Address by Acting Director-General, Mr Ndima on behalf of Deputy Minister Phaahla at the launch of two books on the Role of Black South Africans in the Anglo-Boer War
MEC Dan Kgothule
Dr Jan van der Merwe, Chairperson of the Council of the War Museum,
Mr Tokkie Pretorius, Director of the War Museum,
Prof Andre Wessels from the University of the Free State
Mr Rodney Constantine, co-editor of the publication
Ladies and Gentlemen:
The year 2012 has been the year of Heritage for the Department of Arts and Culture. From the start of the year, South Africans have marked important milestones and anniversaries, notably the centenary of the formation of the African National Congress here in Mangaung. It is a year which we have also described as the year of unity in diversity, a year in which we strengthen the work we are doing in building an inclusive society.
Over the last 100 years the world as a whole and South Africa in particular has come a long way in the struggle against all form of racial prejudice which has cost countless suffering of humanity across the globe.
In the space of a century we have suffered and struggled and showed resilience and endurance as well as a will to succeed until finally we lay the foundations for a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa.
In recognizing how far we have come, it is also important that we look back at the last century and even go back to the beginning of the last century and give due recognition to those who made this history, to those who contributed and who suffered as a result of injustices, to those who fought for freedom and to those who made choices that would influence the shape of many decades to come.
History has portrayed the Anglo-Boer War as a war between the Afrikaners and the British and little mention has been made to acknowledge the role of Black South Africans in this war.
Other than a few notable texts pioneered by historians such as Bill Nasson and Peter Warwick, many people are not even aware that Sol Plaatje, one of the founding members of the South African Native National Congress (later the ANC), has written about the war.
In his diary later published as The Boer War Diary of Sol T Plaatje, Sol Plaatje, then a clerk in the Cape Government Service, describes a morning in the besieged town then called Mafeking where he writes the following memorable lines:
“What a lovely morning after yesterday’s rains. It is really evil to disturb a beautiful morning like this with the rattling of Mausers [ammunition] and whizzes and explosions of shells.”
This was an early diary entry from the only known eyewitness account of the war by a black South African who later would also publish a novel called Mhudi.
Yet his diary, painful and vivid, captured only the start of skirmishes and the suffering, the starvation and dying that characterised the beginning of this war.
We are pleased that in honour of his valuable contribution, a Sol Plaatje Hall has been opened that depicts the role of the involvement of black people in the war. A monument has also been constructed to give recognition to the number of deaths of Black South Africans in the war.
Today we are revealing more of this history by the sterling work done by historians and by this Museum providing space and resources and giving time to serious studies that look at the role of black South Africans in the war.
The two books we are launching today “Black concentration Camps of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902” and the second one titled “An illustrated history of Black South Africans in the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 – a forgotten history” addresses the neglect of this part of our history and corrects the misrepresentation of the history of this period.
We know that in the white concentration camps, roughly 28 000 Boers died, mainly women and young children. We know that epidemics killed people in the camps. We know that this war had been characterised by a scorched earth policy, by farm burnings and by summary executions.
Yet, through the book by the late Reverend Kessler, we learn about the black concentration camps of this war where at least 21 000 black people died – and not the figure previously accepted as 14 000. This information has also been verified by an archival document from the British side.
Today we know that those who died were not simply or solely the ‘agterryers’ or servants who assisted the Boers, but also those who fought in combat and were, at times, armed with rifles and ammunition. Women performed domestic work for garrisons and military camps. Others involved in the war cared for horses, carried supplies and bore weapons.
There were also, equally, black South Africans, who participated on the side of the British – there were those who believed that through supporting the British they would be able to access land and farms that once belonged to them. Some took over farms, hoping to hang on to land, only later to be dispossessed once more.
They did not succeed through their war effort in making any gains , because after the Treaty of Vereeniging that marked the end of the war, the main political processes at work led to the formation of the Union of South Africa, which had at its foundations the disenfranchisement of Black people and, soon after, the loss of land through the Native Land Act of 1913.
Thus the efforts of black people in support of either Boer or British and the sacrifices made were not rewarded with any rights, but they were further discriminated against and even more removed from power.
The museum has a collection of photo material of 6 500 photos of the war. I am told that during extensive research in 2011, the museum identified a large number of unique photo material that has never before been published on black involvement in the war. This includes material of black Concentration Camps, attendants, as well as involvement on British side. Thus we are pleased that today we show the graphic involvement of black people through the illustrated history that is also being launched today.
Both books represent an opportunity to re-shape the history taught in schools to accommodate the forgotten and unknown story of the black concentration camps.
One of the benefits of this book is that it will broaden South African historiography, bringing this black history into the mainstream.
An African proverb states that:
“Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”
We congratulate the editors here today for giving the ‘lions’ a voice, for piecing together the narrative of the involvement of black people in the Anglo-Boer War and for courageously presenting a new view of history with all its motives, emotions and choices made that shaped the decades to come.
Let us continue along this path of redress and transformation of this institution and more especially this important task of revising and revolutionising history and promoting heritage – not only for present generations but for the generations to come.
I thank you.