A country’s history is its unique story. Leave out a part of that story and it ceases to be what so many South Africans are calling for these days - a true holistic representation of our past.
To think the Anglo-Boer War involved or affected only the white Afrikaner Boers and the British is entirely naïve. The conflict that raged from 1899 to 1902 is called the Second Boer War or the South African War. I prefer the latter. It’s a step in the right direction to acknowledging it was a war that involved black and white, men and women, in this country.
This past weekend I received an invitation to attend a Heritage Day event at Kedar Heritage Lodge near Rustenburg in the North West. It was out on a farm called Boekenhoutfontein. The farm of none other than President Paul Kruger. I’ve been to a plethora of these sort of events as a journalist, but this one really sprung out at me.
The invite explained that the event - where the bust of Emily Back would be unveiled - would look to change the perception that the South African War was a “white man’s war”. It would also look to shed some light on the untold stories of that war involving black Africans, women, and the concentration camps.
The bust of Emily Back unveiled at the Kedar Heritage Lodge. Source: Kedar Lodge
I am unashamedly a history lover and was immediately enthralled by the topic. I’ve been out of school from some time, but before attending this event I admittedly couldn’t tell you if black people were also imprisoned in concentration camps during the South African War. I also couldn’t tell you who Emily Back was.
Vincent Carruthers, author and expert on the Magaliesberg area, where so many battles of the South African War were fought, was the guest speaker. He was joined by several other historians including heritage activist Twin Mosia and professional storyteller Bongiswa Kotta-Ramushwana.
Heritage activist Twin Mosia and eNCA Reporter Michael Appel at the Emily Back bust unveiling. Source: Michael Appel
Mosia said it is “totally untrue” that the war was fought by white soldiers alone and believes it is extremely important to share their stories. "Not to open wounds, but to commemorate and celebrate…fostering social cohesion and nation building,” he said.
Listening to Mosia and Kotta-Ramushwana was incredibly enlightening. They both believe that history, no matter how painful the period or the memory it evokes, must be retained - and retained truthfully. For something to be truthful, you must have as much of the story as possible. For far too long this truth has excluded, to a large extent, the involvement of the majority of our people in building our collective history.
Carruthers explained that despite denials from both the Boers and the British, both sides used black combatants who were either recruited or fought of their own volition. A little known fact was that as many as 20 000 black troops ended up fighting for the British.
Black combatants in the South African War circa 1900. Source: Vincent Carruthers
“Sections [of history] that have been omitted pertain particularly to black people. They played a very important role in the South African War,” said Carruthers.
Women were also not merely victims or bystanders in the war. Emily Back, whose bust unveiling I attended, was one such person. At just 19-years-old, she rode into the heat of battle of her own accord to tend to wounded Australian soldiers at the Battle of Koster River on 22 July 1900. She was a governess of a Boer family - not a nurse. She had no reason to potentially sacrifice her life for the wounded men but she did. There must be countless stories like hers.
Many history gurus may know that about 28 000 white men, women and children died of starvation and disease in deplorable conditions in British concentration camps during the war. What many don’t know is that close to 20 000 black men, women and children also died in black concentration camps over the same period.
A black concentration camp during the South African War. Source: Vincent Carruthers
I grew up knowing that my father had been imprisoned in a Japanese concentration camp during the Second World War. He struggled to speak about that period of his life and I’ve always been mildly fixated on the topic as a result. The Nazis cemented the concept of concentration camps in history. But, it was definitely the British who were the architects behind the camps in our own backyard.
Taking ownership of our history, with all its ugliness and pain, is taking ownership of our heritage. Our collective story is what binds us. Understanding that there is so much more to our history than just one frame of reference is what broadens our shared experience. This particular example of the South Africa War is merely that - one example. And I’m sure South Africa’s history is littered with examples similar to this.
It was the Roman statesman Cicero who said, “History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time.”
In South Africa, let us hope that our history will increasingly be looked at, remembered, pieced together, and told, by a witness whose eyes are wide open.