Into Africa: Shadows of War Over Mafeking and the Making of Winston Churchill

In which the author, exclusively for CounterPunch, goes by train but also by ferry, bicycle, plane, and rental car from Nairobi, Kenya, to Pretoria and Johannesburg, South Africa. This is Part VIII. To read part I, click here.

Staats Model School in Pretoria, once a prison, from which Winston Churchill escaped during the Boer War.

Don’t Run, Whatever You Do

I enjoyed the mile-long walk between the two border posts, from Botswana to South Africa. It was a lovely morning, the birds were out in force, I was alone for once, and I could glimpse, if only from a roadside, why so many tourists pay $5000 a week to sleep in one of those Out of Africa safari camps in a Botswana national park.

The closest I had come to such a safari was, on one of my many bus rides across Africa, when I read Peter Allison’s Don’t Run Whatever You Do, a tell-all book written by a seasoned guide about the high-end safari trade. The title is a play on the concept that, to animals in the wild, anything on the run is a TV dinner.

Allison’s book is an extended campfire story of his close encounters with lions, elephants, and crocodiles, not to mention the big game that is paying over five grand to ride around in a Land Rover with long lenses on their cameras. (He writes: “Lions, hyenas, leopards, and safari guides all follow plunging vultures, knowing that if they land during the day it is only for meat.”)

Allison never tires of the Big Five, although the clients are more domesticated. He humorously describes bored teenagers from New York, cheapskates from England (after a week together one tipped him a pound), arrogant Germans, and clueless Japanese.

The great character in the book is a tourist from Japan nicknamed Spielberg, for all the cameras around his neck, which in Japanese is rendered as Spiirubaagu. Allison describes one of their drives this way:

The incensed Spiirubaagu was shouting at the giraffe (another thing I had repeatedly asked the group not to do was call out to the animals, but this was too amusing for me to stop him), “Stop pissing! Stupid animal! Can’t you see I am trying to take your photo!”

Allison is out on a drive with Spielberg when the guide makes a near fatal mistake—that of getting out of the Land Rover and finding himself between two lionesses and their cubs. They charge him.

Allison waves his arms and shouts, but figures he’s dinner until, for reasons that are inexplicable, the big cats veer away from him at the last minute, brushing his arms as they run by.

It’s the closest call he has in more than ten years of guiding in Africa, and Spiirubaagu watches it all from the nearby Land Rover. Afterward, he says to the shaken guide: “I’m sorry, but I wasn’t able to get that the first time. Would you mind doing it again?”

Botswana: A Small Corner of Africa That Works

Between his animal stories, Allison retells the history of the Botswana king, Sir Seretse Khama, around the time independence. As heir to the throne in the 1950s, he was sent off to London for some study and polishing. While there, at a missionary society dinner dance, he met and fell in love with a white woman named Ruth Williams.

Both the elders of his tribe in Bechuanaland and the British government thought the romance should not end in marriage. But Seretse was insistent that Ruth was the one for him, even though his uncle, the Anglican church, and the Foreign Office all thought it was a terrible match.

Neither Seretse nor Ruth listened to this counsel, and an English justice of the peace married them. Theirs would be a loving marriage for the rest of their lives and result in four children, and the couple would do wonders for Botswana, even if he was banned from serving as king.

Even when it was the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, Botswana was a buffer state. The British first claimed the vast, empty land to keep the Germans (then in German Southwest Africa, now Namibia) from cutting their rail line from Cape Town to Rhodesia.

During the time of apartheid, Botswana offered the British a way to trade in southern African minerals, but not necessarily with South Africa. And when England decided in 1966 that they needed “their man” in Gaborone, they went with Seretse as president of the independent nation. Yet again it was a marriage made in heaven, and soon even the cranky tribal elders came around to the man who could have been king.

Although Seretse died in 1980, and is largely forgotten outside of southern Africa, he should be remembered as one of the most enlightened leaders in the era of African independence.

He was lucky that the country, just after independence in 1967, found diamonds and other exportable minerals. But unlike Mugabe in Zimbabwe, who has used his thugs to take control of the diamond production, Seretse dedicated the foreign earnings to building up the country’s infrastructure, which may explain why the night train from Francistown to Lobatse has the most modern rolling stock in Africa, with pressed clean sheets and comfortable berths, while the sleeper from Harare to Bulawayo dates to the 1950s and has the feel of a death train.

Botswana was the first country not to charge me $50 for a visa (they just stamped my passport and handed it back). And despite all the police roadblocks on the road into Francistown, I sensed very little corruption in my dealings as I crossed the country from north to south, although later I read that big game hunting (for about $10,000 a week) is tolerated on some of the private ranches around the country (for the amusement, I am sure, of the Trump boys, among others).

The South African border guards at Ramatlamabama, on a quiet Monday morning, were in a cheerful mood, and they quickly stamped my passport and pointed me toward a combi waiting near the frontier fencing.

Again, as we took off at high speed for Mafikeng, I thought I might arrive in short order, but no sooner were my hopes up than the van began searching for fares in many of the black townships that, after the so-called “removals” of the Afrikaner government in the 1970s, were built outside the city.

The driver went up and down an endless number of dirt roads in townships such as Six Hundred and Makgokgwane He would wait at crossroads, honk in front of houses, and stop for anyone with their hand in the air. For many in these townships, such combis are their only lifeline into the city.

The communities reminded me of Soweto, one of the townships outside Johannesburg, that saw so much violence in the years before white-rule ended in South Africa in 1991.

Soweto has houses at all price points—from hovels to MacMansions—and out here in the townships around Mafikeng, I was surprised to see some lovely modern brick houses. They had cut lawns and air conditioning, although most of the poverty-stricken houses that I saw from the van windows reminded me of the iconic phrase: “Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end.”

A Visit to Soweto

Driving into Mafikeng, I was reminded of Soweto and the writer Alan Paton, who wrote Cry, the Beloved Country. The first time I went to South Africa I saw both.

In September 1984, during the period of apartheid and the white rule of the National party, my wife (of one week) and I flew to Johannesburg by way of Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires.

As a honeymoon, it was the grand tour of political repression. To pay for it, I agreed to write several articles about the Dirty War in Argentina and the politics in South Africa, which was no hardship, as both subjects interested me. I also wangled an assignment from an airline magazine to write about South African trains, including the celebrated Blue Train (which then ran between Johannesburg and Cape Town—now it starts in Pretoria).

Our flight from Buenos Aires to Johannesburg made stops in Sao Paulo and Cape Town, so it took hours to make the crossing. At the time South Africa was under sanctions and only a few airlines flew the route. The passengers on board were returning South Africans, who, when the captain announced we were in local airspace, took off their sweatshirts and waved them above their seats.

The only hotel where we could stay in Johannesburg and receive African guests was the American-owned Holiday Inn. When we went to our room, I assumed the television was broken, as there was no way to change the channel. That’s when we learned that South African television had only one channel, which was state-owned, and that much of its energy went into censoring U.S. cop shows, which in that era had many tough-guy detectives who were black.

We rented a car to get to Soweto, which is about five miles southwest of center city Johannesburg, and drove it to a police checkpoint, where I was told we needed to apply for a visitors’ permit before entering the township.

The army officers on duty, however, were dismissive of the idea that any Americans might have a valid reason to visit Soweto and scoffed at giving us a permit. As I was leaving the fortified outpost—in those days Soweto was the scene of much violence—someone in the parking lot said to me that gates did not enclose Soweto and that if we wished, although it was technically illegal, we could drive around the township, which is what we did.

I had thought Soweto might be an African slum drawn along Kibera lines, with hovels and dirt paths between them. Instead, we discovered a suburb very similar to the townships that I saw around Mafikeng.

Row houses of every description—a few were lavish—lined the paved and unpaved streets. From newspaper accounts at the time, I thought we might come across burning tires, of the Palestinian variety, at any time. But Soweto, on that day, was peaceful, and neither demonstrators nor police impeded our progress.

At the time I had thought the political activist Steven Biko had come from Soweto, as he was instrumental in the protests there in the 1970s. But he grew up in the Eastern Cape closer to Durban, and he died in 1977 in a police cell in Pretoria, having been beaten in Port Elizabeth, a city on the coast.

He spoke inspiring words, “The wealth of the country must eventually be enjoyed by people of the country…” but under apartheid, he was banned (prohibited from social and political contact) and later killed.

Remembering the South Africa writer Alan Paton

To meet the writer Alan Paton, we drove south on the highway toward Durban, pleased to discover that the route took us through the front lines of the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and such celebrated battlefields as Ladysmith, Colenso, and Spion Kop. (As a war correspondent, Winston Churchill was taken prisoner on his way to Ladysmith, locked up in Pretoria, and some months later escaped and managed to get to Laurenço Marques, which is now Maputo, in Mozambique.)

We spent the night in Ladysmith, very much a regional colonial town, with markers from the battles, and drove the next day to Hillcrest, above Durban, where Alan Paton lived with his wife, Anne.

I had no connection to the celebrated author, other than a letter I had written to him, addressed from information I gleaned from the back jacket of a paperback edition of Cry, the Beloved Country, which read: “Alan Paton now lives in Hillcrest, Natal.” I figured the postman would find him, and he did.

Paton’s wife responded by saying that his time was precious, but that we could spend a half hour with him in conversation, which is what happened. He received us in his writing studio, behind the house, and set us straight (his manner was that of a Scottish preacher with fierce eyes and a shock of white hair) on why the Afrikaners would never willingly give up power.

He spoke also about his sympathies for the Liberal Party and the work of his friend, Helen Suzman, a South African parliamentarian and human rights advocate. (For a long time she was the only elected official in opposition to apartheid.) But no one in 1984 could imagine the white-dominated regime freeing Nelson Mandela from prison or calling for a coalition government.

The Patons could not figure out what we were doing in South Africa, driving around in a rental car, and we did not advertise that we were on our honeymoon until just before saying good-bye when Anne insisted that we return to the living room, where she served us tea and celebratory cakes.

While Alan died in 1988, I am pleased to add that Anne is still alive and well. She moved from South Africa (because of the violence) and ended up first in Britain and now in Connecticut, where we saw her last year—fit and engaged, but still missing the country that, in the first words of his famous novel, Alan described this way:

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.

The Boer War Siege of Mafeking

I told the driver and conductor of the combi that I was headed to the Mafikeng Museum, and they kindly routed the bus to drop me at the front door. The fare was $1.

I poked my head into the museum, satisfying myself that it was open, and then drifted around the corner in search of breakfast or an early lunch, if not dinner and lunch from the previous day’s fiasco on the trafficking bus.

Mafikeng (formerly Mafeking and now often written as Mahikeng) is more an overgrown town than a small city but still has a bustling downtown section (with shaded sidewalks and merchants who spread the wares almost into the street). But an elegant café or restaurant never came in view.

My only choice was among fast-food joints with picnic tables out front. (On the road in Africa, you eat when you can, what you can, and there’s always Fanta nearby.) Mostly I drank several bottles of cold water, and had my hair cut in a “salon” attached to the restaurant. I wanted a trim, but the barber decided I would look better with a gangsta buzz cut until I squirmed in protest.

Back in the museum, a dusty affair in what feels like an elementary school auditorium, I walked around in the company of one of two soldiers, who took turns guarding me, lest I take a picture of the Mafeking siege lines in 1899-1900 or jot down notes about the forced removals of blacks in the 1970s.

Finally, I tired of the escorts and complained to the museum director that I had written ahead to arrange a meeting with an expert on the siege, but had never heard back. At least this protest allowed me to take pictures in the museum (I was its only visitor), and she called off her dogs of war.

Until I walked around the museum, I had not understood the importance of Mafeking in nineteenth-century Cape Colony geography. After 1897, it was the rail junction on the line between the Cape and Bulawayo—the same stretch of track that I had followed on my buses and when walking across the border from Botswana into South Africa.

Before the line was finished, Mafeking was also just beyond the border between the Boer republic—the Transvaal, as it was called—and English settlers in the Cape Colony.

Twice in 1881 and 1884, international treaties had adjusted the borders between the rival powers, but on neither occasion did it keep the Boers from hoping to extend their sphere of influence into Mafeking, something they tried to do when hostilities began against Great Britain in 1899.

Mafeking was also the key town in the great power politics of the region that included the endless struggle in southern African between English colonists (Cecil Rhodes is the best known) and the instruments of German power, which controlled land on both African coasts in southern Africa. German South West Africa was to the west of Mafeking, and German East Africa, later Tanzania, was to the east.

In between was the buffer state of Bechuanaland, which had its administrative center in Mafeking. North of my border crossing at Ramatlabama, the land now Botswana was the Protectorate of Bechuanaland, which Rhodes and other colonial officials sought to control as a corridor up to Rhodesia.

South of the Molopo River, it was known as British Bechuanaland, and it was part of the Cape Colony. No wonder Mafeking became, after Ladysmith, the most contested town in the Anglo-Boer War. (This one was actually the second that was fought.)

In October 1899, shortly after war was declared, the Boers laid siege to the town and its rail junction. Inside a perimeter that enclosed the town center, a fort, and the railway station, there was a small English garrison, the white population, and a many African natives—a people known as the Batalong, who, reluctantly, sided with the British as the Boers believed in racial segregation, if not slavery.

That said, the British commander of the town during the siege, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, treated his nominal allies, the Batalong, as if workhorses or indentured servants, often denying them food except for thin gruel.

Skirmishes and small battles were fought all around the town during the siege which lasted 217 days. It was lifted in May 1900, a month before British troops—Churchill among them—took Pretoria, ending the phase of conventional warfare in the conflict, which continued for almost two more years as a guerrilla struggle.

The Boers fought in loose formations, called commandos, and the British retaliated by burning some 30,000 Boer farms in the Transvaal and Orange Free State, and by rounding up thousands of Boer families (mostly women and children, as their men were away in battle) and herding them into concentration camps (they were not a Nazi invention).

In that archipelago of camps, in which conditions were inhumane, some twenty-six thousand Boers (mostly children) died in British captivity.

In many ways, the Boer War was Great Britain’s Vietnam or Algeria, a colonial war that could only be fought, unsuccessfully at that, with violence against the citizenry, and from which British colonialism never recovered.

After Mafeking was liberated (for years there was an annual dinner in London to celebrate it), I would argue that it was all downhill for the British Empire, even though it prevailed in two world wars.

Winston Churchill in the Boer War

If there was a winner in the Boer War, it was Winston Churchill, who emerged, in the words of author Candice Millard, as a “hero of the empire.” In a war that lacked identifiable British heroes—General Louis Botha, later a South African prime minister, was one for the Boers—Churchill’s daring exploits during his capture and subsequent escape cast him as one.

The full title of Millard’s book is Hero of the Empire: The Making of Winston Churchill, and I read it on the road (okay, for a change, I was in the air) between Mafikeng and Johannesburg.

It wasn’t so much that I had gone soft on African buses—although my resistance to seven-hour rides was weakening. But in searching for a connection between the two cities, I had struggled to find even the name of an operating bus company and feared another stranding.

Nor did travel chat rooms indicate that combis cover the route with frequent departures from near the old station. (They do.) As best I could determine, there was only one morning bus. When I found a $30 air ticket, I pounced, as it would spare me a night within the siege lines or another death ride in a minivan.

Millard’s book is conventional history well told. She doesn’t unearth new information about Churchill, his weird parents, his many ambitions, or the route of his escape to Mozambique. She often quotes from Churchill’s own letters and books on the subject. But the story is neatly told, so is both a riveting account of Churchill’s capture and escape, and a clear summary of the Second Anglo-Boer War.

Millard’s take on Churchill’s interest in South Africa and the coming Boer war is that it could offer him the chance for glory, which he believed was the missing ingredient on his resumé for election to Parliament.

Several months before hostilities broke out between the British and the Boers, Churchill had stood in Oldham during a by-election (the filling of a vacant seat in between normal parliamentary elections). He lost. Oldham was coal country in the Midlands, and a Liberal defeated him. (Candidates for parliamentary seats need not live in their districts or even know much about them. Carpet-bagging is the rule in Britain.)

Denied the chance to sit in parliament and no longer a serving military officer (he had graduated from Sandhurst), Churchill heard the news of a crisis in South Africa with glee. Finally, he would have his chance to show his mettle under fire, although his ticket to the front lines was as a war correspondent for London’s Morning Post newspaper.

Churchill had often, in his early career, blurred the lines between combatant and correspondent, even before he resigned his military commission. If he could not get to the front as an infantry or cavalry officer, he would switch hats and go as a newspaper man.

He had seen action in the Northwest Frontier Territory and in Cuba, but most notably in a cavalry charge during the battle of Omdurman in Sudan (it’s outside Khartoum), resulting in his best-selling book, The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan (1899). But warrior fame had so far eluded him.

Heading to South Africa—Winston traveled with a servant and a full wine cellar—Churchill’s great fear was that the war would be over before he got his chance for a dance with lady fame. No sooner had his troopship docked in Cape Town than he was on his way to Durban, where he connected with a troop train heading north toward Ladysmith and the front lines.

The Boers carried small knapsacks and long rifles, and little else. They slept in the wild and lived off the land, which they considered their own. By contrast, a British cavalry officer, according to Millard, might ride to the front weighing 400 pounds, when you added in all of his kit.

Tactically, the British army had advanced little from those skirmish lines deployed at Waterloo. Troops marched and shot their rifles in tight formations, which, for the Boers hidden behind boulders, made them sitting ducks. In the early months of the fighting around Ladysmith, the British experienced only losses, and eventually the town was surrounded and besieged, as happened in Mafeking.

With their technological superiority—not unlike the Americans in Vietnam fighting the Vietcong—the British hoped to relieve the Ladysmith siege by sending an armored-plated train, full of troops, up the line toward the city.

Think of it as an early tank, but one on rails, which made it easy for the Boers to spot (there was steam flowing from the engine) and track its slow progress up the line.

Most British troops in that theater of operation thought of duty on the armored train as little more than orders for suicide, such were the casualties inflicted on the men huddled inside the plated-hopper cars. (They had gun holes punched through the sides, and thus resembled a medieval serpent steaming toward destruction.)

In a letter, Churchill wrote: “An armoured train! The very name sounds strange. A locomotive disguised as a knight-errant; the agent of civilisation in the habiliments of chivalry.”

So impatient was Churchill to get to the front lines in Ladysmith, both to scoop his newspaper rivals and perhaps to engage in some glory hunting, that he agreed to join one operation on the armored train.

Part way up the line, in the hamlet of Frere, the Boers cut off Churchill’s train, killed a number of men, and knocked several rail cars off the rails.

Under the terms of warfare in 1899, strictly speaking a war correspondent should never carry a firearm. Nor should he, in any way, participate in the fighting. The punishment for breaking this code of conduct, if the correspondent was captured by the other side, was often summary execution.

With his train under attack and some of the officers wounded, Churchill responded bravely to challenge. He helped to clear the line, he directed fire against the Boers, and he loaded wounded men onto the engine and sent it off in the direction of the British lines, thus saving the lives of many wounded in the attack.

Churchill Escapes from Prison in Pretoria

Churchill himself was surrounded and captured, and for many early days in captivity he feared that the Boers might execute him. Back in England, accounts of the fighting had won him the reputation for gallantry that he was desperately seeking.

The prisoners, both officers and their men along with the correspondent, were marched off to prison in Pretoria, at the Staats Model School. Later, when I was in the South African capital, I tracked down its location, at the corner of Lilian Ngoyi and Nana Sita (my GPS made a hash of the pronunciation). The building is one of a handful of Dutch designs from the Boer era that is still standing and it feels like a school you might come across in The Hague.

From the moment Churchill entered the prison, he devoted most of his waking hours to escape planning. As you might expect from someone who loved strategic brainstorming, his schemes grew grander and grander, until, in one plan, he would not simply break out of jail and flee to the border, but would kidnap President Paul Kruger and hold him hostage until the Boers surrendered and the war was over.

In the end, the rash Churchill bolted over a back fence of the prison but without two of his fellow prisoners, who were to have gone with him (one spoke both Afrikaans and the Zulu language, which would have helped out on the road). Hence Winston was on his own.

After striding through the town as if a burgher going for a walk, he hopped a freight train that took him forty miles from the capital, where he ran out of schemes and ideas.

He had no food, little water, and the countryside was crawling with Boer police on the lookout for the celebrated prisoner (everyone knew he was the son of Randolph Churchill, who had once been Chancellor of the Exchequer and who had also written a number of articles belittling the Boers).

Churchill had no chance of walking several hundred miles to the border through such terrain, so he knocked on a random door, hoping to bribe his way to freedom (he was a prisoner but flush with cash).

By remarkable good fortune, he knocked on the door of an Englishman who managed a prosperous coal mine in the Transvaal and who undertook to orchestrate Winston’s escape.

Churchill was given food, whiskey, and cigars, and stashed down a mine shaft until he could be hidden on a goods train taking wool to the docks of Lourenço Marques. One of the English sympathizers went with him to bribe away nosy custom inspectors and the like, and Churchill made it to freedom.

Millard writes: “He didn’t have a weapon, a map, a compass, or, aside from a few bars of chocolate in his pocket, any food. He didn’t speak the language, either that of the Boers or that of the Africans. Beyond the vaguest of outlines, he didn’t even have a plan—just the unshakable conviction that he was destined for greatness.”

Back in Durban on a coastal steamer by the end of December, 1899, Churchill was given a hero’s welcome, and for the rest of his life he would remain a household name in Britain.

Millard writes: “He had reminded the world what it meant to be a Briton—resilient, resourceful and, even in the face of extreme danger, utterly unruffled.”

One of the men who saved Churchill turned out to be from Oldham, which at the next election sent him to parliament, where he would serve various constituencies until 1964 (he died the next year).

Up next: Johannesburg to Pretoria. The Boer Republic. To read earlier chapters, please click here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.