The more I research and write about the Myths of the Boer War, the more I learn about those who vehemently defend them, and the more I see similarities between their crackpot worldview, and the mindset of Cult Members or Religious Fundamentalists.
For example, one of the main characteristics of cult membership has been defined as holding:
Extremist beliefs: Cult members jealously hold to very dogmatic and extreme beliefs, and those who question these belief systems risk reprisal or punishment.
By daring to shatter long-treasured Boer War myths, first in ‘Kruger, Kommandos, & Kak’, and then in ‘Kruger’s War’, I certainly sparked attempts by the ‘cult’ to shut me down, and I was treated to all manner of bizarre online abuse, ridiculous book ‘reviews’ in the Afrikaans gutter press, and entertaining death threats. Scarcely able to control his manufactured fury about a book he hadn’t read, one particularly stupid True Believer contacted me to declare that, if I didn’t remove my heresy from publication, and immediately issue a public apology in Afrikaans, he would ‘shoot me like a rabid baboon’. Needless to say, this cowardly windbag didn’t follow through on his pathetic little threat.
Perhaps even more interesting is why people are attracted to cults in the first place, the reasons for which have been defined as:
…revolving around a desire for meaning and community. Many who become part of such organizations have troubled backgrounds and difficulty fitting into society. They might also feel mainstream culture has no place for them and nothing of spiritual value to offer either.
Again, this certainly strikes a chord when it comes to the more voluble and fanatical True Believers I have encountered over the years; to put it mildly, precious few of these characters appear to be successful or educated people with bright futures, and the shift in South African culture / demise of Afrikaans political power over the last generation or so, has clearly left many of them feeling marginalised. It is perhaps, therefore, little wonder that there are those who desperately grasp at something (anything!) to give them a sense of belonging, and their lives a feeling of worth. Perhaps most importantly of all, now that the self-appointed ‘Chosen People’ are no longer running the show in South Africa, and Lording it over the ‘lesser races’, basking in the warm glow of the myths helps them sleep at night.
Indeed, with this in mind, the similarities with Religious Fundamentalists are profound. One writer on the subject characterized such fundamentalist groups as being:
… counter-modernist. Fundamentalism manifests itself as an attempt by ‘besieged believers’ to find their refuge in arming themselves with an identity that is rooted in a past golden age. And this identity is acted out in an attempt to restore that ‘golden past’…. They are ‘the Chosen’, ‘the Elect’, ‘the Saved’. And as such, they are ‘privileged’ or ‘burdened’ with a special mission on behalf of their deity and for the benefit of the world.
Could there possibly be a more apt description of those sad losers who still gaze back through time with rose-tinted glasses, wistfully dreaming of venturesome Voortrekkers, and blissfully bucolic Boer republics, and yearning for the halcyon, sun-filled, carefree Apartheid years?
In this day and age, no educated, open-minded person could possibly still believe that tales of talking snakes, or of the Earth being made in seven days, are the literal truth; in order to keep their preferred beliefs alive, religious fundamentalists are thus forced to ignore any and all actual evidence presented to them, and to pitch their version of events at the more naïve and stupid members of society.
Defenders of the Boer War myths are remarkably similar: they really have no interest whatsoever in actually learning about the conflict, and it is only the maintenance of the National Party myths that concerns them. Furthermore, and just like other such fanatics, their version is so ridiculous and easily disproved that it only really resonates with those incapable of critical thought. Far-fetched tales of impossible victories and unspeakable genocides are eagerly lapped up by those unable to think for themselves, or who perhaps need some sort of crumb of comfort in their otherwise humdrum lives: anything to make them feel a little bit special.
When challenged, religious fundamentalists often fall back on (completely made-up and unprovable) personal experience / revelation to justify their far-fetched beliefs… and members of the Cult of Boer War Mythology are no different. Gathered round a braai, with Klippies in hand and safe in their echo chamber, wide-eyed zealots love to share completely make-belief tales of their grandfather single-handedly killing 200 Tommies. Or – rather more ghoulishly and even more ridiculously – their grandmother being murdered as a baby. Or, indeed, absolutely anything else that pops into their brandy-addled heads at that particular moment. Just as in other cults, their fellow fanatics never think for a moment to question the veracity of such tall tales; instead, they tend to react by nodding along, and instantly making up their own, even more fanciful and amazing stories, so they too can impress their sheeplike audience.
And if the decidedly unpleasant ‘Deity’ worshipped by the Defenders of the Myth is that old racist troll, Kruger, then their ‘Old Testament’ must surely be the National Party-approved abject rubbish spewed out by Prof Breytenbach back in the day… with Pakenham’s ahistorical, anti-British drivel perhaps serving as some sort of ‘New Testament’. Of course, very few True Believers have ever actually read either of these ‘Holy Texts’ (or, indeed, anything else about the war) but luckily for them, a couple of failed History professors / teachers – more ancient relics of the Apartheid-era – still laughably stagger about, playing the parts of the Cult’s Grand High Wizard, or Exalted Cyclops, spreading the word, and desperately trying to keep the comforting fairy stories alive a little longer. Perhaps needless to say, members of the cult uncritically accept absolutely anything these bitter old fossils spew out, whereas those of their fellow countrymen who are blessed with rather higher intelligence, and who thus refuse to indulge in such utter nonsense, can simply be dismissed as apostates or heretics – and scornfully labeled ‘hensoppers’ or ‘joiners’.
Thanks to the ‘old regime’, the cult even has its own ‘Holy sites’ for the faithful to visit: it is interesting to compare the museum, replica guns and monuments at Magersfontein (a Boer victory), to the almost complete lack of such things at Belmont, Graspan and Modder River – the three nearby British victories which immediately preceded it.
Established in the 1930s, seemingly for the sole purpose of perpetuating myths about the Concentration Camps, by far the worst ‘pilgrimage’ destination is The War Museum of the Boer Republics in Bloemfontein (where else?). Completely fake exhibits featuring glass shards in food were only finally removed at the collapse of Apartheid[i], but not before delighting and enthralling gullible, narrow-minded and thick-headed visitors for decades. The more blatant propaganda / downright lies might be gone, but the passionate promotion of Boer victimhood still continues; a downloadable pdf chronology[ii] of the war available from the Museum website, for example, sensationally describes two Boer defeats as the ’Murder at Derdepoort’ and the ‘Murder at Holkrans’.
And, of course, any quasi-religious movement needs a devil / bogey man of some sort to blame all their woes upon and to terrify children with at night, and the likes of Milner, Rhodes and Kitchener are unthinkingly trotted out to fulfil that role. At the bottom of that list of great men, some might even add my name – not that it worries me: I’ve been called much worse.
[i] The Economist, 30 September 1999, Boers and Britons
[ii] Amusingly, and with matchless arrogance, the Museum website assures us that ‘you will not find a more detailed Chronology Index anywhere on the web’… this despite the fact that their one only begins on 25th November 1899 – ie. about six weeks after the Boers started the war. This means it not only leaves out the declaration of war and the initial invasions of Natal and the Cape, but also all the opening battles such as Talana Hill, Elandslaagte, Belmont, Rietfontein, Nicholson Nek, and Willow Grange, plus the commencement of the three famous sieges. This should give one a fair idea of the standard of scholarship at the Museum. But always remember: the study of history is irrelevant – the maintenance of the myths is what matters.