Into Africa: Across the Boer Heartland to Pretoria

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 IX. To read part I, click here.

Pretoria’s Voortrekker Monument (from the Great Trek, which began in 1836), to recall the Boer march away from English dominance, and now a symbol of doomed white South African rule that ended in 1994.

From Johannesburg to Pretoria: On the Road with GPS

I cannot say I minded being out of the train and bus world for the flight to Johannesburg, to what is now called O.R. Tambo International (Tambo was an African National Congress guerrilla leader and in the Mandela cohort).

The taxi ride to Mafikeng Airport cost almost as much as did the air ticket, and when I got to the empty terminal I heard the news that the flight would be delayed for almost two hours (African standard time).

I wandered into a café that overlooked the runway and a sweeping plain of tall grass that was bending gently in the breeze and watched as the afternoon sun dipped below the horizon.

In the time spent waiting for the flight, I am sure I could have hopped a combi and raced the four hours to Johannesburg. But for once it was nice to be delayed in an airport pre-fabricated chair, without having to fend off Fanta touts or squeeze against a dirty minivan window.

For my sins, I made the questionable decision to rent a small car at the Johannesburg airport. I even took the GPS option, as the next day, my last in Africa, I wanted to see a number of places around Pretoria, and I wanted to concentrate on driving (carjackers?) and not have to worry about directions.

I rank car rentals up there with fast food, in that the experience is all about the expectation. The reality is far grimmer. In this case, I spent almost an hour at the Hertz counter, filling out forms and watching the agent test faulty GPS units.

It was after 21:00 when I got to my hotel (Jill, the disembodied voice of GPS, was in a temperamental mood and we got lost on the way). By then the kitchen chef had gone home, and I was left to dine on gingersnap cookies (the desk clerk promised me that they were homemade). Overall, it was a bad trip for eating well.

At least the next morning I could be on the road by 7:30 and heading toward the Pretoria suburb of Centurion, where the house that once belonged to Prime Minister Jan Smuts—an Afrikaner but slightly on the enlightened, liberal side of the ledger—has been turned into a museum.

What interests me about Smuts is that his life spans much of the history of modern South Africa. He was a Boer hierarch during the Anglo-Boer War, but later an Allied general and a friend of Winston Churchill in the first and second World Wars. He was also the South African prime minister whose electoral loss in 1948 opened the path to power of the National Party and its apartheid policies of darkness.

I followed Jill’s directions to the Jan Smuts House Museum. The sprawling farmhouse started life during the Anglo-Boer War as a British army barracks and field hospital. It had been shipped as a kit from England and reassembled on the veld during the fighting.

Afterwards, when Smuts—a practicing attorney and politician—heard it was for sale, he moved the pieces to land that he had purchased in Centurion, which is about 15 miles south of the capital (and north of Johannesburg).

Transformed into a sprawling farmhouse, with room for his large family and shelving for his thousands of books, the farm became Smuts’ base of operations as he rose through the political ranks of the Union of South Africa (1910)—a hybrid of nations that was neither a British colony nor a Boer republic, but a mix of the two that in 1961 shed its ties with the monarchy and morphed into the toxic Republic of South Africa.

The African National Congress (ANC) came to power in 1994, although the progression from Mandela to President Jacob Zuma (2009) recalls the words of the American essayist and historian Henry Adams, who said: “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence to upset Darwin.”

Centurion, near Pretoria: At Home with Prime Minister Jannie Smuts

Having paid for my entrance ticket, I was told that the house had a guide on location but that I would have to pay separately for the services of Denis Bredenkamp, who was playing Sudoku while waiting for his marks.

At it turned out, I was paying for almost two hours worth of Denis’s stories about the great “Jannie” Smuts, but since I was the only guest that morning at the museum it would not have been fair (so I calculated) to shun his guided tour.

In the Boer world of the late nineteenth century, Smuts stood out for his intellectual brilliance and his familiarity with English culture. Although he was born on a farm in a hamlet now called Riebeek West—it is sixty miles northwest of Cape Town—he later won a scholarship to Christ College at Cambridge.

It was said of that college that it produced three first-class thinkers: John Milton, Charles Darwin, and Jan Smuts. Albert Einstein said that Smuts was one of the few men, in his direct experience, who actually understood the theory of relativity.

Back in the Cape Colony as a qualified lawyer, Smuts migrated to the Transvaal because of his disgust over the so-called Jameson Raid (around New Year’s Day in 1896), in which 600 mercenaries, in the pay of colonist Cecil Rhodes, sought to overthrow the Boer government in Pretoria and attach the Transvaal to Britain.

Looking back in 1906, Smuts wrote: “The Jameson Raid was the real declaration of war. . . And that is so in spite of the four years of truce that followed. . . [the] aggressors consolidated their alliance. . . the defenders on the other hand silently and grimly prepared for the inevitable.”

The words “grimly prepared” meant that the Boers armed themselves with the munitions from Germany, which is one reason why the subsequent war was so deadly for English soldiers. The Boers might have been citizen soldiers sleeping in the wild under bedrolls, but they fought with the latest German rifles.

At the start of the war, Smuts was the States Attorney for the Transvaal, but later in the war, showing an aptitude for improvised military genius, he led Boer commandos on raids that crisscrossed the Cape Colony. And his legal advice was needed to draw up the terms of the 1902 peace.

As a postwar politician and lawyer, serving under his comrade in arms, Louis Botha, Smuts became the transitional figure who navigated the rocky shoals that led to the establishment of the Union of South Africa.

In one of the Ragtime moments of the Boer War, it turned out that it was Botha who had captured Churchill near Ladysmith, and that it was Smuts who interrogated him in prison. By the time that Smuts, a prosecutor, had decided to release Churchill as a non-combatant, Winston had escaped.

The creation of the Union of South Africa was no small feat, as it involved persuading the British to cede colonial power to a local government and to unite the various states (Transvaal, Orange Free, and the Cape) into a working confederation.

Smuts was the bridge figure who had bona fides both with former Boer commandoes and English governors general, and in Britain Churchill was the government minister responsible for colonial administration.

Historically, although the decision is not on display in the cabinets around the house museum, the compromise that either saved or doomed South Africa was made in 1909 when the departing English colonists agreed to let the newly formed Union carry on with their segregationist policies.

Churchill, for one, thought that such segregation was the price Britain had to pay to keep the Boers out of the German orbit, but he found it, so he said, distasteful to pander to racism, even in 1909.

In World War I Smuts found his calling as an Allied general. He reorganized the Union’s military forces and led them against the Germans in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Such service for the empire elevated Smuts to the war cabinet (1917-1919), in which he became a confidant to Churchill.

The two men would remain close for the rest of their lives, and in World War II Smuts served the allies with the rank of Field Marshal. He had come a long way from his raiding days in the Cape Colony against the English.

Smuts twice served as the Union’s prime minister, first from 1919 to 1924, and later from 1939 to 1948. The historical question is whether he was a figure of liberal progress for South Africa or simply an accommodating lackey for racism and colonialism?

On paper, Smuts was a champion first for the League of Nations and later the United Nations, and he was an early friend, back to the time of the Balfour Declaration, to the idea of a state of Israel. At the same time, in South Africa, he presided over governments as segregated as any in post-Reconstruction Mississippi or Alabama.

Smuts had the other odd contradiction of both having imprisoned Gandhi and admiring his accomplishments. (Gandhi lived for many years in South Africa, and he was active in opposition politics. He also served as a stretcher bearer in the Anglo-Boer war, notably around Ladysmith.) For years Smuts wore sandals that Gandhi had given him as a present, but he sent them back in 1938, adding a note that he was “not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”

Although I always had Denis in my ear, I did enjoy walking around the Smuts house, which has the feel of large Maine cottage. The walls are painted pine, the furniture is casual and informal, and in the back is Jan’s library, with thousands of books, including a signed edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, one of his favorites.

Oddly for a Boer general, he had a lot of memorabilia from the English monarchy, notably photography from 1947, when King George and family, including Princess Elizabeth, came calling on their royal tour from Pretoria. Smuts was to have greeted them in the capital but that day he was feeling ill, and so the Royals came out to Centurion on their White Train and took tea at the farm.

Elsewhere in the house museum there is an itinerary from the royal tour, which began in Cape Town and lasted some three months (from February until the end of April 1947). On their train the Windsors made a stately progression all through South Africa, Swaziland, Bechuanaland, and Rhodesia.

Smuts left the prime minister’s office in 1948 when the National party came to power with its laws of racial segregation. He died two years later, in one of the back rooms at the house.

As he said later about the Treaty of Versailles: “Not Wilson, but humanity failed at Paris.” His epitaph, and maybe that of modern South Africa, might read the same.

Irene Concentration Camp: The British Take Prisoners

From the Smuts house, it was just a short drive up the road to the cemetery that marks the remains of the Irene Concentration Camp, which was set up in late 1900 as the guerrilla campaigns (including those of the Smuts commando) were heating up. What is most tragic about the cemetery is that it is the burial ground for more than a thousand children (and 142 adults) who died in British captivity.

The cemetery is a series of large markers and stones, with the dead listed in grim columns bearing names synonymous with Boer culture: Prinsloo, De Beers, Kruger, Lewis, Naude, Steenkamp, Du Pleases, and Botha—to name but a few.

Standing in the cemetery, as somber as any in Normandy or along the Somme, I was reminded of watching the film Breaker Morant, which came out in 1980. It’s the story of three Australian officers who during the war shoot dead several Boer commandos who, fighting as they were an unconventional war against conventional forces, had massacred Commonwealth soldiers.

The Australians, including Harry Morant, retaliated by tracking down and killing several of the Boers. But when word of these summary executions reaches the British high command, the Aussie soldiers are put on trial.

The film, as gripping as any legal thriller that I have seen, is told in the courtroom, where the Australians, if not the morality of warfare, are in the dock.

The Aussie defense, denied by the British commanders, is that they were acting under orders from senior commanders to shoot Boer captives, at least those who had massacred British soldiers. In the film, a prosecutor and the lawyer for Morant and his men have this exchange:

Lt. Col. Denny [for the prosecution]: Do you really believe that Lord Kitchener, a man venerated throughout the world, would be capable of issuing an order of such barbarity?

Major Thomas [Morant’s lawyer]: I don’t know, sir. But I do know that orders that one would consider barbarous have already been issued in this war. Before I was asked to defend these soldiers, I spent some months destroying Boer farmhouses, burning their crops, herding their women and children into stinking refugee camps where thousands of them have already died from disease. Now these orders were issued, sir! And soldiers like myself and these men here have had to carry them out however damned reluctantly!

Thomas, the defense lawyer, adds the postscript to the story, which ends with Harry Morant and two others being shot by a British firing squad. He says:

The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations.

White South Africa: Blood River Runs Reds

When my wife and I went to South Africa in 1984, we did not make it to Pretoria. After Soweto, we drove south toward Ladysmith, Colenso, and Durban. Everyone we met had said that to understand the Afrikaners, it was necessary to visit two symbolic places—Pretoria’s Voortrekker Monument (which overlooks the capital from a nearby hill) and Blood River (in Natal), northeast of Ladysmith by about sixty miles.

We had missed the Voortrekker Monument, but we did get to Blood River, which on the street signs was spelled in Afrikaans as Bloedrivier. Because the drive there took longer than we thought it would, and because we were navigating from maps in the twilight, we only arrived at the sacred ground after sunset. Not sure if we were allowed onto the battlefield after dark, we idled the car near the entrance, trying to decide what we should do.

The battle of Blood River—between the Zulu nation and the Boers on their Great Trek to the Transvaal—was fought in 1838, and the Boer victory over the Zulu was taken by the Afrikaners as a sign from God that they should have their own homeland beyond the reach of the English and the native Africans.

Some 3000 Zulu warriors died in the fighting. One account reads: “Many warriors tried in vain to climb the steep scarps of the riverbank and the donga. They all were shot from above. The water of the Ncome river turned an ever more intense red, why it was later called Blood River.” Think of the American nation defining itself from the battle of Wounded Knee.

As my wife and I debated whether to go forward into the national park or turn the car around, another car approached us a high speed. We were miles from anywhere, and the appearance of another car in the darkness was unnerving. I rolled down the window of our car and called across: “Do you speak English?” The voice from the other car was distinctively that of a gruff Afrikaner, and he answered: “Speak any damn language that you please.”

He was a ranger heading home from the battlefield, and he encouraged us, although it was dark by then, to look around, although it was only later on the trip, when we bought a copy of David Harrison’s The White Tribe of Africa, a history of the Afrikaners published in 1981, that we understood what we had missed in the twilight.

Harrison writes: “Blood River still matters, of course, because it offers the perfect symbol for the Afrikaner Nationalist view of South Africa today—a gallant, God-fearing country surrounded by the forces of evil.” And he makes the wreath-laying ceremony there, and the taking of vows by visitors to the battlefield, sound somewhat like the oaths administered to cults. Harrison continues:

These can be stirring moments, even for an outsider, but the implications are clear. The victory at Blood River which Afrikaner Nationalists claimed as the triumph of civilization over barbarism was, however camouflaged, the victory of whites over blacks. Civilization equals white, barbarism equals black. In Rhodesia Ian Smith insisted only that government should remain in “civilized” hands. Every Rhodesian knew exactly what he meant.

Downtown Pretoria: Fear and Loathing in the Boer Republic

On this trip, I made it to the Voortrekker Monument, which now feels like the tomb of a lost nation. It is at once a monument to those early migrants who trekked to freedom away from the British and the blacks and a religious shrine, making it clear that God had chosen the Afrikaners as one of “his people.” (There were always a lot of similarities between white South Africa and Israel.) It’s the Afrikaner Plymouth Rock that the tides of history have now washed over.

From the Voortrekker Monument I decided to use GPS to navigate between the sights that I wanted to see in Pretoria: Church Square (the city center), Pretoria Railway Station, and the Staats Model School, in which Churchill was a prisoner of war in autumn 1899 and from which he escaped to Portuguese Mozambique.

The odd thing about Pretoria is that, although it is nominally the capital of the country, Parliament meets in Cape Town, which is also where President Jacob Zuma lives (in a house built originally for Cecil Rhodes).

As a result, Pretoria is now more symbolic than real as a capital, and I suspect the government of the African National Congress (the party of Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, and now Jacob Zuma) wants few associations with Afrikaner holy ground. (After I was there, the ANC chose Cyril Ramaphosa as its next leader, lining him up to be the next president, as well.)

I went to the station because it is my rite of passage when I am new to a city. (Maybe I want to know how to escape?) In Pretoria, the station looks like a Florida resort hotel, perhaps one constructed in the 1920s. It has pleasing arches and columns, plus a tropical red tile roof, although on the streets around the station—as if an economic indicator—men waving rags earn their living by guiding cars into open parking spaces. (You pay them some money, and in theory they watch your car. Maybe they dust it off. Whole blocks in Pretoria are given over to men waving cloths as if part of some displaced bullfighter nation.)

I saw where the Blue Train departs for Cape Town. It used to leave from Johannesburg, but I assume few tourists want to linger in that city, which has one of the highest crime rates in Africa. (Only Hillary’s Benghazi ranks as more dangerous, among the larger world cities.) Joburg has been called, at times, the “World’s Rape Capital.”

To get into Church Square, the spiritual center of Pretoria, I had to leave the car with a rag waver and walk toward the Paul Kruger monument. Many buildings around the square date to the early 20th century, although there are a few banks and insurance companies housed in more modernist buildings.

Heavy construction was being done to the park around the statue: Kruger was white South Africa’s George Washington although he died in exile in 1904 in Montreux, Switzerland, a burial ground for unfrocked monarchs and exiled politicians. (Actually, Kruger’s body was returned to Pretoria.)

Standing in Church Square—something of an urban Blood River—I was again reminded that, while it lasted, white South Africa was a vision of the United States, had the South won the Civil War.

The Confederacy might well have passed some the segregation laws that came to define the South African apartheid regime. The Natives Lands Act (1913), the Native Administration Act (1927), the Immorality Act (1950), the Group Areas Act (1950), the Separate Representation of Voters Act (1951), the Promotion of Bantu Self-government Act (1959), the Terrorism Act (1967), and the Internal Security Act (1982) are but some of the laws that were passed to keep the races separate and unequal.

In the 1948 election, in which Jan Smuts was voted out of office, one campaign leaflet read: “We want no mixing of languages, no mixing of cultures, no mixing of religions.”

Up next: Journey’s End in Johannesburg. 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.