Friday 16th of August 2002 11:47 PM 
Essay [15]

By Linda Vergnani

Brandfort, South Africa

When the archaeologist Cobus Dreyer discovered the tombstone of a black child who had died in the South African War, he decided the safest place to store it was in the office of the local police chief.

Mr. Dreyer sees the inscribed headstone as his "trump card" -- crucial evidence that he will use to try to prove that he has found the main cemetery of a wartime black concentration camp near here, in the Free State province. The land on which it sits is in a conservative area where right-wing, white Afrikaners see the restoration of black graveyards as a political ploy to turn the focus away from the suffering of Boers. Mr. Dreyer feared that as news of his discovery spread, people might vandalize or steal the tombstone.

The centenary of the South African War (1899-1902) is being marked with academic conferences around the world. But interpretation of the events is still debated by some South Africans. Historians say the official narrative of the war, while quite different now than it was under apartheid, is again being shaped by the government's political agenda, now that South Africa is governed by the African National Congress.

Even the name of the war is disputed: Although historians generally prefer the politically neutral "South African War," it is widely referred to as the "Anglo-Boer War." Under apartheid, the government and school textbooks portrayed the war as a white battle between British imperialists and beleaguered Afrikaners, with black people merely part of the scenery.

The war began in October 1899, after the British, seeking a pretext to take over the Transvaal gold mines, demanded that franchise requirements be lowered for British immigrants in the independent South African Republic. Its president, Paul Kruger, declared war when the British massed troops on his borders and those of his ally, the Orange Free State Republic. With the Boers fighting a guerrilla war, it took a scorched-earth campaign, the creation of concentration camps to isolate Boers and -- most historians now believe -- black Africans, and the deployment of 448,000 soldiers from across the British Empire before the republics surrendered.

Their recognition of British sovereignty eventually led to the founding of the Union of South Africa, in 1910. In exchange, Britain agreed to Boer terms that included the continued disfranchisement of black inhabitants of the former republics.

Roughly 7,000 Boer soldiers were killed in the war, and 22,000 British troops died, around two-thirds of them from disease.

But it was the deaths by starvation and illness of more than 28,000 Boer women and children in British concentration camps that led to a public outcry. Their suffering was used to fuel Afrikaner nationalism in the decades after the war. White concentration-camp cemeteries were well maintained, and memorials were built listing the thousands of people who perished. Annual commemorations continue to be held for the dead.

By contrast, the deaths of black Africans remained largely uncommemorated, and only with the centenary has the state publicly acknowledged that they played roles on both sides of the war. When Queen Elizabeth II and other dignitaries attended the opening commemorative ceremonies in South Africa, in October, government leaders emphasized the suffering of Afrikaners and black Africans alike. Some scholars see even that narrative as a reordering of history to suit political ends.

Opening the ceremonies in Brandfort last month, a few miles away from the site discovered by Mr. Dreyer, President Thabo Mbeki unveiled a monument at a newly restored black-camp cemetery. "The 75 graves we saw today were discovered hardly two months ago," he said. "Forgotten and hidden for close to a century in the long grass, they are clearly only part of a bigger cemetery."

He declared the area a conservation site pending further research. Referring to a hilltop from which observers could see both Boer and black-African cemeteries, the president asked listeners to "reflect on the mutual suffering and interdependence, in spite of inequalities, of both black and white during the South African War."

Although some government officials suggest that evidence of black Africans' participation in the war is new, it is not. Since the 1970's, experts like Peter Warwick, the author of Black People and the South African War 1899-1902 (Cambridge University Press, 1983), and Bill Nasson, a professor of history at the University of Cape Town, have reported extensively on the roles black people played as combatants, spies, support workers, and victims of both sides.

More hard evidence of their participation is emerging now, as historians, aided by geologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and amateur enthusiasts, locate and map forgotten black concentration camps and graveyards. Researchers have recently revised the death toll for black refugees, forced to work in white camps or resettled in about 65 segregated concentration camps, from 12,000 to between 16,000 and 20,000.

Documenting black participation is a painstaking task. The British military kept incomplete records of the black dead, recording individuals only as "kaffir," a term now deemed offensive, or by nicknames. Victims were usually buried in unmarked graves.

But over the past two years, researchers have rediscovered a string of black camps and graveyards. Last year, Johan Loock, a senior lecturer in geology at the University of the Orange Free State and an expert on the war, worked with a local historian to trace 638 graves on a farm about five miles south of Brandfort. Using a 1901 map of "native refugee locations," Mr. Loock was directed to the cemetery by a farm worker. He believes that the graves, each marked by a cairn, contain the remains of inmates from the nearby Allemans Siding Concentration Camp, one of three black concentration camps built by the British near Brandfort.

The farm owner refused to allow a Chronicle reporter to visit the cemetery, telling Mr. Loock that he did not want journalists on his land and that the graves were "from the kaffir wars, not the Boer War." Mr. Loock refutes that claim with historical evidence, and hopes the National Monuments Council will intervene and open the site to the public.

Jean Beater, the manager of war graves for the council, says some farmers acknowledge they fear that if academics identify black concentration-camp cemeteries on their farms, black people may claim the land. "There is also opposition from right-wingers to the idea that people other than whites were in concentration camps," she says. The council has decided that it would be too expensive to expropriate the Allemans Siding Concentration Camp graveyard and restore it as a monument. "We can't force farmers to open up the land. It doesn't work," she says.

The graveyard found by Mr. Dreyer, by contrast, is on municipal land that is open to the public. An Iron Age archaeologist who is retired from the National Museum, in Bloemfontein, Mr. Dreyer believes that he has discovered the main black graveyard at Brandfort because it is much closer to where he has plotted the concentration camp's location than the cemetery visited by President Mbeki.

Mr. Dreyer identified the camp using archival records and his professional familiarity with grindstones and refuse heaps. The only headstone he found with legible writing was that of 11-year-old Elise Monomoli, who died in 1901.

Some historians dispute that sites like the one discovered by Mr. Dreyer were "concentration camps." Jabu Maphalala, a history professor at the University of Zululand who has written on Zulu involvement in the war, says there is a reason the old British maps in the archives refer to "native refugee camps," for that is precisely what they were. "The British decided to deprive the Boers of every advantage by collecting the Africans or natives into refugee camps where they fed them at their own expense and looked after them," he says. "They were better off in those camps, because all Africans outside there were treated worse than slaves by the Boers." Mr. Maphalala says that Boers often shot black Africans they encountered in the veldt and regarded them as subhuman.

However, many historians say there is overwhelming evidence to prove that the so-called refugee camps were concentration camps, whose inmates were held by force.

Stowell Kessler, an American theologian who has studied Boer War concentration camps for more than a decade, says, "You cannot claim that people are refugees, in the true sense of the word, who were taken by British military columns against their will and incarcerated in a barbed-wire-enclosed camp."

Mr. Kessler says that, like Afrikaner women and children, black people were swept off the veldt by British troops to prevent them from supplying the Boer forces. Mr. Kessler, a master's candidate in history at the University of Cape Town, has compiled a list of 17,923 black people who died in the camps. He estimates that the actual figure could be as high as 25,000 or 26,000.

Like the graveyards of black victims, accounts of black-African experiences in the war have been neglected. In a belated attempt to reconstruct those experiences, South Africa's Ministry of Arts, Culture, Science, and Technology is financing a major oral-history project. Luli Calinicos, a senior researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand who advises the government on national monuments, is in charge of the project. "The point is, we don't have enough material and understanding about why people joined the war and what their experiences were," she says.

Leo Barnard, a professor and head of the department of history at the University of the Orange Free State, is supervising the project in his province. Two master's- degree students, both of whom are black, began the fieldwork in December, interviewing the descendants of people who were involved in the war. "I don't expect anything earth-shattering to emerge," says Mr. Barnard. "But the most important thing is to start somewhere."

As efforts continue to recover black Africans' experiences of the war, many academics believe that government leaders are trying to rewrite history, using the horrors inflicted on white and black civilians as a unifying theme for the nation.

The University of Cape Town's Mr. Nasson, in his latest book, The South African War 1899-1902 (Edward Arnold, 1999), writes of efforts to make the war "part of the fabric of a newly reconciled and healed country, affirming shared understanding between English and Afrikaner as well as between black and white."

"What irritates many scholars," says Mr. Nasson in an interview, "is the government position that historians are ignoring the black presence in the war. It's quite wrong."

The Boers used some 14,000 black auxiliaries, and the British army used around 120,000 black Africans in armed and non-combatant roles, so "it is quite obvious this was never a white war," he says. He lists numerous publications to prove that the subject has been thoroughly researched since the early 1970's.

He also objects to the government's "emphasis on suffering and sacrifice and on Afrikaners and Africans as victims of British imperialism." In reality, says Mr. Nasson, the overwhelming majority of Africans supported the British in the mistaken belief that British victory would mean a "less oppressive life." The British promised black Africans "just treatment." Africans in the Cape province, 10 percent of whom could vote, understood that promise to mean extending the vote to blacks in the former Boer republics.

Mr. Maphalala objects even more strongly to the new emphasis on shared suffering. Although he advised the government on the centenary commemorations, he found much in the speeches a "farce." It is a "distortion of history," he says, for politicians to claim that the Boers and black Africans were oppressed by the British.

"If we get into that kind of propaganda, then we cease to be historians and become politicians," he says. "The British were far better than the Boers, in all respects, in terms of treatment of Africans, and that is what led many Africans to take up arms and lay down their lives on the side of the British."

But after the war, the British abandoned their black allies and sought reconciliation with the Boers at the expense of Africans. "The Boers said under no circumstances would they countenance political rights for blacks in the Orange Free State and Transvaal," says Mr. Nasson. "The British agreed to Boer terms that there would be no dilution of white racial supremacy."

Mr. Nasson says some Africans did make advances in the war, occupying Boer land. "But after the war, the British chose to help the Boers chase blacks off the land and reconquer it, especially after 1904."

Albert Grundlingh, a professor of history at the University of South Africa and an expert on the war, also finds it ironic that black people and Afrikaners are now equally critical of the British. "In 1902, the Afrikaners and the British connived to relegate black people to perpetual servitude," he says. Some politicians are now "vying to prove who suffered most," he adds. "It's a rather tawdry spectacle of the Olympics of suffering."

"As a professional historian, I realize that our point of view has to be different from the public point of view," says Mr. Grundlingh. "We are in the business of being critical. In the same way Afrikaners used the war to fuel nationalist politics, black people now do the same with a different emphasis."

© 2000 Chronicle of Higher Education. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission. This article may not be posted, published, or distributed without permission from The Chronicle.


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Who Fought the War?
A wonderfully refreshing page which explores the role and experience of Black peoples during the war. Firmly refutes the 'White man's war' myth.

Further Reading

Comaroff, J.L. (ed.) The Boer War Diary of Sol T Plaatje, an African at Mafeking (London, 1973).

Labuschagne, Pieter. Ghostriders of the Anglo- Boer War (1899 - 1902): The Role and Contribution of Agterryers. Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 1998.

Warwick, Peter. Black People and the South African War, 1899-1902. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Warwick, Peter. Black Industrial Protest on the Witwatersrand 1901-02. York: York University Centre for South African Studies, 1975.