South Africa’s White War

The Great Anglo-Boer War

by Byron Farwell
Harper & Row, 593 pp., $16.95

The sand of the northern Transvaal is red. It makes easy mining for the ants in the cemetery at Nylstroom, who have sunk hundreds of little crumbringed shafts down between the graves. Their commando columns trot across the veld and descend the shafts to visit the bones of 544 women and children “who as war victims (wat as slagoffers) lost their lives in the Concentration Camp in the period between 1899 and 1902.” Most of the graves are mere cairns, marked with metal name tags. A few are small slabs of slate, laboriously engraved: “Anna Sofia Venter: died 24 August 1902, aged two. Dit is de Weg die ons allen is op gelegt” (this is the path that lies before us all). The names are the names of Boer history: Pretorius, Bezuidenhout, Potgieter. The cemetery’s black marble monument was unveiled in 1942, when South African troops were fighting the Germans on the distant north shore of the continent. Some of those who now rule South Africa were then detained or under surveillance, as declared admirers of the more perfect “Konsentrasiekamp” system of the Third Reich.

The memory of the Boer War of 1899-1902 (or the Second Anglo-Boer War, or the Second Independence War, as the Afrikaners call it) has become a sustaining myth. South Africans who have recently begun to go sedentary, prosperous, and bureaucratic like to fancy that they can spring out of the Datsun into the saddle, lose thirty pounds of fat overnight, and become the terror of the plains as their fathers were. If some American urban whites can still see themselves as latent Indian fighters and pioneers, it seems less absurd that the Afrikaner should tell himself that he too could ride with a commando, shoot from the saddle like de la Rey, punish the cheeky Kaffirs like Pretorius.

Vietnam helped to demonstrate that the Americans have become “the British”; that in any rough-country war they are the trudging, puffing ranks in red around whom the wily embattled farmers circle and snipe. The Afrikaners have yet to learn this about themselves. The Boer War myth was undermined in Angola, when an unwieldy and badly commanded South African expeditionary force was outmaneuvered by the Cubans and pushed back to the Namibian frontier. But South African whites do not wish to know this. Television viewers in the Republic have been enjoying instead an amazing film called Bridge Fourteen, in which a South African officer in Angola darts about with his little pistol and disposes of a dozen evil Cuban |storm troopers single-handed.

Prosperity is still something fragile to Afrikaners. It is true that there is now a flourishing Afrikaner capitalism, even great finance conglomerates which begin to challenge the established mining giants on the Rand. It is also true that the Afrikaners continue to flow into the cities, and true that they preponderantly staff the slothful monster of repressive bureaucracy which is the expanding state apparatus of South Africa. All the same, most Afrikaners know what being…

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