Honouring black dead in Boer War

26 September 2005

Black South Africans who lost their lives in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902 are finally to be honoured. This is part of a memorandum of understanding signed by the British and South African governments to renovate and maintain the graves of some 25 000 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the war. The deal was signed in Tshwane on Friday.

Supported by the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand High Commissioners, responsibility for the upkeep of the graves was officially handed over to the South African government at Heroes Acre Cemetery in Tshwane. The memorandum was signed by Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan and British high commissioner to South Africa Paul Boateng.

According to the deal, over 200 cemeteries throughout South Africa will be renovated, with the UK government and private sponsors providing the £800 000 (R9.05-million) required over the next four years. A further £150 000 (R1.7-million) will be made available every year for maintenance.

While black South Africans largely played a noncombatant role in the Anglo-Boer War – also known as the South African War because it involved more than the British and Boers – their contribution has largely been ignored.

Jordan hailed the memorandum as a step towards finally honouring their role. He said their graves will be located and proper tombstones erected, and a monument built for those whose graves cannot be identified.

“There is no memorial to blacks who lost their lives in the concentration camps,” he said. “That’s going to be one of the first big steps to commemorate them.”

Norvalspont concentration camp
Norvalspont concentration camp, one of the notorious
camps set up by the British in the Anglo-Boer War
(Image: Anglo-Boer War Museum)

Boateng described the signing as a historic occasion to give fallen heroes the respect and dignity they deserve.

“We welcome the support of the South African government in continuing the restoration and maintenance of Commonwealth war graves in South Africa,” he said. “It is important that we do not forget all those of many lands and all races who have lost their lives in the fight for freedom and democracy.”

Personal sacrifice and courage

The deal follows a 2003 report by the UK Ministry of Defence and the South African Department of Arts and Culture that revealed a need to recognise and honour those who died in the war.

Boateng said there would also be an exchange programme between UK and South African schools to educate youngsters about historic wars and conflicts, and the importance of their commemoration.

“The significant aspect is for children and young people in the UK and South Africa to be able to understand the story that lies behind these graves – a story of personal sacrifice and courage,” he said.

Although both the British and Boers initially agreed that black people were not to be used in a combatant role in the war, at least 15 000 blacks were armed by the British and served in mobile columns to track down Boer commandos. A further 25 000 served as armed blockhouse guards.

Black South Africans were also used on the Imperial Military Railway system, and served as scouts, agterryers and wagon drivers. They also became refugees of the war, had their homes and livelihoods destroyed in the British scorched earth policy, and were interned in the notorious British concentration camps.

SAinfo reporter

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