despite winning the war, in just four years of Colonising everything, Britain had handed all control of her colonies in South Africa to an independent parliament to Westminster, able to make its own laws to forge its own destiny, headed up by two Boer Generals of which Smuts was one.

The Boers had lost their two small Republics to war and now, thanks to Smuts’ skill and British confidence in his vision and him, the Boer commanders were very quickly back in governance of both their ‘old’ Republics and in addition, both the British Colonies as well – without a shot been fired.  To quote Smuts ‘they gave our country back’.  He reflected that at no time in Britain’s long history had such a ‘miracle of trust and magnanimity’ ever happened.

British ‘meddling’ and ‘warmongering’ in South Africa would never happen on the same scale again, and in fact they were making reparations for the damage they had caused by way of economic support.

The League of Nations and United Nations

He played a key role in the establishment of the League of Nations, the exact design and implementation of which relied upon Smuts, he even drafted the outlines for the The Treaty of Versailles. His outline was not fully followed and he warned the League of a future calamity with Germany – how prophetic he was.

With the demise of the League of Nations (the USA left it), Smuts still held the view that a more robust world peace body was required involving all nations holding each other to account.  He later urged the formation of a new international organisation for peace: The United Nations (UN).

Smuts wrote the first draft of the preamble to the United Nations Charter, and was the only person in history to sign the charters of both the League of Nations and the United Nations (see earlier Observation Post link Jan Smuts drafted the Preamble to the United Nations Charter).

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Smuts signing the United Nations Charter

 

The British Commonwealth of Nations

He sought to redefine the relationship between the United Kingdom and her colonies, he helped establish the concept of a ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’ based on devolved British authority instead of a ‘British Empire’ and by doing so he served to end Britain’s ‘Empire. He in fact came up with the term ‘Commonwealth’ and it was to his recommendations that the King listened.

The birth of Israel

In 1932, the kibbutz Ramat Yohanan in Israel was named after him. Smuts was a vocal proponent of the creation of a Jewish state, and spoke out against the rising anti-Semitism of the 1930s.  His relationship with the Jews and Israel did not stop there, he was one of the driving forces behind the Balfour Declaration which established the state of Israel (see earlier Observation Post A Kibbutz called Jan Smuts.)

World Wars and Military Milestones

He became South Africa’s only Field Marshal, having taken South Africa to both World Wars on the side of democracy and freedom.  The Second World War alone launched the manufacturing might of South Africa largely due to the support of the war effort.  By the end of WW2, South Africa, a muddle of small colonies and republics just 40 years earlier, now stood as a key contributing world player.

He was the only person with in-depth military experience to join The British War Cabinet, at the insistence of the King, during World War 1 (the rest were Politicians) and in so played a key role in guiding the outcome of World War 1.

He gave birth to the idea of an independent Air Force free from Navy or Army control in 1917, that saw the formation of the Royal Air Force (RAF), the oldest independent air arm in the world and in addition carried this over to form The South African Air Force, the second oldest. Modern military construct now still follows The Smuts Report on the use of air power (see earlier Observation Post link Centenary of the ‘Smuts Report’, the instrument which gave birth to the Royal Air Force).

Smuts had a long string of successful military command, notwithstanding his Command of a Boer Commando during the Anglo-Boer war, evading defeat for the entire duration of the war.  He founded the South African Defence Force after Union, commanded UDF forces alongside Botha in taking German South West Africa during WW1, the first ‘Allied’ victory of the war.  He went on to command all the British and Commonwealth Forces in the East African campaign during WW1, chasing General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces all over East Africa, and in so doing he captured Dar-es-Salaam, the German East Africa capital. However, to really put Smuts in perspective, when he heard that his old enemy, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck had fallen into destitution after WW2, it was Smuts who personally extended aid and food to him (to Smuts war was not a personal thing amongst soldiers).

During the Second World War he was appointed to the British King’s Privy Council.   The King was even warm to an idea proposed by Jock Colville (Churchill’s Private Secretary) that should Prime Minister Winston Churchill die during the war, Smuts would replace him, however this idea was never tested as Smuts would have need to have been made a peer and constitutional issues would have prevented it.  Whether possible or not it does give an idea of just how close Smuts was to Churchill and how indispensable he had become.

Again, as a member of the British War Council, he played a key role in the outcome of World War 2 and the Allied Victory.  He even accompanied Winston Churchill shoulder to shoulder to oversee Operation Overlord (D Day) and the liberation of France and subsequently Western Europe.

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Smuts and Churchill in France overseeing Operation Overlord (D Day)

 

Many historians would now even point to the notion that Churchill regarded Smuts’ advice above anyone else’s advice on his war effort and strategy (see related Observation Post story Smuts’ keen sense of smell detects Germans hiding nearby).

Domestic acclaim

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Emily Hobhouse

The deep-seated pain of the Boer War concentration camps and how it affected Afrikaner identity was also something that Smuts actively addressed (Ouma Smuts was herself interned in a concentration camp, and Smuts had also tragically lost family to the system).  He became a friend and confidant of Emily Hobhouse in addressing the issue with the British over many years. The Magnolia seeds she gave him in friendship now stand as a full botanical statement to this outside his house in Irene.

He brought the government to take measures to bring the treatment of Indians in South Africa into line with the provisions of the United Nations, putting them to the same equality and status of the ‘Cape Colourds’ who already enjoyed an equal universal franchise in South Africa at the time.  In doing so he became a life-long admirer of Mahatma Ghandi, who in turn also regarded Smuts as one of the greatest statesmen of his time.

To illustrate this admiration, Before Gandhi returned to India in 1914, he presented General Smuts with a pair of sandals made by Gandhi himself. In 1939, on Gandhi’s 70th birthday, Smuts returned the sandals with the following message:

“I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”

(see earlier Observation Post story “… I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man”).

In domestic policy, Smuts instituted a number of social security reforms. Old-age pensions and disability grants were extended to ‘Indians’ and ‘Africans’ respectively (although there were still differences in the level of grants paid out). He also instituted the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1941 and the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1946.

International acclaim

55bfc5b0ef884389cd7a9bddf3645bd8Smuts was honoured by many countries and on many occasions, as a standout Smuts was the first Prime Minister of a Commonwealth country (any country for that matter) to address both sitting Houses of the British Parliament – the Commons and the Lords during World War 2.  To which he received a standing ovation from both houses.

Such was the admiration of Smuts that his statue stands outside Westminster on Parliament Square in London for his contribution to world politics and as a great reformer.

Now he stands alongside the likes of Ghandi, Mandela and Abraham Lincoln as the only other ‘foreign’ statesmen honoured in the square.  Whilst, ironically, in South Africa his legacy has taken an absolute battering and his statues removed.

Take the time to listen to Smuts’ speech to both houses of Parliament, note his views on all mankind’s basic freedoms and what he envisions as the future by way of fundamental reforms.  Also note the short praise by Winston Churchill when Smuts concludes his speech and the reaction of the British Parliament, a reaction that has not been seen in British politics since, it is very unique.

 

Charity

In 1921 Smuts, along with Field Marshal Haig, established The Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL) in Cape Town.  The RCEL sought to consolidate war veteran’s charities all over the world to care for the returning military service personnel in the Commonwealth.  It saw the establishment or re-purposed institutions which now play a significant role in care for servicemen worldwide, The Royal British Legion, The Royal Canadian Legion, The Returned Services League Australia and The South African Legion to name a few.

He also made South Africa available to Jewish orphans escaping the Pogroms of Eastern Europe (despite resistance from South African nationalists).  For a full story on this remarkable chapter, see an earlier Observation Post 200 Jewish orphans saved, the story of Jan Smuts and Issac Ochberg

He again made South Africa available to Polish orphan children escaping the Nazi German and Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, establishing a grateful and thriving small Polish community in South Africa (see earlier Observation Post South Africa provides sanctuary for Polish refugee children during WW2 ).

Academia

Smuts was also an accredited philosopher, his work on Holism brought him high acclaim from his Philosopher peers.  Holism can be defined as “the fundamental factor operative towards the creation of wholes in the universe” and was published in 1926.  For Smuts it formed the grounding behind his concepts of the League of Nations and United Nations.

Smuts was also an accredited Botanist, his books and illustrations on South African grasses (veld) are still regarded as the definitive work.

21731360_2020995841462737_816238144166127637_nWhilst studying law at Christ’s College at Cambridge University, he was rated as one of the top three students they have ever had (Christ’s College is nearly 600-year-old).  The other two were John Milton and Charles Darwin.

His intellect was unsurpassed, to pass an exam at Cambridge he learnt Greek (fluently) in just 6 days. His wife was no intellectual slouch either, later in life Jan Smuts and Ouma Smuts used to tease one another when one would recite a Bible verse and the other would be expected to recite the following one, from memory, in Greek!

In 1948, Smuts was elected Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, the first real non-Briton outside of British Royalty to be elected to the position in the 800 year-old history of Cambridge University.

Vision

Smuts’ idea of ‘Union’ and vision for South Africa was that of a ‘United States of South Africa’ including countries like Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe in the Union.  It was to be a significant player on the world stage drawing on Africa’s vast resources to see it as a leading political and economic power block (much like the USA is now).  Can you imagine if Botswana and Rhodesia voted to join the Union (they chose not to at the time), what a different history we would have seen in Southern Africa – ‘Apartheid’ may never have happened just for starters.

A humble man

Personally, Smuts was a God-fearing, frugal and humble man. He chose as his house an old rickety, uninsulated, fully corrugated iron, transportable military head office.  He preferred to sleep outside on the ‘stoup’ (veranda) on a small single hard wood bed, his garden was the natural veld. There were no stately mansions or ‘Nkandla’ with ‘fire pools’ for Smuts and he would not have had it anyway.

Legacy

The National Party in a sinister move, gradually and over the long period of Apartheid insidiously smeared Smuts and his legacy, erasing from the general consciousness of just what a great South African Smuts had become. Modern South Africans grew up with almost no regard for Smuts, and if you had to ask a young Black South African today who Smuts was he’ll probably say he was one of the white Apartheid monsters, the white English children will have no idea and the White Afrikaans ones may remember something about him been traitor to Afrikaners.  A student in Canada studying world politics would have a better grip on Smuts than a South African student.

Luckily this is beginning to change, and landmark Biographies are being written now which start to fully explore who and what Jan Smuts was, and it is both fascinating and eye-opening.  It is very hard to sum up all the greatness Smuts was to attain, and certainly for his time his deeds set him well apart from any of the other Statesmen South Africa has produced, certainly if you consider all the subsequent South African Premiers other than Mandela. We have a wonderful story in Smuts, and what we have a character of force – a polyglot, philosopher, botanist, intellectual, lawyer, politician, statesmen, reformer and warrior –  a story and a man who is best summed up by Alan Paton who said:

“Even the great thought he was great.”


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  References: Jan Smuts reconsidered Hermann Giliomee 26 January 2016, Richard Steyn’s Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness 2015.  Video footage copyright Associated Press.  My deep thanks to Philip Weyers for the Smuts family insight and access.

This article serves to highlights Smuts’ achievements by way of an Obituary.  There are other issues any national leader faces that highlight decisive but ‘unpopular’ action depending on the affected party’s point of view.  For more related articles in The Observation Post on  Jan Smuts please have a look at this link:

South Africa’s very own Communist Revolution – The Rand Revolt of 1922

 

To fully reconcile The Boer War is to fully understand the ‘BLACK’ Concentration Camps

Two different current Narratives

refugeesTo many Afrikaans speaking white people in South Africa the narrative of what in South Africa is called ‘The 2nd Anglo Boer War’ (or just shortened to ‘The Boer War’) is one of a struggle of the Boer nations for independence, the backdrop set against one of British greed for gold in The South African Republic (Transvaal) and colonial expansion by the subjugation of independent nations. The Boer’s boldly fighting against the odds against a British Imperialist invasion and then having to endure the indignity of a systematic eradication of the Boer nation and culture by means of a punitive genocide initiated by what some now regard as a Nazi styled system of British ‘concentration camps’ which murdered their women and children in their tens of thousands.  An indignity and outrage which now calls for an apology and war repatriation from the British.

18056649_10155221467369476_6950152090307411838_nTo many of the British, the story is somewhat different. The British call the war ‘The South African War’ and it is one of a struggle of British migrant miners fighting against oppression and for citizen rights in The South African Republic (Transvaal). Followed by brave pockets of British garrison troops in border towns in the Cape Colony and Natal fighting off an invasion by the Boers of their colonies, the siege of their towns initiated by the Boer’s declaration of war on the British, and by besieging their towns subjecting British women and children to starvation and indiscriminate shelling by surrounding Boer guns – calling for a national outrage in the UK and a ‘call to arms’ of the biggest expeditionary force seen to date to ‘get their cities back’ and save the civilians. Then after winning the conventional war the British felt forced to depopulate large swathes of land bordering their supply routes to Pretoria. This was done to prevent constant attack on their supplies and the supply of Boer commandos (now with governments ‘in the field’ instead of their capital cities), by their own kin on their farmsteads.  Their reaction, wherever there was an attack, just put all the surrounding farmstead folk into ‘refugee camps’ (their term for the camps) and burn the farmsteads supplying the Boer forces to the ground. All because some renegade Boer commandos didn’t ‘play by the rules’ of a conventional surrender and embarked on an unconventional phase of the war instead (guerrilla war) which threw the generally accepted rules of engagement out the window.

Nasty, very nasty history this war was, and these two different views on the subject are to a degree both ‘politically’ motivated, both conveniently serving to underpin ‘Nationalist’ ideologies and in so supporting political agendas – whether it is a Boer or British one.

A third dimension

So, somewhere between the two vastly different narratives lies the truth, but there’s a third part of the war neither of the above two narratives even begins to properly consider, and it’s a part of the Boer/South African War which fundamentally shifts all previous narratives on the war, moving it away from a war between two white tribes to a more holistic one involving all South Africans.  Ground breaking research is now been done on the ‘Black’ involvement in the war and the impact to the Black community.  New understanding is coming about and it is shaking the traditional British and Boer narratives and historical accounts to the core.

At the very centre of understanding this previously overlooked aspect of the war is the unveiling of the history of the ‘Black’ concentration camps of the Boer War.  Their impact to the Black community, almost no different to the impact to the Boer community.  The only difference is the politically driven race politics post the Boer War, and especially during the Apartheid period, which simply brushed it aside as something less relevant with a brutal degree of apathy, leaving us all now with a ‘perception’ of the war rather than a truth.

In an odd sense, it is only by understanding this aspect of the war that full account and truths are established, that anything by way of ‘apologies’ or ‘reparations’ in our modern context can even be possible.

The Black History of the Boer War

So, if you are unfamiliar with the ‘Black’ part of the Boer War here it is.  South Africa’s ‘Black’ tribal population also took part in the war, on a scale most people are unaware of.

In the case of the Boer forces, very often Black farm workers took on the role of ‘agterryers’ (rear rider) in fighting Commandos, their job was a combination of military ‘supply’ and one of a military ‘aide-de-camp’ (assistant) to one or more of the Boer fighters.  These ‘agterryers’ ferried ammunition, weapons, supplies and food to the Boer combatants, they arranged feed for horses and in some cases, they were even armed.

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Boer officer and his agterryer

It was not only Black men in support, but Black women too, they supported the Boer women in providing food and feed to frontline commandos and when the concentration camp systems started they (with their children) were also swept up and in many cases also accompanied and lived in the tents with the Boer families interned in the ‘white’ concentration camps themselves, primarily looking after the children (black and white), sourcing food and water as well as cooking and washing.  They too were exposed to the same ravages of war in the camps as the white folk, mainly the water-borne diseases which so decimated the women and children in these camps.

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A Black women in a Boer Concentration Camp

The British were no different, they quickly employed the local Black population as ‘scouts’ and numerous examples exist of these ‘scouts’ conducting surveillance of Boer positions and intelligence on Boer movements as well as guiding the British through the unforgiving South African terrain.

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British officers with a Black African ‘Scout’ observing terrain

 

The British also sought manpower from the local Black population in cargo loading and supply haulage.  These people were as much a part of moving British military columns as any military person involved in logistics and supply and to a degree they were also exposed to hazards of war.

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Black Africans in British Service, the brass armband signifies military service

 

The British would also ‘commandeer’ entire Black tribal villages for the use of setting up forward bases, strong points and defences – putting entire village populations at risk and literally bringing them into their ‘war effort’.

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Black African village taken over by the British for a strong-hold position

There is even a recorded event when Black South Africans took a more direct role in the war.   On 16 May 1902, Chief Sikobobo waBaqulusi, and a Zulu impi marched on Vryheid and attacked a Boer commando at dawn with losses on both sides.

Context behind the Concentration Camp policy

However, the biggest and most deadly impact to the Black African nations in the Boer War, came in their own earmarked British concentration camps.  So how did that come about?  To understand why the concentration camps initially came about and their purpose we need to put both the white and black concentration camps into context.

To the British, the war should have ended when they marched into Pretoria in September 1900, having now relieved the Boer sieges of their towns of Ladysmith in their Natal Colony, Mafeking and Kimberley in their Cape Colony, and having already taken The Orange Free State’s capital.  The war was over, ‘officially’ they had annexed both republics and they even called for a post war ‘khaki election’ back in the UK to reshuffle Westminster to post war governance.

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Not for the Boer forces it wasn’t.  The British in marching into Pretoria found themselves stretched deep into ‘hostile’ territory with extended and vulnerable supply lines stretching over hundreds of kilometres.   Boer strategy was to move their government ‘into the field’, abandon the edicts of Conventional Warfare and embark on ‘Guerrilla Warfare’ tactics instead, to disrupt supply and isolate the British into pockets.  To do this they would need food, ammunition and feed supplied directly from their own farmsteads surrounding their chosen targets.  Isolated British garrisons came under attack with some initial Boer successes, their forces then melting away into the country. Easy targets were also trains and train lines, and after many a locomotive steamed into Pretoria riddled with bullet holes or didn’t make it all, Lord Kitchener got fed up at the arrogance of it all and acted decisively.

blockhouseKitchener concentrated on restricting the freedom of movement of the Boer commandos and depriving them of local support. The railway lines and supply routes were critical, so he established 8000 fortified blockhouses along them and subdivided the land surrounding each of them into a protective radius.  Short of troops to man all these strong points (he needed 50 000 troops) and control the protective areas, Kitchener also turned to the local Black African population and used over 16 000 of them as armed guards and to patrol the adjacent areas.

Wherever and whenever an attack took place, or where sufficient threat existed to this system, Kitchener took to the policy of depopulating the radius area, burning down the farmsteads, killing the livestock and moving all the people – both Black and White (it mattered not to the British what colour they were) into what was termed a ‘refugee camp’ by the British, these camps however were in reality a concentration camp of civilian deportees forcibly removed from their homes.

 


Two systems of concentration camps existed, one for Blacks and one for Whites.  Both were run very differently.  Victorian sentiment at the time was very racially guided.

The Boer Concentration Camps

The ‘White’ camps were tented and the ‘refugees’ (more accurately forced removed and displaced civilians) were given rations of food and water.  The British could also not afford the resources to ‘guard’ and administrate these camps, and herein lies the problem.  It was due to the lack of ability to manage the camps that some camps were managed well and others simply were not, some fell under British military command others were ‘outsourced’ to local contractors manage, and both British and quite often Afrikaner entrepreneurs were brought in to administrate the camps.  In most instances these camps were very isolated, and by isolation it simply meant the people in them had nowhere else to go (there were no Nazi styled ‘wire’ fences with prisoners shot trying to escape), the camps were in fact relatively porous with regard the movement of people in them.

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Bloemfontein Boer Concentration Camp

Some camps were well run, orderly with demarcated tent lines and health policies implemented based on running a normal military camp (tents and bedding were regularly aired out) and ablutions correctly located with drainage.  Other camps were not well run at all, the administrators allowing the Boer families to ‘clump’ their tents together with no proper ablution planning or health policy.  Policies on food rationing also differed from camp to camp.  In some camps, sadistic camp administrators took to punitive measures to ‘punish’ the Boer families whose menfolk were still fighting in the field to get them to surrender, literally starving these people to the point that just enough food was given to keep the alive.

It follows that in these camps, especially the poorly administrated ones, that social disease would take root, and it came in all sorts forms ranging from poor nutrition to exposure, but it mainly came in the form of waterborne diseases from poor sanitation.  Here again, some camps were medically geared to deal with it, others not.  The net result of all of this is a tragedy on an epic level.

The official figure of the death toll to white Boer women and children in the camps is 26 370, a staggering figure when you consider that only an estimated 6000 Boer combatants in the field died in the war. Another tragedy (lesser so than life) was the loss of family heirlooms and family records to the relocation and scorched earth policies, this served to erase the inherent culture and history of the Boer peoples. The combination of both the systematic erosion of Boer culture and the astronomical rise in death rates of the ‘fountain’ of Boer race – their women and children, has left a deep scar of hatred and loss which still openly exists to this day, and for good reason.

The Black Concentration Camps

The ‘Black’ concentration camps were a different matter entirely. On the 21st December 1900, Lord Kitchener made no bones about his new concentration camp policy at the inaugural meeting of the Burgher Peace Committee held in Pretoria, where he remarked that in addition to the Boer families, both ‘stock’ and ‘Blacks’ would also be brought in.

As said, Victorian sentiment was very racially guided, and where the ‘white’ concentration camps were at least given some semblance of tents for shelter, food, aid workers, water rationing and some medical aid albeit entirely inadequate, the ‘Black’ concentration camps had very little of that.

Black concentration camps, were also earmarked to isolated areas bordering railway lines so they could be supplied – with both deportees and supplies.  The isolation also became the means of containment.  However no ‘tented’ constructs were provided in most instances and these Black civilians were simply left on arid land to build whatever shelters they could scourge for.  They were also not given food rations on a system resembling anything near the system provided ‘white’ camps, in the white camps the food rations were basically free of charge, in the black camps they had to pay for it.

black women on way to concentration camp

Black women on their way to a concentration camp in the Transvaal

In all an estimated 130 000 black civilians (mainly farm labourers on Boer farms) were displaced and put into this type of concentration camp, 66 camps in total (with more still been identified, some sources say as many as 80 camps), all based primarily on the British fear that these Black people would assist the Boers during the war.

During early 1901, the black concentration camps were initially set up to accommodate white refugees. However, by June 1901, the British government established a Native Refugee Department in the Transvaal under the command of Major G.F. de Lotbinier, a Canadian officer serving with the Royal Engineers. He took over the black deportees in the Orange Free State in August that year and a separate department for blacks was created.

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Medical inspection inside a Black concentration camp as administered by the Native Refugee Department. Orange Free State, 1901. Note the black mourning band worn by the RAMC Doctor and the armed African wearing a British army tunic top. Children with distended stomachs inspected, including the toddler with a ruptured umbilical – starvation. In the background to right of the Doctor a child bites its fingers while witnessing this inspection. Note the shelters. No tents – caption and research by Dr. Garth Benneyworth.

Entire townships and even mission stations were transferred into concentration camps. The Black camps differed from the Boers in that they contained large a number of males. This meant the camps were located by railway lines where the men could provide a ready supply of local labour. Work was however paid, and it was via this economy that the Black deportees could properly sustain themselves in the camps.  In this respect to better understand what these camps were, the concept of a ‘forced labour camp’ would be a better definition.

Of the Black concentration camps, 24 were in the old Orange Free State Republic, 4 in the Cape Colony and 36 in the old South African (Transvaal) Republic. There was a single concentration camp in Natal at Witzieshoek, and more camps are identified to this very day . Some of the camps were for permanent habitation and others were of a temporary nature intended for transit.  Their stories speak volumes for the way they were treated.

On the 22 of January 1902, At the Boschhoek Black concentration camp the deportees held a protest meeting. Stating that when they have been brought into the camps they have been promised that they will be paid for all their stock taken by the British, for all grain destroyed and that they will be fed and looked after, none of which had not been forthcoming. They were also unhappy because “… they receive no rations while the Boers who are the cause of the war are fed in the refugee camps free of charge … they who are the ‘Children of the Government’ are made to pay’.

23 January 1902 records that two Black deportees of the Heuningspruit concentration camp for Blacks, Daniel Marome and G.J. Oliphant, complained to Goold-Adams: “We have to work hard all day long but the only food we can get is mealies and mealie meal, and this is not supplied to us free, but we have to purchase same with our own money. “We humbly request Your Honour to do something for us otherwise we will all perish of hunger for we have no money to keep on buying food.”

The ‘official’ rations were meagre at best and had to be purchased, for ‘Natives’ over 12 years of age: Daily: 1½ lbs either mealies, K/corn, unsifted meal or mealie meal; ¼ oz salt; Weekly: 1 lb fresh or tinned meat; ½ coffee; 2 oz sugar – all but the corn was to cost the Black deportee receiving it 4½d per ration.

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Black women in a Black concentration camp in Klerksdorp, note the lack of infrastructure and shelter

By 1902 18 January, Major De Lorbiniere, writes that supplying workers to the army ‘formed the basis on which our system was founded’. The department’s mobilisation of Black labour was very successful – however really this is not surprising at all considering the incentives offered. Those in service of the British and their families could buy mealies at a halfpence per lb, or 7/6 a bag, while those who do not accept employment had to pay double, or 1d per lb and 18/- or more per bag.

The camps, usually situated in an open veld, they were overcrowded, the tents and huts were placed too close together and did not provide adequate protection from the harsh African weather. They were extremely hot in summer and ice cold in winter. Materials for roofing were scarce, also no coal was provided for warmth.  In addition to this misery there was a severe shortage of both food and water (mainly fresh vegetables, milk and meat) .

Water supplies were often contaminated by disease and any form of medical attention was rare to non-existent. Abhorrent sub-human conditions meant that water-borne diseases like dysentery, typhoid and diarrhoea spread with ease and the death rate climbed drastically.

The horrific conditions these deportees subjected to were superseded only by even more abhorrent treatment, the same social diseases, exposure and nutrition problems sprung up in these camps as they did in the ‘White’ Boer camps, with the same horrific result.

Most of the deaths in the concentration camps were caused by disease, and it took root with the most vulnerable, mainly children. By this stage in the war, the death rates in the Black concentration were climbing to unacceptable levels. An aid worker, Mr H.R. Fox, the Secretary of the Aborigines Protection Society, was made aware by Emily Hobhouse that the Ladies Commission (the Fawcett Commission – looking into the problems and death rates in the concentration camps) had focussed solely on the ‘White” concentration camps and completely ignored the plight of Blacks in their concentration camps.  So, he promptly wrote to Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, requesting an inquiry be instituted by the British government “as should secure for the natives who are detained no less care and humanity than are now prescribed for the Boer refugees”.

On this request Sir Montagu Ommaney, the permanent under-secretary at the Colonial Office, responded that it seems undesirable “to trouble Lord Milner … merely to satisfy this busybody”.  With that swift apathy to the plight of the Black deportees came another tragedy on an epic level.

By the beginning of 1902, conditions in black camps were however improved somewhat in order to reduce the death rate. More nutrients were introduced (tinned milk, Bovril and corn flour) and shops were opened that allowed black people to buy some produce and equipment, mainly items like flour, sugar, coffee, tea, syrup, candles, tobacco, clothes and blankets.

The total Black deaths in camps are officially calculated at a minimum of 14 154 (about 1 in 10).  However recent work by Dr. Garth Benneyworth estimates it as at least 20 000, this after examining actual graveyards and factoring that burials had also taken place away from the camps themselves. Dr. Benneyworth notes that the British records are incomplete and in many cases non-existent and the fact that many civilians died outside of the camps in labour or transit or were buried in shared graves, this caused the final death toll to be much higher.  The high rate of child death in the Victorian period aside, a staggering 81% of the fatalities in the Black concentration camps were children.

In Conclusion

Compare that to the Boer concentration camps, where the deaths are recorded are around the 26 000 mark and it becomes clear that the Black population of South Africa suffered the same as the White population during the Boer war.  However, the fact is that historical research into the Black involvement in the war is sorely missing from the general narrative.  Post the Boer war and during Apartheid a lot of research around the Boer concentration camps was done, even monuments and museums were erected to them. It served Nationalist political agenda at the time in establishing Afrikaner identity along a separate race line, so almost nothing by way of research was done on the Black concentration camps, no monuments, museums or even a solid historical account exist of them at all. The Black history of the Boer war most certainly did not make it into mainstream ‘National Christian’ government education curriculum at the time.  As a result the Boer war is simply just not properly understood to this day.

If you add to this the glossed over South African Black History behind their contributions and sacrifices in WW1 and WW2, you can see that Race Politics in South Africa has simply not taken the Black history and their sacrifice along with the mainstream historical account, especially the history prior to the implementation of Apartheid in 1948. What this alienation of critical parts of our history from the overall historical record has done, has reinforced the narrative that black lives were somehow of a lesser consequence to white lives. So, there is no surprise that most modern South Africans (mainly youth) simply can’t be bothered with properly understanding South African history prior to 1994.

There is still a very long way to go to fully understanding the war – but the future in reconciling the true effect of this war and redressing it as a nation – is to understand that the Boer War was not only a ‘white’ man’s war, nor the concentration camps strictly about Afrikaner women and children, a much bigger story exists and its one which needs to be reconciled with – and that is the suffering of South Africa’s black population and the extraordinary losses they experienced in these concentration camps too.

The redress for white Afrikaners in South Africa as to any form of global awareness and world condemnation of this tragedy to their nation lies in the reconciliation of the history with the previously unwritten and misunderstood black history behind The Boer War.  Only if his tragedy is seen as a national issue, with a common cause and reconciliatory national healing process behind it to deal properly with it, only then can amends and long awaited apologies from the British be found.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens with references and extracts from the Military History Journal Vol 11 No 3/4 – October 1999 Black involvement in the
 Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 by Nosipho Nkuna, also references from Dr Garth Benneyworth and ‘Erasure of black suffering in Anglo-Boer War’ By Ntando PZ Mbatha.  Photo copyrights – The Imperial War Museum and Dawie Fourie.