Imperial Hubris
A debilitating war and shocking betrayal created South Africa.

Reviewed by Douglas Foster
Sunday, December 23, 2007


The British, The Boers, and The Making of South Africa

By Martin Meredith

Public Affairs. 570 pp. $35

On the eve of war in late 1899, newspapers in London suggested that a conflict between the British Empire and the Boer Republics at the southern tip of Africa would yield "a tea-time war." Crude, ignorant Dutch-speaking farmers would prove no match, surely, for intelligent commanders and the superior firepower of royal forces. It would all be over by Christmas. Sound familiar? If it does, what followed will come as no surprise. More than two years later, a vast fortune had been thrown away on a debilitating, brutal struggle between a mighty empire's military and outgunned irregular forces scrabbling to protect their autonomy.

The conflict was pitched to the British public as a kind of civilizing mission. Lord Chamberlain, the colonial secretary, and his advisors claimed that force was justified to protect the interests of British immigrants who'd been denied political representation in territory controlled by the Boers. Supporters of the war used, as additional fodder, the fact that vast numbers of black inhabitants faced abominable treatment in President Paul Kruger's Republic of South Africa. "The treatment of the natives has been disgraceful, it has been brutal," Chamberlain told Parliament. But, not incidentally, vanquishing the Boers would also extend imperial control over mines in the Transvaal, which then supplied one quarter of the world's gold.

The war proved a military, political and moral test of the empire, but in ways far different from what Chamberlain might have expected. By the time it was over, another low had been set in the annals of colonial conquest. Across a vast swath of territory where Dutch-speaking pioneers had settled to escape British rule, the land had been laid waste, farms burned and crops destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children had been herded into concentration camps, where one-tenth of the entire Boer population died. More than 14,000 blacks also perished in camps that set the pattern for future policy on race -- even prisoners dying in custody would remain segregated by skin color.

The buildup to this catastrophe provides the narrative spine for Martin Meredith's accessible, nimble and moving account of the creation of pre-apartheid South Africa. It is complicated history, marked not only by the rivalries of European colonists but also by the varied fates of the indigenous groups the settlers overran. Without sacrificing nuance to story-line, Meredith manages to thread the tale through novelistic scenes and direct quotation. In the diamond rush of the early 1870s, for example, he reports that migrants from all over the world flooded into Kimberley. " 'At knock off time,' wrote one pioneer digger, 'our Kaffirs used to pass down streets of tented shops owned by white traders and presided over by yelling black salesmen whirling guns above their heads. These they discharged in the air, crying, 'Reka, reka, mona mtskeka' (Buy, buy, a gun). A deafening din." I read this passage while living in Johannesburg this fall and began to wonder whether the country's persistent problems -- such as frail communities and a high incidence of violent crime -- might be rooted in the mines and battlefields of a century ago.

The expectation that war's end would bring better conditions for the vast majority of the population, based on Chamberlain's pledge not to settle a "shameful peace" that left "the Coloured population in the position in which they stood before the war," was swept aside once hostilities ceased and negotiations between the two "white races" got underway. While leaders of the Boer republics had to yield in nearly every other way, blacks suffered a spectacular betrayal. Sir Alfred Milner, Britain's high commissioner in Cape Town, revealed the underlying theme when he declared: "You have only to sacrifice 'the nigger' absolutely and the game is easy."

The high commissioner was proved wrong, of course. His withering disdain for Afrikaners and blacks alike caused a severe kind of myopia, leading him to misunderstand the most important developments of his time. Milner thought that victory in the war would place British whites permanently on top. But the war's brutality only deepened a sense of shared grievance and cultural identity among generations of the vanquished. Afrikaner nationalism was the result, burgeoning over the next four decades. In 1948, the National Party rode that sense of grievance and identity to triumph in all-white elections. Apartheid became the now-defunct party's legacy.

Milner also missed the significance of black resistance, acting as though the majority population would remain quiescent forever. In 1912, two years after establishment of the Union of South Africa, a national convention of blacks was held. It morphed over time into the African National Congress. National Party leaders believed they had a permanent, divinely inspired right to impose minority interests on the majority. That would prove no cakewalk. South Africa never got its tea-time war. *

Douglas Foster is associate professor at Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.

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