Were Afrikaners ‘dirty African peasants’?

by Dan Roodt

Pauline Morris in Boer women and children died ‘due to backwardness wants to “open up a critical debate on the realities of the Boer War concentration camps”, as part of the wider “de-mythologising” of South African history.

I can only say: “Bring it on!” Let us open the archives and reread the tens of thousands of letters and other evidence that have been gathering dust for over a hundred years. In fact, I recently visited the archives in Pretoria and was the first person ever to peruse some of the files related to the barbaric destruction inflicted by Britain on each and every farm and household in the Transvaal and especially the Free State. Some, but not all, victims received derisory compensation for their losses after the war.

To some extent, dr. Elma Ross has already revealed the true nature of the camps by describing her own family history, characterising the British as “terrorists”. Britain was a signatory to the Hague Convention of 1899, a forerunner of the Geneva Conventions prohibiting war and atrocities upon civilians. The Hague Convention entered into force on September 4, 1900, just in time to apply to the form of “total war” that Kitchener and Roberts waged upon the entire Boer population during the second, non-conventional phase of the war.

There can be no doubt that, were it not for the policy of “reconciliation between the two white races” followed after the war, culminating in Union in 1910, Britain would have been prosecuted for war crimes under the Hague Convention, just like Germany was after World War II. Some Afrikaner groups believe that Britain could still be prosecuted even today. At the very least Britain should be made to acknowledge its war crimes at the European level, similar to demands by former French President Chirac that Turkey should “recognise its past” and the Armenian genocide (1915-23) before being able to join the EU.

Whatever the sophistries thought up these days by British historians and their colleagues at jingoist institutions like the University of Cape Town where Elizabeth van Heyningen is apparently a professor of history, it cannot be denied that the camps formed part of a military operation. That they were partly successful in breaking Boer resolve to defend their sovereignty, is also widely acknowledged.

The jingoist case for Afrikaner women and children “dying due to ignorance and lack of hygiene” seems to rest upon the wider English belief (or myth?) that pioneer Afrikaners in the nineteenth century were not, as Prof. Elizabeth van Heyningen puts it in one of her journal articles, “civilised Europeans” but “dirty African peasants”.

That these “dirty African peasants” were literate enough to write letters and diaries about their war and concentration camp experiences and that their “civilised” British captors found it necessary to destroy their pianos and other musical instruments while burning down their homes, seem to contradict many a confident English stereotype.

Perhaps we should also enquire about the hygienic habits of Johannesburg’s much-admired uitlander population in the 1890s when the outbreak of syphilis relating to widespread prostitution presented a major public health problem to Paul Kruger’s Republican government.