The Making of an Afrikaner Republic

The British takeover of the short-lived Republic of Natalia convinced the majority of Voortrekkers of the futility of trying to establish an independent state near the sea. Their best bet was to find a place inland – and. the land north of the Vaal · River, where the town of Potchefstroom had already been founded, seemed ideal. But squabbles broke out continually, and within a decade two more statelets Ohrigstad and Soutpansberg – had been formed. At the same time, African chiefdoms began to regroup. About 12km west of Louis Trichardt, near a sleepy railway siding stands an old disused cemetery where Voortrekker leader Hendrik Potgieter lies buried.

In March 1872, five years after Schoemansdal, a rampaging force of Venda warriors had sacked its bustling administrative centre. Berlin Society missionary Bernhard Beyer passed through the burnt-out ruins, and remarked: “The dorp [village] … makes a gloomy impression on the visitor. No wonder too, for wickedness formerly had its residence here in the highest degree. Here drunkenness and gluttony were the order of the day, with the buyers and sellers of many valuable African products among which slaves too were numbered. The market and site of the town hall were manured by the thousands of tears and the blood of poor blacks who were lashed unmercifully, and of these doubtless a good many gave up the ghost under the beating. The Lord scented this offence; to that the ruins of the formerly prosperous spot now testify.”

Because Beyer had never traveled this way before, due allowance for exaggeration has to be made for much (but not all) of what he said. For instance, while he was correct in stating that the trade in African workers was a lucrative pastime, as indeed it was in all other Boer settlements in the Transvaal, he overstated the importance of slavery in this trekker stronghold. In many ways, Soutpansberg had been a prosperous place but it owed its affluence to another African commodity: ivory.

The village of Schoemansdal was situated in the middle of elephant country – and elephant hunting was the easiest get-rich-quick scheme imaginable. All that was required was a gun, a supply of superior quality gunpowder, a good eye and a steady hand. Unfortunately, the lure of lucrative returns for minimal outlay drew to the region a type of settler whose morals seldom rose higher than the gutter. Some were English, Irish and German adventurers, but many were Voortrekkers who only a few years earlier had set off in search of a land free of British interference. So godless were they that later commentators were to claim that the far northern settlers generally were unrepresentative of Voortrekker colonisation.

A Republic through the barrel of a gun

The first Voortrekker parties crossed the Vaal in the late 1830s and contrary to what was once popular belief, they did not find a deserted country. Although it is true that the Mfecane caused havoc amongst many African chiefdoms in the Transvaal, the innovative among them found ways not only to survive, but also to thrive.

But they had no answer to the power of the Boers … Moving in compact groups, and mowing down all who disputed their authority, the new settlers quickly established their superiority in the region. With their guns making them masters over all, chiefdom after chiefdom wisely but reluctantly put away their spears for another day. It was, for the trekkers, a dream come true: at last they had their own country – free of the British.

And yet, mainly through their own deficiencies, their visions of a milk-and-honey existence in a land they believed had been given to them by God were quickly shattered. Thanks to their guns, conquest of African rivals had been easy; it was holding onto what they had taken that had taxed them to the limit.

In many respects, the Boers were totally unsuited to running a country. A far: from united people, they spent much of their time bickering over matters as diverse as how to split the spoils of raids on African homesteads, or who was the most important of many self-styled leaders. To make matters worse, flare-ups between opposing warlords were seldom amicably settled: the losers often packed their wagons, gathered their followers and set off to start a new colony in territory belonging to some other African chiefdom. In 1838, Potchefstroom was the only Boer settlement in the Transvaal. A decade later, two new colonies had come into being: Ohrigstad in 1845 and Soutpansberg in1848.

New alliances with African neighbours.

When the compact, highly mobile trekker parties first entered the Transvaal, the scattered African groups were unable to withstand them. But once the white emigrants themselves began to spread out, the situation was largely reversed: now it was the African chiefdoms that formed the concentrated blocs.

The Boer counter to this new danger made nonsense of later claims that their isolation and insecurity gave rise to a heightened sense of group solidarity and separateness from other racial groups. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that when the chips were down, they had few qualms about entering into relations of mutual interest with black neighbours. Thus, from the late 1840s, a series of friendship treaties that led to increasing settler involvement in African politics were concluded.

Perhaps the most important white-black agreement in the Transvaal was sealed on 27 June 1846, between the Volksraad of the Ohrigstad statelet and Mswati, the young Swazi king. At first glance the terms of the treaty seemed ridiculous: in return for 110 cattle (to be paid in two installments over six months), Mswati ceded to Ohrigstad a vast piece of land, situated between the Crocodile and Olifants Rivers.

The real purpose of the deal, however, had little to do with land, and even less with cattle. In Mswati’s case, the motivation was a promise of Boer support in the event of a Zulu invasion, or a challenge to his kingship by his elder brother, Malambule, From the Volksraads point of view, the treaty had been concluded to counter an earlier agreement between the Pedi chief, Sekwati, and the followers of Hendrik Potgieter. For a time, the alliance worked reasonably well: in 1847 when the Swazi were attacked by the Zulu, Mswati, having put his cattle under Boer protection, had the added satisfaction of seeing the raiders being put to flight by a commando of Ohrigstad burghers.

In gratitude for services rendered, Swaziland opened its borders to Ohrigstad hunters and traders; supplied the Boers with more, apprentices. And gave the go-ahead for the republic to build a road through Swazi territory to Delagoa Bay.

Within two years, however, the trekkers were drawn into a dispute between Mswati and another older brother, Somcuba, and the agreement fell apart amid a torrent of threats and counter-threats.

In an era when ambition was synonymous with death, it was no secret that Somcuba badly wanted to rule Swaziland. It was, however, a grave mistake for him to have been so open about it. He quickly found that Mswati, despite a myriad of external and internal security problems, was as determined as ever to hold onto his rickety chieftaincy. A swoop on Somcuba’s northern stronghold failed to snare the ambitious pretender who, forewarned, slipped away just in time to seek sanctuary in Ohrigstad.

Given the benefits they had accrued as a result of their alliance with Mswati, the logical thing would have been for the Boers to deliver the fugitive to his pursuers. But in the tempestuous Highveld logic was sometimes made to stand on its head and so much to the disgust of the young Swazi ruler, they refused.

In reaching this decision the trekkers were deeply conscious of the fact that survival in what they perceived as a hostile world depended on their always having the backing of the most powerful African leader in the region. In this respect, Mswati’s precarious position hardly filled them with confidence. Somcuba, on the other hand, despite his present predicament, was regarded as the rising star of the Swazi kingdom. Even if they handed him back, and he was put to death, what was there to stop another of his followers from usurping the throne? And if this happened, how would it affect them?

Nevertheless, the decision to back Mswati was a far from unanimous one – and when the Swazi chief hit back by canceling the agreement on the building of a road through his territory to Delagoa Bay, by stopping the supply of slaves and, finally, by attacking the new administrative centre of Lydenburg, the trekkers argued long and hard about the wisdom of their decision.

In the end the Boers were rescued from their predicament when Somcuba was killed during a sneak Swazi attack on his hideout. Thereafter the relationship between the Boers and Mswati improved immeasurably,

A vain search for unity

Ohrigstad was not the only Boer colony to be caught up in the disputes of African neighbours: Potchefstroom and Soutpansberg had similar problems, decreasing even further the already slim prospects of a united Boer republic.

Certainly, amalgamation had been discussed before and at some length. In 1849 the three statelets put their signatures to the Treaty of Derdepoort, which formalised previous unity talks. However, the agreement was hardly worth the paper it was written on. And in a way, this was not surprising: the different trekker leaders still disliked one another intensely. Boer involvement in the affairs of their African neighbours was increasing, and the enormous distances between the various white communities hardly made things any easier.

Despite these difficulties, attempts were made in the 1850s to find solutions one being an instruction to the Volksraad to rotate its meetings between Potchefstroom and Ohrigstad (Soutpansberg was ignored). It was a good try – but it did not work: representatives of the statelet that was not the host usually stayed away. This was especially so between 1852-4 when all three Boer communities were involved in disputes with Africans. The upshot was that none of the statelets was in a position to offer military assistance to any of the others: Potchefstroom could not help Lydenburg; nor could Lydenburg help Potchefstroom, while Soutpansberg was far away and little concerned.

Potgieter country

In many ways, Soutpansberg belonged to Andries Hendrik Potgieter, a person with a remarkable ability to make enemies faster than any of his fellow countrymen.

Unable to adjust to life in Potchefstroom and Ohrigstad, Potgieter had loaded his wagons and had trekked north to found the colony that remained a Potgieter possession from its inception in 1848, to its incorporation in a united South African Republic in 1856. When he died in 1852, his son, Piet, took over the reins until he was killed in a battle with the northern Ndebele in 1854. His successor, Stephanus Schoeman, secured the right to the Potgieter-fiefdom by marrying Piet’s widow and naming the main town in the colony after himself.

In a sense, Soutpansberg had a personality of its own. It asked no favours of its counterparts in the south and east, and it offered none. Here too, ‘kaffirs’ were under no illusion about their station in life: their job was to work for the white man and to pay their taxes on time.

Certainly, events in nearby Mozambique guaranteed many white Soutpansbergers an abundance of African workers and taxpayers. In 1858, for instance, when civil war broke out among the Gaza people, hundreds of Tsonga-speaking followers of a chief named Umzila fled into the Soutpansberg where they were given a warm welcome by Joao Albasini, an unscrupulous Portuguese hunter-trader (and ‘kaffir farmer’).

In 1857 Albasini had moved out of Schoemansdal in order to throw all his energies into creating his own African chiefdom. Despite stiff competition from local chiefs, he did quite well for himself, attracting not only Gaza refugees to his ‘kingdom’ on the Delagoa Bay trade route, but also numbers of Venda-speakers from chiefdoms living in the mountains north of the Levubu River.

The secret of Albasini’s success was the fact that he allowed his followers to retain their clan• names, culture and chiefs. Recruits were also offered the possibility of rapid advancement as hunters, traders and tax collectors.

Of course, there were advantages in it for Albasini too. As self-proclaimed, ‘chief he claimed the lion’s share of the not inconsiderable tribute collected and stolen by his henchmen. On the other hand, there were risks involved in running a patchwork chiefdom: for a start, he was never able to win the total loyalty of his followers. At the height of his power, after the fall of Schoemansdal in 1867, he won over thousands of Tsonga-speaking followers. But in the

1870’s, when his power began to wane, many of these people began to desert him for wealthier masters.

Inevitably the huge influx of Africans into the area forced the white colonists to re-examine their attitudes towards their black neighbours – and the Soutpansbergers, despite a reputation for brutality, did introduce one change that was to have a far-reaching effect on black-white relations: they taught Africans to use firearms.

In a way, they were forced to – for, having decimated the elephant population in their immediate vicinity; they were obliged to expand their activities over a wider field. In this case, however, it meant moving eastwards into the much-feared malaria zone. Although few trekkers were prepared to risk contracting the disease, there was no question of abandoning the search for ivory. Hunting, after all, was the lifeblood of the colony. A solution was quickly arrived at; it involved teaching African servants to shoot, and thereafter sending them into malaria country. At first, the swartskut (black shot) experiment proved a great success, allowing Boers the luxury of simply waiting for the ivory to come pouring in.

Few things, however, were ever simple in the Transvaal – and the Soutpansbergers soon faced a major problem when many of the swartskuts absconded, taking their newly acquired firearms with them. This, coupled with the fact that other Africans – labour migrants – were using part of their wages to add to the growing armoury being assembled in the chiefdoms, began to pose a major threat to white superiority. With the odds now greatly evened out, those chiefdoms with weapons to match those of the Boers openly refused to honour labour and tax obligations. It was with great concern that the Boers realised there was nothing they could do about this defiance. Significantly, African access to firearms led to a marked decrease in settler attempts at labour coercion.

The search for unity continues

With the future of his people becoming increasingly insecure, trekker leader Marthinus Wessel Pretorius began a new initiative· to unite the three statelets. In 1856, a new grondwet (constitution) was accepted by Potchefstroom and Lydenburg (formerly Ohrigstad) but rejected by the Soutpansbergers, who for the next two years remained outside mainstream Boer politics. In 1858, however, a promise of high office in the proposed united state persuaded Stephanus Schoeman to bring his people back into the fold, and by 1860 the three communities were finally amalgamated. All that was left to be sorted out was the composition of the new government and it took four years and a near civil war before Pretorius was installed as the first President.

From the start, the new administration showed itself incapable of running a country. The problem was that the burghers proved to be totally ungovernable, especially when it came to contributing towards the state’s welfare: while most trekkers were in favour of stiff taxes on the African population, they were openly hostile to any suggestions that they too had to pay. To make matters worse for the government, the little revenue that found its way to the coffers was often misappropriated. Some members of the government were decidedly long-fingered.

As far back as 1850 the white rulers of the Transvaal had shown themselves totally incapable of devising a system that would bring in sufficient revenue to finance both military expenditure and civil administration. And unity, if anything, served only to compound their difficulties.

Because the cost of acquiring and defending land was far more than the treasury could afford, securing land against debts made payment. At best it was a short-term holding operation – for it meant having to find new land with the further expenditure again secured by the provision of land against republican currency.

When large areas of the country became unavailable for burgher occupation, the authorities tried to solve the problem with a two-pronged initiative: the first involved using land rather than currency to pay officials; the second revolved around the issuing of exchequer bills (known as Mandaaten) for services rendered to the State.

But without capital, labour or markets, the land acquired by many of the less well off proved almost worthless. Indeed, the only way they could profit by its acquisition was to sell it at first to richer members of the Boer community, and later to speculators outside the republic.

At a time when large tracts could change hands for as little as £25, an array of Boer notables – usually top-ranking government officials acquired ‘little countries’. In the Lydenburg district, Volksraad member Hendrik Buhrman owned 18 farms by 1869. But even this paled into insignificance when compared with the landholdings of Johannes Vos, the landdrost clerk of Marthinus Wesselstroom: taking advantage of yet another badly thought-out government scheme (that offered burghers one or more quitrent farms in addition to their freehold farms). Vos had acquired 120 such holdings by 1866.

Other prominent Boers such as Paul Kruger and Piet Joubert, both of who had access to privileged information made small fortunes buying and selling off land.

But while the rich got richer, the country got poorer. In 1865, in a new bid to bail the republic out of its financial difficulties, the government decided to print paper money, again using land as security. But the currency was so worthless that even state officials, who together with clergymen, traders and other private individuals chose rather to pay with credit notes called ‘good-fors’, rejected it. In 1868, 1000 farms totaling 3-million morgen were used to guarantee the issue of paper money. When the bubble burst and creditors started presenting their chits, vast chunks of the republic passed into the hands of British absentee land lords such as Parker Wood and Company, the Harmony Company and A L Devenish, who between them had acquired 77 farms. Smaller companies and private individuals acquired dozens more – usually at public sales in the bustling, diamond-rich Northern Cape town of Kimberley.

The passing of large chunks of their ‘country’ into the hands of foreigners was criticized by many burghers – and in 1873 a group of Boers from Lydenburg felt sufficiently incensed to compile a petition in which they complained that, “some of the most eligible and beautiful lands in the Republic are owned by non-residents, people residing in the neighbouring colonies and in Europe who have no interest in the development of the country further than in the enhanced value it gives to their land”.

They would have been even angrier had they known that Africans had also benefited from the treasury’s problems: using missionaries as frontmen, the original inhabitants of the area had bought back large areas that the Boers had earlier taken from them.

In its desperation to ward off bankruptcy, the government became fair game for a host of smooth talking, usually British, confidence tricksters. One of them, Alexander Mccorkindale, proposed, among other schemes, the establishment of a commercial bank; the institution of an immigration scheme; the setting up of a commercial, farming and mining company; the construction of a harbour at Delagoa Bay, and making the Maputa and Phongolo rivers navigable. To undertake these schemes he asked the government for 100 farms as security for raising an over-seas loan of £250000, while at the same time setting his own fee at 200 farms. Fortunately for the republic, these schemes quickly fell through, enabling it to cut its losses.

It was only after British annexation in 1877, when its chaotic financial situation was put on a sounder footing and its major security problems eased by the crushing of the Zulu and the Pedi, that the Afrikaners in the Transvaal became really united. After the discovery of the Witwatersrand goldfields in 1886, it began to emerge as the most important region in southern Africa. But this, in itself, led to bigger problems.

The Community that Died in a Cave

On 25 October 1854, an entire Ndebele community fled into a network of caves near the present-day town of Mokopane (Potgietersrus) and waited to die.

They could not escape – for outside waited several hundred Boer commandos and 300 of their Kgatla allies. The leader of the Ndebele was a chief called Mokopane (or Makapan as he was known to the Boers), who was said to be killed in the siege but this could never been proved. Later, the caves were named Makapansgat.

Mokopane’s people had been living in relative peace in the northern Transvaal since the 1600s, but when the first Boers began arriving in the area during the 1850s, tension between the two groups over land and labour built up rapidly. Conflict also arose over the control of the lucrative ivory trade – and settler demands for child ‘apprentices’.

When Britain recognised the independence of the South African Republic in 1852, it did so on condition that slavery was not practiced. Although the Boer authorities readily agreed to this and, in fact, passed laws outlawing slavery. Africans were not fooled. When farmers could not get voluntary cheap labour, they simply assembled a commando and raided African homesteads for workers. A special target was children.

The most notorious of these slave raiders was Hermanus Potgieter, a cold-blooded killer, who was feared throughout the region for his violent methods. Few Ndebele communities could claim not to have lost children as a result of Potgieter’s frequent swoops: “The Boers have for a long time been robbing and oppressing him,” said a follower of a chief named Mankopane, a neighbour of Mokopane. “Ask him how many of his children … have been taken and made slaves, and how many of his people have been murdered?”

“The Boers went … to demand tribute and to take what they liked. His heart was full of anguish for the loss of his eight children. His heart was full of anguish for his people who came mourning their losses.”

Although commando slave raids affected most of the clans in the area, it was the groups led by Mokopane and Mankopane that bore the brunt of these attacks. The Ndebele retaliated by mutilating settler animals and attacking their servants.

As anger began to mount on both sides, the Ndebele launched simultaneous attacks in four different places, killing 42 Boers (including Potgieter). Furious, the settlers assembled a commando and marched on Mokopane’s stronghold – but he and his people were no longer there. They had fled to the caves.

It did not take long for the commando to track down Mokopane’s clan, but because the entrances were too narrow, the angry Boers soon gave up the idea of storming the Ndebele hide out. After attempts to smoke them out proved as unsuccessful, the Boers sat back and waited.

Inside the caves, the Ndebele had enough food to last them several days, but water was a problem. As the water supply diminished about 900 of the fugitives tried to rush outside to a nearby stream. They were shot and killed. With the situation inside becoming even more critical, some of the warriors tried to give themselves up. By 12 November, the Boers had taken 400 women and children who had surrendered. Five days later, another 300 surrendered and the commandos felt comfortable enough now to enter the caves. Inside, they found 34 guns, two chests of clothing and a quantity of lead and gunpowder. The siege had lasted 25 days and had resulted in the deaths of more than 1 000 Ndebele.

They called their Slaves lnboekselings

In those stormy years between the 1830s and 1850s the majority of Voortrekkers in the Transvaal were involved in a reprehensible though highly profitable occupation: the kidnapping of African children. It was a practice that sparked waves of terror in African homesteads.

Cheap, captive labour formed the basis of the patriarchal economies of the Boer statelets between 1838-48. And when negotiation failed to draw sufficient African workers into the workforce, instructions went out to bring them in by force.

As a long-term investment, the acquisition of children was a highly enticing prospect and Boer commandos conducted a series of raids on African homesteads in search of ‘black ivory’. These raids netted them thousands of children. According to the captors, most were orphans, but if this was so, it was because the trekkers had killed their parents.

In acting the way they did, the Boers were walking a tightrope: in 1852, when Britain recognised their independence, they agreed not to practice slavery. The Boers, however, refused to believe that they had reneged on this agreement. To them, a slave was someone who was sold into permanent bondage at a public auction for cash. By contrast, their captives were required to work only until the age of 25 (in the case of men). And while they could be bartered for goods such as iron or cattle, they could not be sold. Furthermore, claimed the Boers, the system whereby children were registered (or booked in) by a landdrost had been devised to ensure that only respectable families would acquire servants in this way.

lnboekselings (as captured African juveniles became known) were mostly well fed, but as Walter Inglis of the London Missionary Society remarked’ Many horses and dogs are well fed. This good feeding has ever been a favourite dodge with slaveholders, and its abettors. I do not say that they are driven like the slaves in the West Indies and America, but I say their masters have complete power over them.

Rich householders and state officials such as /anddrosts were the chief beneficiaries of the inboekseling system: Andries Pretorius was known to have acquired eight children after the defeat of Dingane in 1838, while, after another raid, Hendrik Potgieter returned with 15 inboekselings. Even Marthinus Wessel Pretorius, who has been described as an ardent anti• slaver, regularly acquired African children. On one occasion Hendrik Buhrman, the landdrost of Lydenburg, recorded in his diary: ‘I, the undersigned, declare hereby that the kaffir upper chief Umwaas has sent three kaffir orphan children for the Honourable President M W Pretorius, his ally.’ The wealthy Buhrman himself dabbled extensively in the trade, having 16 children registered under his name. lnboekselings were welcome additions to the Boer household, performing a variety of activities. Some were used as herdsmen, voorleiers (ox• wagon leaders), diggers of irrigation canals and constructors of dam and kraal walls, and the builders of Boer houses. lnboekselings labour was even responsible for the construction of the first church at Rustenburg. (SAUNDERS Christopher. Ed. Illustrated History of South Africa. Readers Digest.)

Swiss Missionaries

In 1870 a group of Swiss Missionaries came to the area on a reconnaissance trip. The outcome of this trip was the establishment of a mission station at Valdezia in 1875 by Paul Bertold and Ernest Creux.

These two missionaries covered the area from Elim to Polokwane (Pietersburg) to the Mozambique coast, usually travelling on foot as horses were susceptible to horse sickness. They encountered a lot of problems of which the mail system was the easiest to solve. They initially had to send the mail by donkey to Pretoria and later to Polokwane (Pietersburg) when the railway line was built, although no formal Post Office existed. They started the first Post Office within the first year of their settling in the area.

In 1878 they bought the farm Waterval at Elim to start another mission station and this resulted in the establishment of Elim Hospital.

Dr George Liengme came to Elim in 1897, making do in a primitive hospital set up in the old mill buildings. His reputation as a miracle doctor soon spread and pressure was put on him to build a hospital. President Paul Kruger was so impressed with the work done at Elim that he gave his permission for building a hospital and after finding funding in Switzerland in 1898, work began on the new buildings in 1899. The work was greatly hampered by the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899 – 1902, but it was completed in 1900. This hospital served an area of up to 300km radius, including Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

Elim played a pioneering role in the development of the Soutpansberg area. It got the first telephone in the area in 1911; it had well functioning electricity in 1920, long before Louis Trichardt. Due to its success as a hospital, three more hospitals were built in the area in 1920, at Sekhukhuni, Mphahlela and in Southern Rhodesia. After 1933 under the capable hands of Dr Jean Rosset, a nursing school and a maternity ward were established. The hospital became world renowned for its eye treatment and surgery under the guidance of Dr. Odette Rosset-Berdez. Today many of the descendents of these Swiss Missionaries still live in the area.

Protohistoric Period

Protohistoric Period

Early Iron Age communities occupied areas in the Soutpansberg from about 200AD. These people...

Prehistoric Period

Prehistoric Period

This period is commonly referred to as the Stone Age and can be divided into Earlier, Middle and...

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