Searing tale of pain, pride and unity

UNIQUE STRENGTH: A woman and her daughter cleaning up outside their tent in a concentration camp
UNIQUE STRENGTH: A woman and her daughter cleaning up outside their tent in a concentration camp

I  up with the sad albeit proud knowledge that my great-grandmother was sent to a concentration camp at Wepener, in the Free State, during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). This, while her husband, my great-grandfather, was commander of a Boer commando.

My mother used to tell me with great relish that when the British came to their farm to take her away, one of the officers told her to pack in her homemade jams to take along. To which she defiantly replied: “You are taking me away from my farm, so you must look after me”.

They put all the jars on the kitchen table and smashed them one by one. Apparently it was a bugger to clean the table after the war when she returned. She was lucky, my great-grandmother Susanna Francina Cronje. She survived the squalor and starvation of the camps. Thousands of white and black women and children did not.

Just like the Women’s Monument, The War at Home: Women and Families in the Anglo-Boer War, a powerhouse of a book by renowned historians Albert Grundlingh and Bill Nasson, truly does justice to the deaths and suffering.

Instead of sketching a picture of the women and children as mere victims, it explores the unique strength of Boer women and their role in supporting the Boer guerilla fighters.

Especially the chapter about General Koos de la Rey’s wife, Nonnie, who lived in the veld with their six children for two years to avoid capture, caught my attention.

To sum up this bittereinder outlook, quoted in the book are the words of British welfare campaigner Emily Hobhouse at the inauguration of the Women’s Monument in 1913: “… women and children stripped of all. Husbands and sons, houses and lands, flocks and herds, household goods and even clothing. Denuded, it was good to watch how yet they ‘possessed their souls’.”

The quality of the stark and intensely moving images and well-researched facts and information in this 256-page book, are gripping to say the least.

The chapter on black people in the concentration camps was an eye-opener to the realities of this total war which made no distinction between a battle front and a domestic front. Nor between black and white. As in the white camps, the majority of the 20000 deaths in the black camps were children.

There were also mixed camps such as in Barberton where more than 100 servants (most of them with their families) accompanied their employers into the overcrowded camp and shared the same tents as a means to survive the war.

These examples of mutual suffering in the book hopefully points the way for us to view our history not only being one of confrontation between different racial groups, but as an extended form of entanglement.

It was a war which created the basis of modern South Africa by leading to the creation of the Union in 1910. In 20th-century South Africa, with the exception of the post-apartheid elections, it’s probably the closest thing to a central national experience, in one way or another touching all the country’s inhabitants.

The book’s fascinating foreword was written by professor of modern history at the University of Paris, Annette Becker, one of Europe’s leading historians of total war in the 20th century. In it she helps to bury the myth that the British invented concentration camps (the Spanish army’s concept of a “concentration of civilians” in Cuba during the mid-1890s was to blame).

Unlike my review which only touches on some of the facts and chapters, The War at Home is a comprehensive work about this vital aspect of South African history.

lThe hardcover book is also available in Afrikaans – Die Oorlog Kom Huis Toe: Vroue en Gesinne in die Anglo-Boereoorlog – for R350. – Cornelia le Roux

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