If you only read two books on South African History this year, then make sure they are Dr Damian O’Connor’s two volumes of ‘A Short History of South Africa’ (Obviously, if you read three, then I suggest the third should be ‘Kruger’s War’… though I might be a little biased). The first of O’Connor’s books covers the period 1652-1902, and the second, 1902-1989 – both are brilliant books; well written, well researched and copiously referenced, yet still accessible, pacey and witty.
In an age where political correctness reduces most history books to worthlessness, O’Connor is happy to point out that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes, and goes after established (and much cherished) myths with the tenacity and vigour of an attack dog, yet also with humour and eloquence. Aimed squarely at those with an open-mind on the subject, these are therefore not books which will appeal to Professor Fransjohan Pretorius, or any of his gaggle of minions and hangers-on. Time and time again, O’Connor effortlessly torpedoes the violently anti-British myths which Pretorius et al still frantically (desperately?) try to peddle, which, of course, makes for highly entertaining reading. Imagining their outraged reaction at seeing their myths so comprehensively shattered really is most enjoyable – not that anything will actually penetrate their impenetrable armour of faux-victimhood, of course.
O’Connor’s dismantling of the much-adored farrago of myths surrounding the concentration camps of the Boer War – and the rubbish that post-war Afrikaner Nationalists and the later Apartheid-regime made up about them – is so brilliantly written, that I relate portions of it here at some length, with my own asides in [brackets]:
The question of the concentration camps was also seized upon by the Nationalists and exploited for their own ends [something which still continues today, amazingly]. This was, of course, a traumatic issue. The British had established camps initially as places of refuge for families made destitute by the usual depredations and destruction of war and had then developed them as part of the scorched earth policy aimed at removing the Boer intelligence and logistic network. Many of the inmates went to the camps voluntarily or, in the case of the many black people [and indeed, many hands-uppers], because they needed protection from predatory Bitter-einders and by and large, the inmates enjoyed good, if sometimes Spartan, conditions, adequate rations, decent medical care, employment opportunities, education and humane treatment. Unfortunately, what could not be catered for with the resources immediately available to hand were the outbreaks of disease brought on by the primitive sanitary practices of the mainly poor bywoners, their sometimes bizarre fold remedies, the generally poor state of contemporary medical knowledge in the face of common diseases, and the Boer preference for what Sol Plaatje [that infamous jingo!] called ‘native bonethrowers’ and ‘Malay charmers’ rather than actual doctors. The big killers were measles and typhoid and though the numbers are shocking to 21st Century eyes, the death rates were in line with peace time mortality rates; European and mixed-race infant mortality in the Cape at the turn of the century meant that 30-40% of children would not see their first birthday; even as late as 1930, infant mortality rates for black children were in the 10-20% range.
After discussing ground-breaking, modern-day, myth busting analysis of the numbers claimed to have died in the camps, O’Connor turns his attention to the way these fables were used by Afrikaner Nationalists in the years just after the Boer War:
What was more, the proto-political party, Het Volk, got involved in a deliberate attempt to skew the findings to show that the whole manhood of the two republics had been mobilised against British and bury the notion that rather a lot of them were either fighting on the British side, or skulking in the camps. To this end, Steyn [ex-President of the Orange Free State, who had – in a moment of inter-galactic stupidity – joined Kruger’s crusade and plunged his republic into a war against the British Empire in 1899… which rather predictably quickly proved not to be a great idea] himself made sure that the number of men who died in the camps was going to be kept off the monument which was due to be unveiled in 1913 in Bloemfontein as the Women’s Monument; and an indication of how much he gave a fig for those who actually did die can be ascertained by understanding that had the men been included, the total number of those who died in the camps would have been substantially higher. By just having women and children counted, the impression would be created that Britain had deliberately tried to kill women and children, which was simply not true. Steyn was interested in succession from the British Empire and both History and the dead were to be sacrificed to this aim; and here’s one for the conspiracy theorists – Steyn’s own records of the Women’s Monument went missing and have never since been found. How successful he was in his aim can be judged by the continuing belief among many South Africans today that the deaths in the camps had been a deliberate British policy.
Of course, such rubbish is still perpetuated by a certain South African academics, and O’Connor moves on to turn his guns towards one of the leading Defenders of the Myth:
The issue has not gone away either. Any questioning of the veracity of this carefully constructed myth is apt to provoke an outpouring of venom from diehard nationalists and academic attack from the chief candleholder of the sputtering flame of the Afrikaner myth, Professor Fransjohan Pretorius; ‘Fools Rush in’ was the comment of one of the better writers on the camps, Elizabeth van Heyningen, who has indeed questioned the myth.
Who is right? The first bone of contention is whether the British were justified in establishing the concentration / refugee camps in the first place. Professor Pretorius and the Afrikaaner nationalists (not the same thing entirely, we should note) declare that the guerrilla war was entirely justified, that the women who helped by providing safe haven and logistics were nothing short of heroic, that the scorched earth policy was entirely unjustified and the British were absolute bastards because they shut all these helpless victims in the camps. You’ve spotted the flaw in that logic already; if you provide help and support to guerrillas, you can’t claim victimhood when you get caught by the enemy. The British point of view was that as far as they were concerned, the war was over after the Boer armies were defeated and that most of those guerrillas had taken an oath to lay down their arms and go home peacefully. When the Bitter-einders insisted that those who had taken the oath go back to war with threats and menaces – what Professor Pretorius slyly called ‘remobilising’ [apparently Pretoria University’s History Department encourages the use of weasel words] – and made their womenfolk provide logistics and intelligence then all accepted, if uncodified, rules of war had just been ripped up and the British were perfectly justified in burning the farms and incarcerating the destitute families. Think about it; if you can’t trust a surrendered man’s word given under oath then the only sensible military alternative is to shoot him quick before he busts a cap in your ass the moment your back is turned. So, the scorched earth policy was effectively forced on the British by the Bitter-einders.
The second bone of contention is whether the men, women and children sent into the camps were treated well. The loony end of Afrikaaner nationalism contends that the camps were designed to anglicise the Boers or kill them off in a genocide, while the milder end claims that indignities, cruelties and deliberate neglect were inflicted upon the camp inhabitants before the campaigner Emily Hobhouse shamed the British government into making some rather attempts at amelioration. Such efforts, they claim, did little to stop a holocaust among Boer women and children thus proving that the British were / are absolute bastards as charged. This argument falls apart on several levels; firstly, if the British wanted to kill off the Afrikaaners then there were several much easier ways of doing this, of which two spring immediately to mind – they could leave the poor devils on the veldt to starve or, even better, call in the Zulus, Tswana, Basuto, Swazi and all the other black peoples who the Boers had dispossessed or mistreated over the preceding century and invite them to avenge themselves.
O’Connor then goes on to refute the ghoulish nonsense which is still peddled about the ‘ghastly’ conditions in the camps – a nonsense which, as he points out, Professor Pretorius et al are frantically desperate to maintain for reasons best known to themselves. His closing remarks on the subject tackle a favourite old chestnut which is still dutifully trotted out at braais all across South Africa every weekend:
As to fish hooks in the bully beef tins, well, what can one say? Just think of the logistics. [or, indeed – just think] Someone would have to go to Argentina (presumably in secret) and place an order with the beef processors that specified a certain numbers of fish hooks per ton be placed in the machinery which canned and cooked the beef. There would then have to be a record kept of the batch numbers of the adulterated tins, along with paperwork that prevented the bully beef being sold to the general public or issued to the troops. This paperwork would have to be readily available to the manufacturers, shipping agents, commercial suppliers, wholesalers, retailers, commissariat etc etc and all kept secret in case a journalist or other snoop found out and alerted their friendly neighbourhood pro-Boer MP. And I am going to stop there because the whole thing is so completely absurd that only an idiot could believe it.
Of course, the big problem is that countless idiots do believe it – and believe it with the mindless, fanatical passion only a TV Evangelist can normally muster. Luckily, and like all the other myths of the Boer War, it is easily refuted and, indeed, to anyone with even half-a-brain, self-evidently bullshit… but it nevertheless greatly appeals to the type of person who thrives on victimhood, and basking in self-pity. And that is really the only problem with O’Connor’s excellent books: the sort of people who should read them are exactly the ones who absolutely, resolutely, defiantly won’t.
And just as they did when ‘Kruger, Kommandos & Kak’ was released, the Defenders of the Myth will no doubt swing into action, furiously writing reviews for low-brow newspapers with the sole purpose of trying to stop anyone reading O’Connor’s books. Utterly unable to actually counter any of the points O’Connor makes, Professor Pretorius will probably satisfy himself by finding a spelling mistake in one of the books[i]. We can also expect John Boje to be dusted off and wheeled out so he can shamelessly tell some blatant falsehoods about O’Connor’s references, hoping that no one will call him out on his lies[ii]. Basically, they will do anything and everything to keep their cherished myth alive and well, and try to shut down the debate – a debate they clearly know they can only possibly lose.
And again, exactly as with ‘Kruger, Kommandos & Kak’ and ‘Kruger’s War’, open-minded, intelligent people will read O’Connor’s books and understand the points made and arguments presented, but such people are obviously not the ones who need to be disabused of bizarre, fanatically-held opinions. Alas, the ‘idiots’ O’Connor mentions – the sort who still gleefully dine out on tall tales of fish hooks in bully beef – won’t touch his books with a barge pole; the sad reality is that they find the myths of the Boer War comforting and have absolutely no interest in educating themselves, or fracturing their armour of ignorance.
[i] Clearly unable to deny any of the points I made on, for example, the Bogus Conspiracy, or the secret talks on forming an anti-British offensive alliance which the Boer republics held as early as 1887, the best Professor Pretorius managed in his ‘review’ of ‘Kruger Kommandos & Kak’ was to point out that we misspelt ‘Colvile’ as ‘Colville’
[ii] This was the level to which Boje shamelessly stooped to in his ‘review’ of ‘Kruger Kommandos & Kak’ – feel free to read my blog article on his lies: http://www.chrisash.co.za/2018/09/17/frantically-trying-to-defend-the-myth/