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The South African War ("Anglo-Boer War")
Causes of the War The War The Aftermath
Causes of the War
During the extraordinary, violent, Great Trek the Afrikaners ventured away from British control, defeated black rivals and created republics beyond the Vaal river.

These republics were consolidated into the Orange Free State (1854) and the South African Republic (1860). The British made a half-hearted attempt to assert British sovereignty, but after bruising military defeats, relinquished political claims in 1854. The land seemed to be of no great value, and the cost of claiming it outweighed the need to assert sovereignty.

Discovery of diamonds on the farm 'de Beers' brought the question of the border between the Cape colony and the Orange Free State into dispute. Britain successfully asserted that the border lay one mile to the east of the mines, and that the diamonds lay in British territory.


The discovery of rich mineral deposits focused the minds of imperialists. In 1875 Lord Carnarvon, Colonial Secretary, argued that South Africa should be a confederation - a model that was applied successfully to the divided Anglo-French communities of Canada.

In pursuit of this policy Britain annexed the Transkei and defeated and subjugated the Zulu. Britain also tried to annex the Transvaal in 1877, but further conflict with the South African Republic ensued and once again Britain backed down after defeats.

The discovery of gold on a farm on a ridge called the 'Witswatersrand', deep inside the South African Republic brought a strategic importance to the area that Britain could not ignore. British companies sunk deep mines into the reef, and soon tens of thousands of British and other miners poured into the area, creating the largest town in Southern Africa within three years. It became known as 'Johannesburg' and by 1898 produced a quarter of the world's gold production.

Jingoistic imperialists, like Lord Alfred Milner the British high commissioner in South Africa and mine owners like Cecil Rhodes agitated for British intervention. Their chief grievance was the lack of political rights afforded to miners and companies working on the Reef.


At heart, however, they were determined to enforce confederation and secure control of mining north of the Transvaal. Chamberlain's government in England was equally keen to ensure that the strategic prize of the world's largest producer of gold should support the Bank of England and not that of Germany or another power.
The War
The inevitable outbreak of war finally came in October 1899, and it proved more costly in blood and money than was dreamed possible.

The Boers put up fierce resistance. They became a formidable foe as their fierce nationalism, sense of justice and strong Calvinist faith combined with their skills in horsemanship, guerrilla tactics, use of the rocky landscape, the rapid-fire Mauser rifle and smokeless gunpowder.

Britain had to pour in more troops. By March 1900 there were 200,000 troops in South Africa and by the end of the war in 1902 more than 450,000 had arrived. Refugees also swelled the population of the city. In the early months of the war over 25,000 people arrived in Cape Town from the north, many in cattle trucks fleeing from Johannesburg and the outbreak of war, including groups of Indians, Eastern Europeans and Jews.

In 1901 Boer raids ventured across the Orange River into the Cederberg mountain range, just north of Cape Town. This advance forced Governor Sir Alfred Milner to declare martial law and concentrate defences around Cape Town. Within one week, over 3,000 men volunteered to join the colonial defence force.

Towards the end of the war, over ten thousand troops were stationed in Cape Town. Many areas became 'canvas towns', such as Greenpoint Common. There was excitement and pride in the fact that Cape Town was 'host to the Empire'. The city became deeply committed to the war, celebrating British success with street parties, open-air services and the burning of pro-Boer newspapers in bonfires on Kloof Nek. Those seen as Boer sympathisers were booed and hissed

War provided an opportunity for women to establish women's working parties and philanthropic organisations such as 'The Good Hope Society', which provided comfort for the sick and wounded.
The Aftermath
The nature of the Boer defeat in the South African War undermined the mood among English speakers for Imperial rule. It was a pyrrhic victory for the British, won by the use of overwhelming force, the burning of farms and the imprisonment of half the entire Boer population. The plight of women and children in concentration camps had led to many deaths through disease. The suffering and brave resistance of the Boers won them sympathy and the methods used to win undermined Britain's moral right to rule.

English speaking South Africans and a new Liberal government in Britain appear to have felt a sense of shame about the South African war and a spirit of magnanimity prevailed. The pride of English chauvinism petered out, and a sense of nationalism took hold that held out a spirit of reconciliation.


Boer self-rule was quickly restored in the Transvaal and a national dialogue set in process to find a way to confederate the country to the satisfaction of the Boers.

The National Convention of 1908/09 recommended a Union of South Africa, comprising the two republics and two colonies. The country would enjoy self-rule but be part of the British empire, to be governed from Pretoria, but with the legislature sitting in the parliament buildings in Cape Town. The economy would be integrated, offering security and benefits to the British mining companies.


For the British this solution offered a respectable peace and freedom for business across the region. For the Afrikaners it offered power - they were well aware that they enjoyed demographic superiority among whites across the country, and they were sure to argue for the exclusion of blacks, who might have tipped the electoral balance.

The agreement maintained the non-racial 'qualified franchise' in the Cape, but in the Boer republics blacks would continue to be excluded from the vote. The mission-educated black middle class published newspapers and organised delegations to go to London to protest about their exclusion, but the government saw their concerns as of secondary importance to the need to reconcile the British and Afrikaner communities in a new confederated South Africa. Thus Blacks paid the political price for uniting the white communities, and it was a decision that would overshadow the twentieth century.


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