Last week, I participated in an unveiling ceremony for a new monument in memory of 12 Jewish fighters who died serving on the Boer side in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. The monument is located near the Burgher Memorial on Platrand, a ridge bordering Ladysmith to the south-west, and was erected as a joint initiative of the Ladysmith Siege Museum Trust and the SA Jewish Board of Deputies. Johannesburgers attending the event were lucky; a few hours after our return, the snow descended, rendering Van Reenen and the other passes impassable for the next couple of days.
The function was held along traditional military remembrance lines, including wreath laying, the sounding of the last post and reveille by a bugler, a march of honour by members of the local Moth chapter, the playing on the bagpipes of the Piper’s Lament and two-minute silence concluding with a gun salute.
Many of those who have read this far will no doubt be thinking, “So what?” That war, after all, concluded more than 11 decades ago and the Anglo-Afrikaner rivalry that underpinned came to be progressively overshadowed, and eventually eclipsed altogether, by the far more momentous question of the black-white relationship. That a relatively minor aspect of the war — Jewish participation in the cause of the Boer republics — has now been commemorated is hardly headline news.
Certainly, military history enthusiasts have to contend against a certain image problem. Notwithstanding that women make up a healthy proportion of battlefield tour guides, they tend to be seen as overgrown schoolboys indulging a quaint post-adolescent passion for war games. Others come across as eccentric, rather sad social misfits morbidly drawn to long-forgotten scenes of death and mayhem. I suppose there is a kernel of truth in those perceptions, but it should not discourage others from exploring what is truly a fascinating aspect of the South African heritage.
Fortunately, there is growing interest in local military history, albeit one still confined almost exclusively to the shrinking white minority. For those of us thus engaged, the passage of time is irrelevant. Instead, there is the sheer soul-stirring excitement of connecting with some of the most dramatic events in this country’s past, not merely through reading about them or viewing their material residue in museums, but through walking the actual sites where they took place. In addition, it is a way of connecting with parts of the country one would never otherwise visit, with otherwise non-descripts kopjies, streams and gullies well off the beaten track being vested with a unique significance.
There are naturally hazards to negotiate, including unfriendly local fauna. I once stirred up a rinkhals while prodding around hopefully with a metal detector, and on another occasion came within a second or two of treading on a passing mamba. A small but highly aggressive goat also once gave me a hard time. It is also advisable to have a professional guide take you around the lesser-known sites. On my first visit to Hlobane, I climbed the wrong mountain and on my second managed to lose my way on the summit, eventually stumbling back to my car wheezing and traumatised some six hours later. Even getting lost, though, is an adventure of sorts, giving city boys like myself something to remember while negotiating the daily traffic.
Historical pilgrimages need not be confined to visiting battle sites, of course, and in my days as History Curator at MuseumAfrica, I visited numerous noteworthy places. One was in a derelict part of Von Brandis Street where a group of homicidal Pathans nearly clubbed Gandhi to death because they regarded him as a sell-out. Others included the original Bellevue house where Herman Charles Bosman shot dead his step-brother, resulting in his being famously sentenced to death (mercifully commuted to 10 years in the end) and the old mining tunnel in Kensington where the Foster Gang were trapped by the police and eventually committed suicide (I even found a crumbling cartridge case relating to that grisly affair). However, given the desperate, life-and-death nature of armed men pitting themselves against one another, battlefields have a special resonance.
In a real sense, the passage of time has actually created a much more favourable climate for preserving and commemorating our past, military or otherwise. It was striking that at the above-mentioned ceremony, English and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans were completely united in their common devotion to maintaining all aspects of Ladysmith’s famed Anglo-Boer War heritage. Whatever feelings of rivalry or lingering bitterness that may once have existed dissipated many years ago. This had been especially apparent in a previous unveiling ceremony I had attended in Ladysmith, the 110th anniversary of the Battle of Surprise Hill in December 2009. Then, all those who fell in that action, whether Boer or British, were equally honoured and remembered.
The theme of reconciliation also extended to that of Jewish-Afrikaner relations. By nearly all accounts, that relationship at the time of the war was a remarkably cordial one, certainly better than the one then existing between Jews and English-speakers. Thereafter, the relationship certainly soured, reaching its nadir during the 1930s and 1940s, when the Afrikaner political establishment adopted explicitly anti-Semitic platforms and its media and intelligentsia largely followed suit. After the National Party’s electoral victory in 1948, things began gradually moving the other way once more, but the rift was never to be more than partially healed. Jews could not forget the ruling party’s previous support for the Nazis, or how it had successfully lobbied against further Jewish immigration at a time when European Jews were desperately seeking an escape route. As a result, they were unaware of, or at least unresponsive to, the growing philo-Semitic strain that was emerging within Afrikanerdom,
For their part, Afrikaners resented the Jewish community for consistently siding with the political opposition and in particular for producing so high a proportion of the hard-core white anti-apartheid left. Check out the various right-wing Afrikaner websites today, and you’ll see how much that resentment still festers. Names like Joe Slovo, Lionel Bernstein, Harold Wolpe, Ruth First and Denis Goldberg are continually trotted out as evidence of how the Jews plotted the overthrow of the Afrikaner in South Africa. The fact that these particular Jews had been (at least metaphorically and sometimes literally) been swilling vodka with their KGB comrades while Hebrew teachers were being sent to the Gulags is overlooked. That, of course, is the trouble with nursing grievances; it blinds one to the wider context.
The Jewish Boer monument project was initiated not by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, but by Afrikaans members of the Ladysmith Siege Museum Trust after they had become aware of some of my writings on the subject. It was an enormously generous gesture on their part to allow the Jewish community to have a share in this tragic but also exceptionally heroic part of the Afrikaner heritage. Taken as a whole, a profound sense of friendship and mutual respect underpinned this mixed gathering of fellow South Africans. It is the sort of thing our country desperately needs.