History and heritage


South African history: gold and war

Britain achieved a temporary expansion of its southern African rule in the politically unstable north, where the unpopularity of President TF Burgers opened the way for Britain to annex the Transvaal in 1877. It lost control again after a rebellion that dealt another blow to the military pride of the empire at Majuba.

The eventual resolution was the granting of qualified independence in 1881 and full internal autonomy in 1884 by which time the conservative and intensely pro-Afrikaner Paul Kruger had been elected president of the restored, but financially strapped, republic.

Two years later, when gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand, Kruger presided over a financial turnaround of spectacular proportions but he also saw a serious threat to Afrikaner independence develop as huge numbers of newcomers, mostly British, descended on the gold fields.

Without urgent action, these people (the uitlanders, or foreigners) would soon qualify for the vote. The response was to create stringent franchise qualifications, an action which, with its 14-year residence stipulation, would at least postpone the difficulty.

Rhodes and the Jameson Raid

In the Cape, however, Cecil John Rhodes had become Prime Minister. His overriding vision of a federation of British-controlled states in southern Africa was well served by the growing discontent of the uitlanders and exasperation of the mining magnates in the ZAR.

Rhodes' first attempt at takeover, however, came to an ignominious end when his plan to have Leander Starr Jameson lead a raid into Johannesburg in response to a planned uitlander uprising failed. The uprising did not happen: Jameson rode precipitously into the Transvaal and had to surrender. Rhodes resigned.

The Jameson Raid had a polarising effect. Afrikaners in the Cape and the Orange Free State, though disapproving of Kruger in many ways, became more sympathetic to his anti-British stance. The Orange Free State, under President MT Steyn, formed a military alliance with the Transvaal.

The Anglo-Boer War

In Britain, however, Rhodes and Jameson were popular heroes. It kept up the pressure on Kruger, and the Anglo-Boer/South African War began in October 1899. Up to half a million British soldiers squared up against some 65000 Boers; black South Africans were pulled into the conflict on both sides.

Again, Britain's military reputation suffered a blow as the Boers set siege to Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking (now Mafikeng home at the time to a young black diarist named Sol Plaatje, whose initially pro-British attitudes were to be severely shaken by the shameful treatment of the town's black inhabitants during the siege).

Under Major General Herbert Kitchener and Field Marshal Sir Frederick Sleigh Roberts, however, the British offensive gained force, and by 1900 Bloemfontein, Johannesburg and Pretoria were occupied. Kruger fled for Europe.

The Boer reply was to intensify guerilla war General Jan Smuts, who had been Kruger's state attorney, led his troops to within 190 kilometres of Cape Town and in response Kitchener adopted a scorched-earth policy and set up racially separate civilian concentration camps in which some 26000 Boer women and children and 14000 black and coloured people were to die in appalling conditions.

The war ended in Boer defeat at the Peace of Vereeniging in 1902.

SAinfo reporter

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Three generations of Boer fighters in the Anglo-Boer War

Three generations of Boer fighters in the Anglo-Boer War (Photo: Anglo-Boer War Museum)

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