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The origins of the South African War

by Franco Frescura, September 2010

To this day the reasons for this conflict remain the source of much emotive debate. Some writers have attributed to the British Colonial Government motives that range from a paranoid need to control the wealth of the region, through to the existence of a grand pan-African vision which saw the creation of one British territory stretching from Cape to Cairo under one common administration. Others have claimed an over-riding greed for wealth on the one side, countered by motives of moral justice and resistance to colonial rule on the other. Such claims might have enjoyed greater credence were it not for the fact that they originated mainly from French, Belgian and German sources, countries who were traditionally anti-British, who were not known for their humanitarian approach to colonialism, and who had vested interests of their own in the nascent mining industry of the Transvaal.

There is no doubt that some seeds for all of these claims may be found in words and events of that time, but it also appears likely that, over the years, historical reality has been submerged beneath a wave of conspiracy theories, 20th century White Nationalist revisionism, continental European Anglophobia and, more recently, a striving for simplistic political correctness. Through this fog of time, a number of factors do shine through.

The Dutch communities that settled over the Gariep after 1836 might have been driven by a wish for freedom from colonial rule but, in fairness to the British, this kind of schismatic behaviour was not exactly new to the Dutch. In 1795 both Swellendam and Graff-Reinet had briefly separated themselves from the Cape and declared themselves ‘republics’, at a time when neither numbered more than about 26 families, and the latter could be described as little more than ‘an assemblage of mud huts’. The migrant farmers, better known as ‘trek-boers’, who wandered freely about the outlying and often unmapped districts of the Cape, recognised no government, paid no taxes, and openly conducted a campaign of genocide against their San neighbours. Thus these itinerant groups might have wanted to move beyond the ken of taxation and the rule of British law, but they were also motivated by a desire to impose, without hindrance, their own will upon the Black residents of the region.

The Cape Dutch reaction to the emancipation of slaves, to the promulgation of laws regulating the relationship between master and servant, and to the enforcement of the rule of law in the Eastern Cape, are not evidence of a concern for human rights, but rather the opposite. This was reinforced in the post-1836 era by a constant stream of information provided by both missionary and traveller, which presented a picture of murderous Dutch raiding parties, the dispossession of indigenous ancestral lands, the molestation of Black women, the capture of Black children seemingly to be employed as ‘servants’, and the brutal treatment of Black workers on White farms. The Dutch were considered to be a destabilizing force in the southern African interior, and were treated as such by most of the region’s Black autonomous rulers.

A factor conveniently ignored by apartheid’s historians is that, when the British formally annexed the Transvaal on 12 April 1877, Zulu armies had already been dispatched against the Dutch, and had gathered upon its borders awaiting the outcome of events in Pretoria. Their invasion was only avoided following the personal intervention of Theophilus Shepstone. Thus the British annexation of the Transvaal may have been interpreted by some as an act of colonial expansion, but it was also an effort to save Dutch residents of the region from retribution from their Black neighbours. The aftermath of five years of bitter internecine civil war, between 1860 and 1864, the Venda defeat of Dutch settlers in the northern regions and the destruction of their settlement at Schoemansdal on 15 July 1867, and the Pedi defeat of Dutch commandos in 1876 had left the Dutch Republic divided, beaten and without resources. Its administration was primitive or non-existent, and many aspects of its civil society were schismatic and driven by internal divisions based upon patriarchal and fundamentalist interpretations of the Old Testament. By 1886 the Transvaal Republic was home to a population of about 40,000 people, of which no more than seven to ten thousand persons could have been adult males.

In addition, the British did not need to use warfare as a means of gaining access to an asset that they, in large part, already controlled. The list of company directors who ran the mining industry on the Witwatersrand at the time of the war reveals a preponderance of English and anglicized Jewish names with British and American addresses. Only a small number were of German and French origin. On the other hand the majority of senior personnel in the Kruger administration were either first-generation German immigrants, or like Kruger, of direct German descent. German missionaries played an important role in the affairs of local farming communities, and when no Dutch Reformed Church minister was available to conduct nachtmaal; Dutch burghers commonly attended Lutheran services. Given the propensity of the ZAR Government to award most of its business concessions to German firms or individuals, and that in 1899 Kruger sold his farm Geduld to the German-registered company of Adolf Goerz & Co on conspicuously generous terms, despite the fact that it was an unknown quantity at the time, one cannot fault the British for fearing a potential alliance between the two countries. Indeed the prospect of having a rogue Dutch state in their midst, led by semi-literate and land-hungry farmers made rich by unlimited mineral wealth, and supported by capable German administrators and missionaries, cannot have provided many South African leaders, Black or White, with a palatable prospect for the future.

Added to this mix were the emerging revelations of Belgian genocide in the Congo, and the behaviour of German colonials elsewhere on the African continent, both of which were seemingly taking place regardless of public opinion in Europe.

In these terms, then, the southern African conflict should not be read simply as a colonial war, but should rather be regarded as the precursor of WWI, with the Transvaal acting as a proxy in a wider European global struggle for power between German and British.