Anglo-Boer War

The Anglo-Boer/South African War.

The war that followed the mineral revolution was mainly a white man’s war.

In its first phase, the Boer forces took the initiative, besieging the frontier towns of Mafeking (Mafikeng) and Kimberley in the northern Cape, and Ladysmith in northern Natal.

Some colonial Boers rebelled, however, in sympathy with the republics. But, after a large expeditionary force under lords Roberts and Kitchener arrived, the British advance was rapid. Kruger fled the Transvaal shortly before Pretoria fell in June 1900. The formal conquest of the two Boer republics was followed by a prolonged guerrilla campaign. Small, mobile groups of Boers denied the imperial forces their victory by disrupting rail links and supply lines.

Commandos swept deep into colonial territory, rousing rebellion wherever they went. The British were at a disadvantage, owing to their lack of familiarity with the terrain and the Boers’ superior skills as horsemen and sharpshooters. The British responded with a scorched-earth policy which included farm burnings, looting and the setting-up of concentration camps for non-combatants, in which some 26 000 Boer women and children died from disease. The incarceration of black (including coloured) people in the path of the war in racially segregated camps has been absent in conventional accounts of the war and has only recently been acknowledged.

They too suffered appalling conditions and some 14 000 (perhaps many more) are estimated to have died. At the same time, many black farmers were in a position to meet the demand for produce created by the military, or to avail themselves for employment opportunities at good wages. Some 10 000 black servants accompanied the Boer commandos, and the British used Africans as labourers, scouts, dispatch riders, drivers and guards.

The War Museum in Bloemfontein provides an insight into the Anglo-Boer/South African War bringing the visitor closer to understanding the background against which the war took place. Exhibits include a unique art collection of striking paintings depicting battle scenes; dioramas; photos from concentration camps in South Africa as well as in Bermuda, India and Portugal; documents and memorabilia from the war. Apart from a few modern touches this museum remains untouched from its inception.

The war also taught many Africans that the forces of dispossession could be rolled back if the circumstances were right. It gave black communities the opportunity to recolonise land lost in conquest, which enabled them to withhold their labour after the war. Most Africans supported the British in the belief that Britain was committed to extending civil and political rights to black people. In this they were to be disappointed, as in the Treaty of Vereeniging that ended the war, the British agreed to leave the issue of rights for Africans to be decided by a future self-governing (white) authority. All in all, the Anglo-Boer/South African War was a radicalising experience for Africans.

The Anglo-Boer/South African War was the bloodiest, longest and most expensive war Britain engaged in between 1815 and 1915. It cost more than 200 million Pounds (Sterling) and more than 22 000 British soldiers died. On the Boer side, more than 34 000 people were killed, including about 15 000 black South Africans.

Britain’s reconstruction regime set about creating a white-ruled dominion by uniting the former Boer republics (both by then British colonies) with Natal and the Cape.

The most important priority was to re-establish white control over the land and force the Africans back to wage labour. The labour-recruiting system was improved, both internally and externally. Recruiting agreements were reached with the Portuguese authorities in Mozambique, from where much mine labour came.

When, by 1904, African resources still proved inadequate to get the mines working at pre-war levels, over 60 000 indentured Chinese were brought in. This precipitated a vociferous outcry from proponents of white supremacy in South Africa and liberals in Britain.

By 1910, all had been repatriated, a step made easier when a surge of Africans came forward from areas such as the Transkeian territories and the northern Transvaal, which had not previously been large-scale suppliers of migrants. This was the heyday of the private recruiters, who exploited families’ indebtedness to procure young men to labour in the mines. The Africans’ post-war ability to withhold their labour was undercut by government action, abetted by drought and stock disease.

The impact of the Anglo-Boer/South African War as a seminal influence on the development of Afrikaner nationalist politics became apparent in subsequent years.

The Boer leaders – most notably Louis Botha, Jan Smuts and JBM Hertzog – played a dominant role in the country’s politics for the next half century. After initial plans for anglicisation of the defeated Afrikaners were abandoned as impractical, the British looked to the Afrikaners as collaborators in securing imperial political and economic interests.