With the weekend arrived and many of the major question marks of my advance scout responsibilities having been taken care of (place to live, car, plans on campus, phone, internet, bank), I found myself with more free time than expected in both Bloemfontein and Johannesburg over the past few days. I opted to visit a couple of museums that I’m not sure we will visit once all four Kiels are in tow – the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. I also visited Constitution Hill in Joburg, the site of former prisons and the current Constitutional Court. All of this is part of an attempt to piece together a stronger understanding of the stories that give us the South Africa of today. (I’ve compiled a fuller history here)
According to the Apartheid Museum, the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) is “the formative event of modern South African history.” I have gotten that sense as well from my various readings and conversations, and I was interested in seeing how the war was represented in a Boer stronghold like Bloemfontein. (I have never more desperately regretted not having visited the Civil War Interpretive Center in Corinth than I did as I visited this museum as I feel there might have been interesting comparisons to be made – you were right, Warren, I should go!)
Briefly, the Anglo-Boer war was something like a civil war between the primary white groups present in South Africa at the turn into the 20th century, the British and the Boers (Dutch-descended, also known as Afrikaners). The two sides had a history of animosity, which had led the Boers to trek inland from the western cape and establish their own homelands in central South Africa, including the Free State (then, the Orange Free State), the province Bloemfontein is capital of. They maintained – and maintain to this day – separate languages (English and Afrikaans) and largely separate cultures, but mutual animosity.
Of historical note are a variety of figures who played a role in the war. Winston Churchill served for the British and was taken POW for a time before escaping. Rudyard Kipling was an editor charged with building popular support for the war in England through the media. Mahatma Gandhi, who lived in South Africa at the time, calculated that serving the British as a stretcher bearer might serve his people well in the eyes of the British after the war (a number of Indians were imported to South Africa as indentured servants and the Indian population was subjected to similar segregation codes as the native black population at the time). Many of the crucial names of South African history and its current streets were key players – Milner and Smuts (British), Kruger (Boer).
The British eventually won the war, but not before undertaking a “scorched earth” campaign that displaced 300,000 individuals in the Boer republics. These individuals were removed from their farms and homes or taken captive during the war and placed in concentration camps where 50,000 people died (nearly half were white and half black and many were women or children). The concentration camps remain a source of Afrikaner humiliation and remembrance. In the aftermath of the war, the British were faced with an uprising from the Zulu tribe of native Africans, but once that was suppressed, the two white clans came to a power-sharing settlement and established the Union of South Africa in 1910.
This compromise was achieved in part by sacrificing rights promised by the British to native Africans during the war. In the aftermath of the settlement, two organizations were born in Bloemfontein. On one hand, the National Party, an Afrikaner nationalist organization, was started in 1914 by those dissatisfied with compromise with the same British who had subjected Afrikaners to the oppressive concentration camps and interested in an independent Boer republic. Around the same time (1912), the South African Native National Congress, later changed to the African National Congress (ANC), was started to protest the British reneging on the promise of enfranchising blacks after the war. Thus, the two parties that would dominate the second half of the 20th century in South Africa trace their roots to the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War and to Bloemfontein, which I found interesting.
The Apartheid Museum in Joburg powerfully and comprehensively details the rise of the apartheid state and the freedom movement that emerged against it. As this story – the general narrative of minority white rule and repressive oppression, if not the details of particular moments, strategies, and responses – is better known, my focus here will be on framing the apartheid practice as an effect, in part, of the Anglo-Boer war.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the National Party continued to advocate Afrikaner nationalism in the face of compromise at best, British control at worst (from an Afrikaner perspective). The humiliation of the past remained raw, the only consolation being privileged status over non-whites, including Africans and Indians. In the aftermath of World War II, with the British weakened and the Anglo-Boer cooperation of the previous decades fraying, the National Party won elections in 1948 (though they did not receive a majority, but merely a plurality of votes of the white males voting). The campaign promised and quickly delivered on a system of strict racial separation, “apartheid.” As in the United States under Jim Crow, every detail of life was determined by a racial designation (where you lived, when you could be in certain places, where you could sit on a train, etc.). And that designation carried with it a pass (or identification card), which had to be carried at all times under threat of arrest and imprisonment.
Viewing the apartheid museum on the heels of the Anglo-Boer war museum, it felt to me like I was learning about an effect. It seemed that the sting of former defeat and humiliation, the years being forced to compromise or adhere to British superiority, must have fueled the intensity of Afrikaner nationalism and fed theories of Afrikaner supremacy. In the context of Afrikaner supremacy by 1948, the British may have been an old foe, but the real threat came from the numerically superior native African population, a group that could only be kept from power by subjugation. Thus, finally given the power to rule, this group of Afrikaners imposed an intricately structured and legalized system of oppression, accompanied by suppression and violence. Apartheid.
This story has me thinking about the long-term impacts of violence on both an individual and national scale. Whether it be the victim of childhood abuse becoming a perpetrator later in life or a people transforming from victim to oppressor or violent aggressor over a generation, these cycles of violence demonstrate that one heinous act can have unforeseeable lingering effects decades later. All the more important, then, that every effort be made to treat victims, whether they be individuals or groups.
There are undoubtedly other explanations for apartheid’s emergence – atop that list is the need for cheap labor in the gold and diamond mines of central South Africa, an economic need for subjugation of the large African pool of workers – but the juxtaposition of these two museums, visited in the space of only three days, suggested to me a direct connection between the Afrikaner defeat in the Anglo-Boer war and the Afrikaner supremacy of apartheid.