Ladysmith and the Battlefields
Dec 12, 2008
|The late afternoon downpour is pelting even harder now. I am in an extension of the salon at my Lodge in Ladysmith that is open on three sides and droplets are beginning to spatter on the table where I’m sitting. I pack up my stuff and move into the salon proper, now within earshot of the small gathering that is being held there. A nodding of heads, an older Afrikaner, a white couple in their forties, one black also in his forties and Paddy Ann, the owner of the lodge, and they continue discussing politics with Paddy Ann telling everybody that the emergence of COPE may really make a big difference, while I study my battlefields map.
According to the map there are 68 points of interest in the area, covering four wars and two rebellions, so I decide to limit myself to the Boer (Voortrekker)-Zulu War and the Siege of Ladysmith during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War and to finish with another claim to fame of Ladysmith: ‘Ladysmith Black Mambazo’, a group who with their Isicathamiya, soulful style of singing, gave a boost to Paul Simon‘s career in the mid-80s and gained world renown in the process.
I turn off the R33 onto a dirt road for the last 20 kilometres to the Blood River Battlefield, when I get stuck behind a 4x4 towing a caravan. I finally manage to pass them by, just to find myself sitting in a long queue of ‘bakkies’ (pick-up trucks) and trailers waiting to enter the battlefield site. This is Saturday the 13th of December and I had missed the fact that on the 16th of December it is the 170th anniversary of the Blood River Battle and quite a few Afrikaners are already camping on the site to commemorate the event. “On my signal the young people will come forward and raise the flags”, the Master of Ceremonies announces in Afrikaans. I gather that a Boer Commando left Pretoria on horseback twelve days ago (on December 1st), as did others from other places, and covered the 500 kilometres to be here for the opening ceremony taking place inside the circle of 64 bronze-cast wagons that now stands at the location of the 1838 Laager. The flag raising is an awkward semi-military affair and the language used would be suspect in the Netherlands where that kind of terminology is used only by fringe right-wing movements, but it probably just sounds patriotic in Afrikaner ears as they left the Netherlands 355 years ago.
“You really should try the ‘vetkoek’ (fat cake)”, the woman says. She is in her late thirties and has come down from Johannesburg with her biker friend for the weekend. “I didn’t trust the name”, I tell her. “I’m rather trying to loose a bit of weight and played it safe with a curry and rice”. “You may have a point”, she says, patting the belly of her biker friend. We’re sitting on the central table in the small tearoom of the museum and they tell me that since 1994 the different groups of the population have actually drifted more apart and they fully expect that the ANC government will at some point forbid the ceremony that is going on outside. Their vetkoek arrives, not looking half as bad as I expected, a kind of a cross between a croissant and a fritter (oliebol), covered with the same curry I have over my rice, and I let myself be convinced to try a bit of the ’melktaart’ (custard tart) they have for dessert. “So you think that South Africa might suffer from bad governance say 15 or 20 years down the line?”. Even sooner, they fear, and they confirm what I already suspected, that many white and coloured South Africans are afraid Jacob Zuma and the ANC may run the country into the ground as Robert Mugabe and the ZANU-PF did with Zimbabwe. “Zimbabwe was a beautiful place, good infrastructure and services, beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife, even better than South Africa”, her biker friend adds. “That’s all gone now, even the wildlife, poached for meat and muhti (local medicine)”. I try a bite of the melktaart, at least that still has a sweet taste.
A video film re-enacts the battle of Blood River, the onslaught of the 12,000 Zulu impis (warriors) and the 464 Boers, wives reloading the rifles, heroically defending their Laager. Then, in a dramatic scene, when five days after the battle they reach the Zulu capital Mgungundlovu (abandoned and burnt to the ground by the Zulus), the trekkers find the remains of Piet Retief (killed by Zulu King Dingane) and his saddle bag and in it the blood-stained treaty signed by him and Dingane. But the film also mentions that many historians do not believe that Dingane ever signed a treaty, as he was illiterate and unlikely to be able to write his name, and that some historians doubt whether the battle at Blood River even took place.
For the God-fearing Voortrekkers however, the signing of the treaty is not the most important thing. What is most important is that the victory of the 464 Boers over the 12,000 Zulus was a miracle, a sign of God, telling them that these lands were their destiny. In the Apartheid years, the 16th of December was the ‘Day of the Vow‘, a public holiday, changed by the ANC government in 1994 to ‘Day of Reconciliation‘. That denomination connotes an act of magnanimity that some Afrikaners still have difficulty appreciating as I noticed when reading the guest book in the Ncome (Zulu name for Blood River) Museum opened in 1998 and presenting the Zulu side of the conflict.
“What party was that meeting here the other day?”, I ask Paddy Ann. It was the DA (Democratic Alliance), as I suspected, and she is the president of the ward in this part of Ladysmith. Her family hails from Ireland, her Great-Great-Grandfather was Peter Smith, a coal miner, who came to SA in 1843 and founded one of the two coal mines near Dundee. The cottage where she lived as a child is now part of the Talana Hill Battle Museum. Recently the DA has opened two wards in the township area of Ladysmith, unheard of just a few years ago, and she feels that the political landscape is about to change dramatically, mainly because of COPE (which won the court case about its name last week and having its founding meeting this weekend in Bloemfontein) but also for other parties like her DA. As a ward president she has to certify that people live in the area before they can open a bank account, so she meets a lot of people and virtually everybody asks her for a job, as unemployment is rampant. “The big problem here is crime“, she tells me. She herself has been attacked twice, once on her farm. She was beaten, stabbed and robbed, after which she and her husband sold the farm and moved to Ladysmith, and last August again when she was babysitting in the home of one of her sons, while he and his wife were hiking in Kruger Park. She shows me the large scar across the palm of her hand, slashed by a knife. “My sons have worked in England, Canada and Australia”, she goes on. “But came back to live in SA, because they love the climate and the outdoor life, but I urged them to keep on their homes over there, just in case”.
I am still a bit puzzled about what it is that made these Boers such good fighters, not something you would readily think of in the case of these very religious people. But they were: rifle in one hand and bible in the other so to speak, not only in the battles with the Zulus but also in the Anglo-Boer War, where God’s intervention was not an option since they both believed in the same God. The tiny ‘Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek’ (ZAR, South African Republic) and the equally small Orange Free State inflicted enormous casualties on the British forces (22,000 dead out of the 500,000 British soldiers in the field, against 7,000 out of the 88,000 Boers). When Paul Kruger, President of ZAR, issued his ultimatum to Britain in October 1899, there was a lot of sniggering going on in Whitehall. ‘He can have his war if he wants it!’, as they expected the war to be over by Christmas (it would last until May 31st 1902 and prove more costly than the Napoleonic Wars), but early on the 11th of October, after the ultimatum expired, the Boer commandos poured into Natal from three sides inflicting heavy losses on the British army and laying a siege on Ladysmith that would last for 118 days. After five failed attempts, that again brought heavy casualties, it was relieved on 28 February 1901. Even an outright victory in Natal had been within reach, but in this case religiousness came in the way of military success, as Boer General Pieter Joubert (‘Pious Piet‘), refused to attack the British troops retreating in disorder to Ladysmith after their defeat at Dundee: “When God holds out a finger, don’t take the whole hand”.
So I am still puzzled about what made the Boers such formidable opponents, but I am less puzzled now about the origins of Apartheid. It was not so much the superiority of race that lies at its roots, as it was the Boers’ conviction of the superiority of their Christian religion. In that sense the South African Republic from 1910 until 1994, under the veneer of the British empire, was a Boer republic at heart.
It is Monday morning 10 a.m. and time to wrap up business, when I knock on the door of the exhibition on Black Mambazo in the Cultural Centre of Ladysmith. “Where are the museum staff? They should have been here since 9 a.m.”, I ask the security guard at the entrance of the centre, admittedly a bit annoyed when nobody comes to the door. “They had to go to a meeting in City Hall”, he explains. “Maybe they will be back by 11 a.m.”. ‘A meeting at City Hall’, ‘maybe back at 11 a.m.’; well, than the ‘stunning exhibition’ on their message of ‘peace, love and harmony’ will have to wait for another time….