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​​​​Tales when Joburg was at war​

​​The legendary Emily Hobhouse is a heroine among Afrikaners for her exposé of the conditions in the Anglo Boer War concentration camps. The barely-known Cornelis Broeksma also exposed these conditions - for his effort he was executed by firing squad at the Johannesburg Fort.


Broeksma was an attorney from Holland, and during the Anglo Boer War he lived and practised in Johannesburg. He also visited the concentration camps in the city. Appalled by what he saw, he started recording the number of deaths. This information made its way in code to London, via Amsterdam, but along the way it got into the hands of the British. Broeksma was arrested, tried for treason and executed at the Fort on September 30, 1901.
This little-known tale from South African history is one of many revealed in the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust tour entitled "Victims of War", one of the weekly tours of Johannesburg that the Trust conducts throughout the year. Flo Bird, chairman of the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust, who conducts the tours, says: "Broeksma was buried at the Fort, but later the Dutch asked that his body be exhumed and reburied at the Braamfontein Cemetery, where he now lies."

Hobhouse, whom Thomas Pakenham described in The Boer War as "a dumpy, middle-aged English spinster", came to South Africa in 1900, and applied to tour the camps in Bloemfontein, Norvals Pont, Aliwal North, Springfontein, Kimberley and Orange River, in the Free State. She never actually visited camps in the Transvaal although after the war she settled in Yeoville for several years and started schools for the women and children of the camps.

At first Hobhouse was not aware of the appalling rate of death in the camps, in her quest to improve basic hygiene and living conditions, says Pakenham: "'. . . The full realization of the position dawned upon me - it was a death rate such as had never been known except in the times of the Great Plagues . . . the whole talk was of death - who died yesterday, who lay dying today, who would be dead tomorrow.'"

When Hobhouse died in 1926 such was her recognition as the heroine of the Afrikaners, that her ashes were brought to South Africa from England and placed at the bottom of the Vroue Monument, a monument erected in Bloemfontein in the Free State in 1913 to commemorate the deaths of women and children in the camps.

But what of the unsung heroes of the war? Johannesburg is sprinkled with monuments and resting places that commemorate these people.

There were 115 white concentration camps around the country, most of which were in the Transvaal. The biggest in Johannesburg was at the Turffontein Race Course, which originally started as a camp at the Mayfair School, but it soon ran out of space. It housed around 5 000 people, of whom 700 died and were buried in Maluti Street, Winchester Hills, on a farm called Kliprivier Berg, belonging to Piet Meyer.

This cemetery was vandalised by an anti-Ossewa Brandwag group during the second world war and was overhauled and re-opened in 1961 by then Minister of Justice BJ Vorster. It now consists of a number of coffin-shaped terraces, with a memorial structure listing the names of the dead. At the entrance there are a number of the old grave headstones cemented into the wall, indicating amongst others, the death of a baby of eight months.

It is believed that blacks gave information to both sides in the war, but their situation in Johannesburg at the outbreak of the war was difficult: they had to get passes to work or leave the city. They were some 80 black concentration camps throughout the country, two of those in Johannesburg. Field-Marshal Lord Roberts had an ulterior motive in putting blacks into the camps: to make them work, either to grow crops for the troops or to dig trenches or be wagon drivers.

After the war they tried to claim the ancestral land that they had been removed from but they were ignored. They tried desperate measures: President Louis Botha was temporarily pushed off his farm. The British responded by arming the Boers to enable them to protect their land. The Boers were given compensation to rebuild their farms, whereas blacks were given no compensation.

The official number of blacks who died in the war is 14 000, although historians believe the figure is closer to 24 000. Some believe that this treatment by the British is what led to the formation of the African National Congress.

There were 7 000 non-combatant Indians most of whom came out from India with their horses to fight for the British. They were based at the top of the Observatory Hill (now the Observatory Ridge Park) and their horses were kept down the road in Bezuidenhout Park, at a remount camp where at one time there were some 4 000 horses. In February 1901, the Boers raided the camp and stole all the serviceable horses.

A memorial to the Indian contribution in the war, known as the Indian Monument, was constructed in 1902 at the highest point on the Observatory ridge.

It appears, according to Pakenham, that the Fawcett Commission - a six-member ladies-only group set up to report on the concentration camps - was more effective than Hobhouse in some ways: "It was Millicent Fawcett, not Emily Hobhouse, who came closest to playing the role of Florence Nightingale in the terrible crisis that had overwhelmed the camps."

There was "a touch of steel" about Fawcett, and "she did not mince her words when she told Milner (high commissioner for South Africa, 1897-1905) the facts of death in the camps" and when she sent her report to Joseph Chamberlain (secretary for the colonies), Milner was put under pressure to improve the situation, with the proviso that trained men could be brought out from India, if needed. The death rate in the camps started to decline.

But not before thousands died: 28 000 women and children died in the country's concentration camps, of those 22 000 were under 16. And yet, despite this, the women in the camps didn't want their men to stop fighting. And for the men, as the deaths in the camps mounted, they felt there was no reason to stop fighting - they had nothing to go back to. About 30 000 homes and farms were destroyed in the war.

Some 7 000 Boers died in the war. On the British side, 22 000 soldiers were killed and more than half of those - 16 000 men - died of dysentery. The war cost the British government 220 million pounds.

Kitchener is hated by Afrikaners for his concentration camp policy. He in fact did not initiate the idea: Roberts did. Roberts was only going to burn farms where snipers were present, or destroy a farm near an explosion of a railway line. It was Kitchener who changed this policy to a scorched earth policy, in which everything was razed, including fruit trees planted by farmers.

Pakenham describes Kitchener: "Today, Kitchener is not remembered in South Africa for his military victories. His monument is the camp - 'concentration camp', as it came to be called. The camps have left a gigantic scar across the minds of the Afrikaners: a symbol of deliberate genocide. In fact, Kitchener no more desired the death of women and children in the camps than of the wounded Dervishes after Omdurman, or of his own soldiers in the typhoid-stricken hospitals of Bloemfontein. He was simply not interested. What possessed him was a passion to win the war quickly, and to that he was prepared to sacrifice most things, and most people, other than his own small 'band of boys', to whom he was invariably loyal, whatever their blunders."

Although the burning of farms and the concentrations camps was Roberts's idea, Kitchener perfected it, and he was known for his ruthlessness: he wanted Broeksma to be publicly executed
​​Tales when Joburg was at war​