Ntando PZ Mbatha

Even though the South African War (1899-1902) is largely considered a battle between the British and the Boers, history has erased the unspeakable suffering of black people who were forced to endure sub-human conditions in the concentration camps of one of the most destructive armed conflicts in South Africa’s history. While much has been written about the conflict, the black narrative has been silenced, and with it, the shocking human rights violations that took place are at risk of being overlooked at best, forgotten at worst.

The South African War broke out on 11 October, 1899 between the two former Boer republics (Transvaal and the Orange Free State) and the British. But war touches the lives of all inhabitants of the affected country and it would be unacceptable to not acknowledge the many ways it destroyed the lives of the black population groups including the Khoi, San, Zulu, Xhosa, Tsonga, and Swati. Whether their role was voluntary or involuntary; combatant or non-combatant, we would be doing an injustice to our history if we removed them from this war.

The Scorched Earth Policy and guerrilla warfare

Black people were conscripted and used as slaves and servants as scouts, messengers, watchmen in blockhouses, despatch runners, cattle raiders, trench diggers, drivers, labourers, agterryers and auxiliaries. The agterryers were used by the Boers for guarding ammunition, cooking, collecting firewood, mending the horses, and loading firearms for battle. It is important to note that auxiliaries were also used in fighting, evident in some of the photographs taken during the War. At least 15, 000 blacks were used as combatants by the British and also by both British and Boers as wagon drivers.

According to “A Handbook of Military Strategy and Tactics”, written by Michiko Phifer, the Scortched Earth Policy is a “military strategy or operational method which involves destroying anything that might be useful to the enemy while advancing through or withdrawing from an area.” It includes denying the enemy food sources, destroying shelter and transportation, as well as communications and industrial resources, slaughtering of livestock, burning homesteads and farms, poisoning wells. These tactics are employed for political and strategic reasons rather than operational reasons and were detrimental to the livelihood and survival of the black population.

The Scorched Earth Policy in South Africa during the South African War was a response to the Boers’ guerrilla war at the end of 1900. British Commander Lord Kitchener developed a strategy to counter-act the Boers’ guerrilla war. His strategy consisted of three measures; the first one was to destroy the two Boer republics, the second measure was placing women and children in concentration camps and the last one was beginning large drives in order to capture the Boer commandos, warfare tactics had dire consequences for the black population and meant slavery and death.

The hell of black concentration camps

The term concentration comes from a Spanish word “concentrade”. It was first used in Cuba in 1896 by General Butcher Weyler. Half a million Cuban civilians were rounded up and put in fortified villages. About 100 000 of them died as a result. In South Africa, the first concentration camps were erected in early 1901. History often focuses on concentration camps for Boer women and children, however very little attention is paid to the appalling conditions in the black concentration camps.

According to Professor Andre Wessels of the Department of History at the University of the Free State (UFS), 130 000 black civilians (farm labourers in Boer farms) were captured and put into concentration camps, as the British feared that black people would assist the Boers during the war.

During early 1901, black concentration camps were initially set up to accommodate white refugees. However, in June 1901, the British government established a Native Refugee Department in the Transvaal under the command of Major G.F. de Lotbinier, a Canadian officer serving with the Royal Engineers. He took over the black inmates in the Orange Free State in August that year and a separate department for blacks was created. The horrific conditions were superseded only by the abhorrent treatment, which often resulted in severe illness and death.

Conditions at the camps

The camps, usually situated in an open veld, were overcrowded; tents and huts were placed too close together and did not provide protection from the weather. They were extremely hot in summer and icy in winter. Large families were normally placed in a single tent. Materials for roofing were scarce, no coal was provided for warmth, and there was a dire shortage of water and food (fresh vegetables, milk and meat) . With less than a third of black inmates provided with rations, it is clear that black people were being starved to death in these camps.

Water supplies were often contaminated and any form of medical attention was rare to non-existent. Abhorrent sub-human conditions meant that diseases like dysentery, typhoid and diarrhoea spread with ease and the death rate climbed drastically. This is not taking into account the everyday brutality black people had to endure at the hands of both the British and the Boers including physical abuse, public flogging and the withholding of basic human necessities.

Black inmates were supervised at all times and were often made to work in the mines, they were also forced to labour at white concentration camps and serve as soldiers in the army if and when needed. Inmates did not receive any medical attention, very often needed owing to the hard labour they were made to undertake; they also did not receive rations, the able-bodied were allowed to exchange their labour for food or were expected to grow their own crops. By the end of 1901, over 6 000 black people had been supplied to the army by The Native Refugee Department.

The hard labour black people were forced into was endless. They had to grow crops for the troops, dig trenches and drive wagons. Many of them lived along railway lines and on the borders so as to serve as the eyes and ears of the British Army. There were 36 black concentration camps in the former Transvaal region, including Irene, Heidelberg, Krugersdorp, Middelburg, Standerton and Klerksdorp. In the Free State, there were about 25 black camps, amongst them were, Harrismith, Thaba Nchu, and Winburg. In the former Cape Colony, there were four black camps: Orange River, Kimberly, Taungs and Dryharts.

Death rates in black concentration camps

Most of the deaths in the concentration camps were caused by epidemic chicken-pox, measles, dysentery and other diseases. In December 1901, the total population of black people in concentration camps was 89 407 while the death rate during that month was 2, 831. By the end of January 1902, the population increased to 97 986 and 2,534 deaths were recorded.

The official death toll of black people in the concentration camps is estimated at 14 152 (more than one in ten). However, according to G. Benneyworth, a more realistic number could be 20 000 deaths, taking into consideration that British records would have been incomplete, mass grave sites and unmarked graves would have interefered with the count and many civilians would have died outside of the camp. 81% of black deaths were children.

At the beginning of 1902, conditions in black camps were improved in order to reduce the death rate. More nutrients were introduced (tinned milk, Bovril and corn flour) and shops were opened that allowed black people to buy flour, sugar, coffee, tea, syrup, candles, tobacco, clothes and blankets. They also spent money on cereal, clothes and blankets.

The black population was profoundly affected by the South African War and their suffering has largely gone unacknowledged. Black people were not awarded medals or recognised in any capacity for their crucial role in the war. Black civilians who suffered greatly need to be remembered. We must remember the suffering of black people on the battle field and more importantly, in the concentration camps. Many gaps remain in the telling of our own history without these stories.