Folk tellers

Herman Charles Bosman was a South African author, born 5 February 1905, died 14 October 1951. He became one of South Africa’s greatest authors capturing the essence of the backvelder or rural Boer. At 9 years of age he was too young to participate in the First World War but being in Johannesburg would no doubt have been caught up in the tensions prevailing with the January 1914 strike and the October 1914 rebellion. He attended Jeppe High School, which has military links through the Scottish/Irish band. During this time he most likely witnessed the 1922 miner strike which affected the East Rand and Johannesburg.

He studied English at Wits University before going to Groot Marico where he was a teacher. In 1926, on holiday, aged 21, he accidentally shot his step-brother and was sentenced to 10 years hard labour having been reprieved of the death sentence. In 1930 he was released on parole. In prison he started writing his ‘Oom Schalk Lourens’ short stories. Roy Campbell, SA poet, considered ‘Mafeking Road’, broadcast on BBC in 1942, to be some of the best stories to come out of South Africa.

By all accounts he was an outspoken journalist and was often in trouble for his outspoken comments. He is one of my favourite authors capturing a section of South African culture as no one else, of a time which coincides with my history research. He’s been one of those characters I’ve wanted to find out more about and as two articles recently come to light, it seemed appropriate to share. Reading these articles has also shown how accounts [includes archive catalogue] of the past become inflated – I’d always understood Bosman spent time in Groot Marico as part of his punishment and that it was there he shot his brother.

I have no idea how non-South Africans would see his work and no doubt today much of his writing would be seen as politically incorrect, but as Johnny Masilela is quoted as saying ‘it will be a great tragedy for the creative process if […] we deny our children the opportunity to read Bosman with his very wry sense of humour’ and I would add insight to a culture now long gone. And in case you thought this quote was a one-off, this is rather illuminating.

His equivalent today would be David Kramer who has captured a cross section of voices and lifestyles from the Cape and old Transvaal.


REVIEW: The first campaign victory of the Great War – Antonio Garcia

The first campaign victory of the Great War: South Africa, Manoeuvre Warfare, The Afrikaner Rebellion and the German South West Africa campaign, 1914-1915 by Antonio Garcia, Helion, 2019

Where does one start? There is so much in this short book on the first victory of World War 1. The first striking feature is the title – today without being in inverted commas, it’s inaccurate as the book covers the second Allied African victory of the Great War, the first being Togoland in August 1914. Although a short conflict, Togoland is regarded as a campaign. However, at the time, the scoop in Britain was that this was the first victory by a white African army of the war and that, no less, by a country which had previously fought against Britain. It is only recently that the historiography is correcting this technicality.

The second feature is the book’s approach – assessing the campaign through the theory of ‘manoeuvre warfare’. At a time where historians are tending to focus on the social and cultural aspects, consideration of a conflict from a military theory perspective is different and rather refreshing. However, what is not mentioned on the cover is that another theory features to explain the Boer Rebellion: relative deprivation theory. Tony is one of the first authors to try and integrate the rebellion and the fighting in German South West from a military point of view. Most authors tend to put the SWA campaign on hold to discuss the rebellion and then return to the campaign, while others ignore the first days of the campaign and go straight to January 1915 seeing it as completely unrelated to the rebellion. One day an historian might well address the question of why the Germans didn’t take the opportunity of the rebellion to safeguard their colony – this may have been addressed in German accounts but I am yet to see anything in English or Afrikaans.

A third striking feature is the seemingly tick-box approach to including people of colour in the text. Labour was an important feature of this campaign and in line with South African social and employment culture, was mainly undertaken by people who were not white. Black and Coloured labour was employed to build and repair railways, load and unload ships in dock, groom horses, look after transport animals amongst other tasks. Tony emphasises that the white soldiers would not have achieved what they did without the support and contribution of these men but does not take it further as they are militarily peripheral to the topic under discussion – manoeuvre warfare. It is in this regard that the weakness of the book is to be found. It reads and feels like an academic dissertation and knowing the academics involved, it is out of keeping with their own approaches reinforcing the text’s meeting of academic requirements. Although I believe the book’s editor should have worked with Tony to reconfigure the text for general consumption, its present form provides an insight into the academic approach and how this differs in SA to say the UK. The approach taken by Tony going back in time to set the context resonates with my own experience which was challenged by my UK supervisors as not necessary and that readers, if they want more background, can find it out themselves. The need we South Africans have to ground the past seems to be part of our nation building and national memory formation. The first campaign victory provides a good example for comparison with similar academic outputs, dissertations and theses, in other countries. This is something students studying in another country experience and have to deal with, as I know through personal experience and in supporting overseas students settling into the UK, but I am not sure anyone has seen this as an area to research either educationally or from a cultural historical perspective.

With these striking features out of the way, what about the rest of the book? As alluded to earlier, Tony looks at the South West Africa campaign using a modern theory of warfare. Rather than trying to understand why decisions were made at the time, he considers how effective those decisions were in retrospect. I was left wanting more, purely because Tony’s clear and succinct explanations prompted deeper thinking. Here, again, circumstances conspired against him. With few specialists available on the campaign, opportunities for greater interrogation of the material available was missed. But what is here is tantalising and sets a good solid foundation for future work either by Tony himself or others. The inclusion of relative deprivation theory and attempts to understand the human motivations for becoming involved in the war, or not, is another valuable contribution and had this not been the academic study it is, I’m sure would have led to greater integration, analysis and linkage between the two theories, and an easier inclusion of all forces, armed and otherwise, in the discussion. Tony has gone some way to showing the complexity of war through his theoretical approach and, for a theatre which is as understudied as German South West Africa is, is to be commended for opening new windows and bringing it to wider attention. Together with James Stejskal’s Horns of the Beast which looks at the conflict from the battlefield-archeological perspective, The first campaign victory provides historians of all flavours with rich, new insights.

Culture Day

It was a Thursday when I visited the National Archives in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa – a little used archive but a friendly one. I happened to be the only visitor at the time which was probably a good thing, given my reaction when a document was brought to me by someone in almost traditional Zulu dress. There’s all this nonsence about appropriating other cultures clothing, yet I seldom see people of different cultural backgrounds wear their culturally related items unless they’re going to a formal occasion. One of the many things I get angry about having grown up under Apartheid was that I, classified white, was deprived of experiencing our rich South African cultural heritage. It’s only in subsequent years and having spent time in Tanzania and visiting other African countries that I’ve been able to do so and proudly embrace it despite some of ‘my own’ [white and black] having issues with it. So, you can imagine my reaction on seeing a South African black employee in near traditional dress in a government building during working hours. I therefore did the natural thing and asked, only to be told, ‘we’re a cultural institution.’ I prompted further, explaining I’d not come across this in Pretoria or Cape Town on any of my visits to similar institutions. It then materialised – it was ‘Culture Day.’

Not long after another staff member came through in a Madiba shirt, not too unsual in post-1996 SA, but the context was becoming apparent. Permission was given for taking a photo but before it could be taken, my Zulu had disappered. He returned carrying his own camera for our cultural day photo – I, fittingly, was wearing trousers made out of Masaai blanket. The reading room assistant then disappeared saying he was going to ‘call the chief’ – ‘what now?’ was going through my head when a tall white woman and a man came in. She was addressed as Chief – I still don’t know her name, and she explained about Culture Day. Once a week, usually Friday, but as that Friday would be Heritage Day and a holiday Friday had become Thursday, was deemed Culture Day when staff were encouraged to wear something specific to their culture. So, my Zulu man was dressed appropriately, as was his colleague in a Madiba shirt, the white man whom I’d seen come in earlier to explain something was wearing ‘vellies’ or veldskoens – shoes for the field/veld – made of leather. The premier/head of Arts and Culture of Kwa-Zulu Natal was the inspiraton behind the day and encouraged staff across the province to participate. More photos were taken – black and white standing together in front of a map of Africa celebrating our diversity and unity.

Natal, in feel, is very different to other parts of South Africa, perhaps because there are fewer different cultural groups and that it’s relatively small, but as a visitor in my own country, I felt incredibly welcome and more importantly ‘part of’. Thank you Nicholas Maduna, Siyabonga Mncwango, Thando Maphumulo, the Chief and others for making my visit to your place of work such an incredible experience – wouldn’t it be wonderful if this spirit could be spread across the rest of the country?

They still remember

A recent Al Jazeera documentary on African Black veterans who served in the British Army presented a rather biased version of the situation. Although disappointing, it was not surprising given the current rhetoric and the view expounded over the centenary of the Great War regarding white officers and black rank and file.

As then, so it is now, broadly speaking. There were ‘good’ and ‘bad’ officers and many who were ‘good’ and had a real affinity for their men recorded the actions of their men as best they could: 1st battalion Cape Corps, Nigerians in East Africa, Gold Coast Regiment. They wrote a regimental history to ensure a record remained.

At the centenary commemorations in Africa for the end of the First World War, it was white officers who had served in Africa post WW2 who were involved – behind the scenes in the big public events or quietly remembering in reflective and solemn services. I had the honour to attend a few. And always, a toast or 3 cheers to the Askari was raised, and on occasion a small group of men, their voices quavering would croak out Heia Safari, the song they and their men would have sung on the march.

But that is not all they do, as I discovered in Zambia and more recently at a King’s African Rifle and East African Forces Association dinner – a dinner attended by West African Frontier Force representatives, African military attaches and members of all colours able to attend. They fundraise!

Despite the white officers not receiving pensions as good as those who did not serve in Africa, these men try and ease the load of those who served with them in the field and whose pensions paid by the British government are even smaller. This is done through the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League which has arrangements with African countries to ensure the veterans receive additional support. Lord Richards, who attended the November 2018 commemorations in Zambia, is the Deputy Grand President of the RCEL and was instrumental in the 2018 announcement by DFID that aid to veterans would be increased.

And, as with WW1 where records were incomplete or went missing, etc, so it has been in the post-WW2 years. But as men who served are discovered, so they are added to the fold – during June 2019 a 93 year old veteran in Malawi will be receiving his first additional payment. What a moment to witness thanks to technology, but more importantly, people who care for those they served with.

The Grand Rand Easter Show

Do you remember the Grand Rand Easter Show held at Sturrock or Milner Park every year? I used to go along on First Aid duty with St John Ambulance for many years and remember fondly going to explore the military section standing with awe looking at machines, many towering over me and reading about the latest technological developments. This was South Africa proving to the world that isolation had no negative impact on the country. My other ‘must see’ were the farm animals – prize cows, bulls and sheep on display – what more can I say…

But for the life of me, despite having gone there once a year for at least 10, I would never be able to direct you to the place and struggled to identify the location when travelling near by outside of show time. Sense of direction and maps are not my strong point! The place has always held a fascination, and was a part and parcel of South Africa and its politics – it was here on 9 April 1960 that there was an attempt was made to assassinate Prime Minister Hendrick Verwoerd .

During World War 1 the grounds were a collection point for soldiers in Johannesburg before they were sent on their way, and between the outbreak of war and September 1915, it was the prisoner of war camp for enemy aliens before they were moved to Roberts’ Heights [Voortrekkerhoogte and now Thaba Tshwane] and then Fort Napier. But there is obiously more to the space than meets the eye and as shown in this blog on Johannesburg 1912. What a wonderful rich resource opening a window on a part of Johannesburg few might recognise today. And for those wondering, the grounds today form part of the Wits sports complex. For anyone in the Johannesburg area, with a car, it’s worth “getting lost” in the area as I did last year – some of the old buildings from before the 1914-18 war are still standing – it felt a step back into the past without having to visit a museum.

The Rand Show still continues, 125 years after its first event in 1894, now at the NASREC Centre.

Perceptions of Identity

Some time ago I posted about beards and moustache wearing in the British Army. How we present ourselves is part of our identity, and that is determined by the situations within which we find ourselves. In searching for information about beards etc, I came across this fascinating insight into the Moroccan veil as it is presented in the French media.

It brought to mind Michelle Moyd’s work on the Askari in the Schutztruppe (Violent Intermediaries) and the various photographs we have of different communities in WW1 Africa. Soldiers, at least in the early days of campaigning were identifiable by their uniforms and badges. I’m constantly amazed at medal collectors being able to identify the campaign etc from black and white photos based on the stripe width, shade and order it’s worn. Then we have the photos of labour supporting the Lake Tanganyika expedition – the variety of dress suggesting levels of European/mission education and encounter. The photographer Dobbertin who accompanied the German forces also shows the differences in dress and relationship.

How individuals were identified determined how they were treated and the extent to which they were accepted. Kitchener only became tolerably accepted by the British establishment when he adopted more British ways; otherwise he remained an enigma and outsider. Jan Smuts did not follow British military ways and his reputation has suffered accordingly, while Jaap van Deventer accepted the fact that British officers had to do staff work behind the lines and was regarded as a better soldier despite his reluctance to speak English.

Yet, taking on others’ identities has led to accusations where cultural nuances have not been understood. The most obvious WW1 example is of the white South African forces taking on the Zulu impi tradition on the Western Front. As Bill Nasson points out, this was reflective of South Africa’s admiration for Chaka, the Zulu warrior and how the military tradition he forged has been assimilated into South Africa per se – not unlike the Haka the New Zealand rugby team performs.

Identity is tricky – both for the individual at the time in terms of how they perceive themselves and are accepted, but also for the historian trying to make sense of a different time and place. Memoirs, diaries, letters, photographs and other primary source documents all help in constucting the context to better understand an individual or group’s place within the wider community. My research into Kitchener has been a salutary lesson in identify and how myth and dominant cultural ideas can distort the person in question.

Baragwanath origin

Busy searching to see what the relationship between Lords Ardagh and Kitchener was, the word Baragwanath caught my eye. Specifically, the sentence

It was a cold winter’s eve in June 1900 when engine driver RH Baragwanath and his fellow Cornishman, Richard Williams sat down to dinner at Moss’ Grill Room in Central Johannesburg

Was this the man behind the naming of the now Steve Biko Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, South Africa? Back in the late 1980s I had friends training as doctors at the hospital, then only under the name Baragwanath, and visited it on occasion – what an experience when contrasted with the ‘white only’ hospitals in the main towns. Yet, it was sought after by foreign doctors who wanted to train in specific injuries which were well-known to be local to the hospital. And as Soweto itself holds special memories for me – I was warmly welcomed with a shaking of hands by Godfrey Moloi as a youngster still at school at one of his sporting events where I was part of the first aid team.

I just had to look this up – was RH Baragwanath the man behind the hospital’s name and if so, what had he done? Alas, it was another Baragwanath who gave his name to the medical centre: John Albert. In short, according to the hospital’s website, John Albert after trying various ways to make a living during the gold rush in Johannesburg set up an inn, one day’s ox journey from Johannesburg, which became known as Baragwanath. Apparently Bara in Welsh means ‘bread’ and Gwanath means ‘wheat’. Eventually in 1940 when South Africa was needing more military hospitals for men serving in World War 2, it was decided to build on Corner House mining property close to where Baragwanath had been. And the rest, as they say is history – which you can read about on the hospital link above, including the Royal visit in 1947. Winnie Mandela was reputedly the first black social worker at the hospital in 1955.

So, who was RH Baragwanath who featured in Diana Rose Cammack’s The Rand at War, 1899-1902: The Witwatersrand and the Anglo-Boer War (University of California Press, 1990)? Well, he used to frequent Moss’s Grill Room in Johannesburg – there is a write-up in Henry Longman’s Progressive Johannesburg for some info of the time, although no photo of Moss’s by all accounts. He and his friend Williams were arrested with many foreigners in Johannesburg at the time, the name Baragwanath not recognised as British and were eventually deported, arriving back in Britain on the Braemer Castle in September 1900. They had been mistaken for ruffians, whom Milner and Mckenzie were clearing out of Johannesburg which had been occupied by the British forces in May.

And further digging shows there was a Baragwanath Airfield which closed down in the early 1980s. It was the home of the Johannesburg Light Plane Club.

And the relationship between Ardagh and Kitchener, nothing of note, other than that Ardagh offered advice on various areas Kitchener was also involved; not enough to feature in my forthcoming publication on K of K.