A Tale of Two Cemeteries

Man holding a slate headstone, about 40 cm by 30 cm, with words carved on it

Remembering Daniel van der Westhuizen, who died at the Irene Concentration Camp in May 1901, aged 6 months.

In August 2011, I led a small group of American students on a study abroad program in South Africa. At the beginning of our trip we visited the Irene Concentration Camp Cemetery and Memorial near Pretoria, home to the remains of more than a thousand Afrikaners who died in a British internment camp during the Anglo Boer War. At the end of our tour, we spent some time at Cape Town’s Prestwich Memorial, a brand new repository of the recently discovered remains of over 2,000 people, most of them members of the Cape’s underclass, dispossessed and disempowered during two and a half centuries of colonial rule.

The stories of the South Africans interred at Irene and Prestwich reveal a lot about the country’s history, from the time of the arrival of the first Dutch colonists and their diverse array of slaves in the mid sixteenth century to the defeat of Boer forces by the British in 1902. The Irene Cemetery is part of the story of white Afrikaners and their struggle against British domination (Africa’s first anti-colonial struggle?), a story that was front and center of the history I was taught in high school at my all-white school in Johannesburg in the 1970s. The Prestwich Memorial highlights the lives and deaths of South Africans who barely rated a mention in my history books. They included South Africa’s first peoples, the Khoikhoi, who were relegated to footnote in the prelude to the country’s history, as well  as Malay, Malagasy and West African people uprooted from their homes and forced to work as slaves for the Dutch East India Company in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Now, in 2011, the tables of history are being turned. The Prestwich Memorial is tangible evidence of a history previously avoided and neglected, but now rediscovered, highlighted, studied, and showcased. The Irene Cemetery is testimony to a part of history being pushed to the sidelines in narratives of the New South Africa. Irene tells a story of people often seen as the villains of apartheid, the Afrikaners. Prestwich records and embodies a story, previously denied them, of victims of Dutch and British colonial oppression.

In this, the first of two blog posts on the cemeteries, I write about Irene. In the second, I will discuss the Prestwich Memorial, and the new, old history it represents.

Intriguingly these two stories are more closely connected than they might appear. A 1717 decision by the Dutch East India Company was crucial in shaping the lives of those buried at both Irene and Prestwich. But I am getting ahead of myself.


Irene (pronounced eye-reenie) isn’t the kind of place you would expect to find a concentration camp cemetery. It is a quiet middle-class suburb a few kilometers southeast of the center of Pretoria, across a busy road from the main railway line between Johannesburg and Pretoria. On the brisk late-winter afternoon when my students and I came here, the place seemed pretty much the same as it did when I was last in the area a dozen years ago. The schoolboys playing on the cricket pitch on Schoman Road were white, as were the girls on the adjacent tennis courts. The main change was the fence that had been erected around the suburb, the access roads that had been closed, and the suburb’s new name: the Irene Security Estate. Like many suburban communities in South Africa, the residents of Irene have banded together to hire private security guards to protect their neighborhood in a country with one of the highest crime rates in the world.

Having passed through the security checkpoint at the entrance to the suburb, we enter what a local tourism website describes as

one of the best kept secrets in Gauteng [province] – its poplar, plane and oak-lined avenues, pretty homes, shady almost meadow-like surrounds [are] more than a little out of place here, and such a welcome respite that one is tempted to stay.”

For those who succumb to the temptation, the website recommends several local guesthouses, as well as visits to the Irene Country Club and the Rietvlei Nature Reserve. It also suggests a stop at the home of Jan Smuts, an early twentieth century South African Prime Minister and Afrikaner hero of the Boer War.

Satellite image showing the Irene Cemetery and, to its east, a railway line

Location of the Irene Concentration Camp Cemetery and Memorial (Image from Google Earth)

The website makes no mention of an even better kept secret than Irene itself. In the heart of the suburb, next to the cricket pitch and bounded by Stopford Road (named for a British Boer War officer, Lieutenant General Sir Frederick William Stopford) and Bruce Street (for Lieutenant L.M. Bruce, RAMC) lies the Irene Concentration Camp Cemetery and Garden of Remembrance. Beneath its soil are the remains of more than 1,100 Afrikaners, most of them children, a fraction of the 27,927 Afrikaners who died in more than 40 British internment camps during the 1899-1902 War.

Last time I was here the cemetery was open and unfenced. Now it is behind a padlocked gate, the key to which is obtainable, we learn from the guard at the security checkpoint, at a house on a residential street nearby (this is to protect the site against pilferers who had been make off with metal fixtures and any other bits of the memorial that could be sold or reused.) At the house, I ring the doorbell and a woman answers; I ask her for the key to the cemetery, which she passes to me through a half closed door, telling me to drop it in her mailbox when I was done. I then mention to her that I am with an American student group. “Wait,” she says, “Let me get Cilliers.”

Cilliers turns out to be Cilliers du Preez, Chairman of the Heritage Society of Centurion, a systems engineer by profession, curator and guide at the cemetery as a labor of love. He appears surprised at our interest in the cemetery, and offers to join us on our visit. For half an hour he leads us around the memorial on an impromptu tour, telling us its story. To begin with, he is hesitant, almost as if apprehensive of our motives for being here (I suspect that the site doesn’t get too many visitors, especially foreigners.) But his passion for his subject quickly becomes clear, as does the fact that for him, the story of the camp is deeply personal.

Before we get to the story of this cemetery, though, we need to understand not only some of the history of the Afrikaner people, but more importantly what was for a long time the dominant Afrikaner perspective of Afrikaner and South African history. To make sense of this, we need to take a brief excursion into the colonial past.

Who are the Afrikaners?

In 1652, the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) dispatched one of its officials,  Jan van Riebeeck, along with three ships, to the Cape of Good Hope with a specific and narrowly defined charge. Van Riebeeck’s modest task was to set up a small base whose main function would be to supply Company ships, en route to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), with fresh food and water. Not an imperial outpost, not a colony, but rather a kind of 17th century rest stop (It was not until the late 19th century that Europeans began to see sub-Saharan Africa as worth colonizing.)

The VOC was aware that there was a local population of Khoi people at the Cape, and van Riebeeck was instructed, in essence, not to antagonize them more than was absolutely necessary. To do so would only cause trouble and expense. And so, when van Riebeeck suggested that the Company allow him to enslave a few Khoi to work on its farms, he was firmly rebuffed. He was, he bosses told him, to rely instead on European workers (many given assisted passage to the Cape) and on foreign slaves.

(Van Riebeeck may not have been allowed to antagonize or enslave the Khoi, but that didn’t stop him from having his own very clear and vividly expressed views about them. They were, he wrote, “a savage set, living without a conscience.” Three days after arriving at the Cape he warned Company employees to beware of the Khoi “as these wild tribes are bold, thievish, and not at all to be trusted.” He later gave vent to his feelings in his diary, where he wrote that they were ”black stinking dogs” who were “dull, stupid and odorous.” Thus began South Africa’s troubled history of race relations.)

Contemporary illustrations of life at the Cape in the mid-seventeenth century. (From a display in Green Point Park, Cape Town.)

Despite the Company’s intent that their Cape settlement remain small, by the turn of the 18th century it had expanded significantly. This was not a result of the Company’s activites, but rather those of “free burghers,” settlers who were not employed by the Company, but were instead independent farmers, toiling the land with their own and their families’ labor.

Unlike the farmers, most of who were poor, the Company could afford to supplement its white workforce with slaves. The first slaves arrived in 1658, and by the important year of 1717, there were some 2,000 slaves at the Cape. Despite them, the Company still faced a serious shortage of labor, and a dilemma over how to solve it. Should they import more slaves (the cheaper option) or should they encourage more Europeans to come to the Cape (they would cost more, advocates of this option conceded, but they would be more productive and add to the security of the Colony)?

In 1717, VOC’s Governors, ever a parsimonious bunch, went with the slavery option, and put an end to assisted European migration to the Cape. This was a decision that shaped the history of both the Afrikaners buried in Irene and the slaves who are among those interred at Prestwich.

The evolution of Afrikaner identity

The history of the Afrikaners is unlike that of most other European migrants to the colonies. A stream of migrants came to the North America from the earliest days of the French and British colonies, and the migration continued into the twentieth century. The same happened in Australia, New Zealand, and South America.

Three rounded concrete pillars, decreasing in size from left to right. In the background is a mountain peak, beneath a partly cloudy sky

The Afrikaans Language Monument on a hilltop at Paarl, near Cape Town. The monument was opened in 1975, the one hundredth anniversary of the foundation of Afrikanerdom’s first cultural organization, Die Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners (Society of True Afrikaners)

By contrast Dutch settlement in South Africa, continuous in the early days of the Cape Colony, came to an abrupt halt after the 1717 decision. As a result, by 1720, the ancestors of most of today’s Afrikaners were already in South Africa. Appreciating this is critical to an understanding of South Africa’s colonial history as well as its 20th century politics. Starved of new migrants and isolated from Europe (and often each other) by distance, the Dutch at the Cape gradually morphed into a distinct cultural group with its own language and way of life. They also began to see themselves not as settlers, expatriates, or displaced Europeans, but as Africans; Afrikaners, in their language.

The Afrikaners also referred to themselves collectively as Boere (farmers); a descriptor of both occupation and identity. A recurring theme in Afrikaner history is that the Boers were a stubborn, devout, and independent bunch. On their large farms in the semi-arid interior of the Cape, “each man fled the tyranny of his neighbour’s smoke” (in the words of a South African historian.) Some of the frontier farms in the interior, where Boers raised sheep and cattle, were three months’ journey from Cape Town, even further, time-wise, than Cape Town was from the Amsterdam. For them, government must have been an abstraction, if they thought of it at all.

In the early 1800s, what had been an abstraction became a very unpleasant reality for Afrikaners. In 1795, the VOC went out of business and, primarily to prevent the Colony from falling into French hands, the British took it over from the Dutch. By 1815 Afrikaners found themselves subjects of the British Empire. With them, the new rulers brought ideas, ideologies, laws, and ways of doing things that many Boers did not like at all. It was bad enough that they had abolished the slave trade (in 1804) but the last straw, in the words of a 19th century writer, Anna Steenkamp, was

the disgraceful and unjust act of emancipating our slaves, yet it was not so much the emancipation that drove us away as their being placed on an equal footing with Christians, contrary to the laws of God and the natural differentiation of origins and faith. That it was unendurable for every decent Christian to bear down under such a burden was the reason we preferred to leave, so as to be better able to preserve the purity of our faith and doctrine.

So, in the 1830s, some 20 percent of the Cape’s Afrikaner population packed up their wagons, harnessed their oxen and horses, and headed into the interior of Africa in a migration known, somewhat unimaginatively, as the Great Trek. And, in their subsequent telling of the story (as Steenkamp’s words attest) they did so on principle. (Recent historiography explains the origins of the Trek somewhat differently, attributing it to a combination of causes ranging from a shortage of land to the desire to escape creditors.)

An apartheid-era version of South African history (From a book written by a French journalist in 1961; his view reflects the historic analysis of the South African government of the day.)

In my high school history classes, I was taught that the interior of South Africa was, at the time of the Great Trek, largely uninhabited, and so the procession of Voortrekkers (as these pioneers were known) was unhindered by any local resistance. This was the Afrikaner (and therefore official) version of history at the time, and it was patently false. There were Africans in the interior, many of who had been there for centuries. But they didn’t have guns, and their ability to resist the Boer advance was compromised by a wave of conflicts that wracked the interior at the time. But what is most important to us here is the Afrikaner telling of this history, and how it shaped the lives and worldview of those buried at Irene, and their families.

By the 1850s, the Boers had managed to set up their own independent republics in the interior of South Africa, and the British grudgingly recognized the existence of the independent Transvaal and Orange Free State Republics. If the Afrikaners wanted control of part of the Dark Continent, the British attitude seems to have been, let them have it. It wasn’t worth much anyway.

Except that it was. This became clear when, in 1867, diamonds were discovered at Kimberley, in the Orange Free State Republic. Kimberley, though, was not far from the border with the British Cape Colony, so the problem was easily rectified by the British annexation of the diamond fields. But the discovery of gold in the Transvaal in 1884 was a different story; the fact the world’s richest gold deposits were in an Afrikaner republic could not simply be dismissed as a cartographic error and remedied by annexation. It would take war.

And so it was that, after only fifty years of independence, the Boers in the interior found their sovereignty, culture, and way of life threatened by the British again. This time, the Boers resolved not to give up without a fight.

‘Die Tweede Vryheidsorlog’ (Second War of Freedom) aka the Anglo-Boer War

The War was supposed to be a cakewalk for the British. They had the most powerful military force in the world, after all, and the Boers didn’t even have an organized army. “I don’t think the Boers will have a chance,” wrote an Irish lieutenant to his parents in 1899, “Although I expect that there will be one or two stiff little shows here and there… I think they are awful idiots to fight, although we are of course very keen that they should.”

Boer militia, Second Anglo-Boer War (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

But the ragtag bunch of famers with rifles managed to hold off Her Majesty’s forces for two and a half years. The Boers did so by fighting a kind of war that infuriated and frustrated the British, preferring ambushes of British forces and nighttime attacks on strategic targets rather than conventional warfare (Guerrilla warfare, pioneered by the Boers, later became the strategy of choice for outgunned, outspent, and outmanned forces, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.)

I will let Cilliers du Preez take up the story here, standing in the late afternoon sun alongside a headstone at the Irene Cemetery.

The British were very dependent on infrastructure. Commands came from above; you don’t make decisions for yourself, you have to wait for commands from above… On the other side, the Boers had learned to survive in this area, and it was tough. My grandmother showed me a picture of a lion my grandfather shot near here.

The Boers had no infrastructure, no food supply chain. If you don’t kill the impala with your first shot, the rest will run away and you and your family have to go to sleep hungry. So the Boers were very good shots. They were also very good horse riders. The Boers were born in the saddle, the British weren’t really good with their horses…. You can see this disparity in the casualty figures for the war. There were about 20 000 British soldiers killed, and less than 4 000 Boers…

Du Preez pauses to glance disapprovingly at a teenager who has made use of the cemetery’s unlocked gate to enter with his skateboard, which he is riding along the smooth stone surface provided by squat mausoleum containing the remains of 35 Afrikaner infants who died in the camp. He continues:

The British were very frustrated with the war, because they couldn’t march up to the Boers and shoot at them. The Boers would hide behind bushes and shoot from behind rocks, and the British couldn’t grasp this kind of warfare. The British would break for tea, and the Boers would come storming along on their horses and shoot them! That’s not fair, you know. (He chuckles.)

The war dragged on and on, but the British made advances… Their main aim was Pretoria, because, the British thought, if you conquer London you conquer the whole British Empire, so if you conquer Pretoria you have the whole of the Boer republics. But this wasn’t the case in the minds of the Boers. The whole fight for Pretoria was a complete non-event. Why would I want to fight for a few buildings? We want to fight for our land. They were completely self-sufficient on the farms, the only reason they would go to the city was to buy exchange meet for sugar or tobacco or baptize their children.

So the British took Pretoria on 5 June 1900, and the British ordered flares for their victory ceremony and they wrote to the Boers asking them to come to sign their surrender. But the Boers said, “Moer met julle, (roughly, “Screw you”) we are going to continue fighting.” The first thing they did was blow up a railway bridge about 2 km from here.

After that, the British used the farm here for a base to guard the railway line. You see that little hill there? The Light Infantry of the Duke of Cornwall were positioned there. The fortress they used is still there, where they would look out for the Boers on their horses; you can see eight or nine km from there.

Du Preez pauses again, and leads us to five headstones on the side of the cemetery, each etched with an English name. “Let me tell you a funny story,” he says, and goes to relate the tale of an inept British horseman who died after getting his foot caught in a stirrup as he tried to dismount. He chuckles again as we walk across the memorial plaza, but becomes more somber as he leads us to a granite wall, hundreds of names carved onto it. He waits until all of us are assembled around him, and resumes his narrative in a somber tone.

For the last part of 1900, the war dragged on. In November 1901, Lord Roberts was recalled and handed over to Lord Kitchener. Kitchener decided he was going to end the war before Christmas, and he did everything in his power to destroy the Boers. The easiest way to do this was to go to the farms. The men were out fighting, and only the women and children left behind on the farms. The British would go to the farms, burn everything down, kill their horses, their cattle, their dogs, their cats, everything. The women and children were basically sent to concentration camps, and here in Irene was one of them. Because of the British relied so much on the railways, every one of these camps was on the railway line…

This area is Highveld, it’s quite high, and it gets cold here. This morning it was -1 degree [Celsius.] Here more than 1,000 children died. In Kroonstad, more than 2000 children died. There wasn’t any planning, the people were kept in tents. This is pretty much what the tents look like.

The Irene Camp, c.1901

We are now standing in front of a notice board near the cemetery entrance, and du Preez is pointing to an old black and white photograph (see above).

Usually people were given five minutes to pack up their belongings, but these people (he points at another photograph) were lucky, they could pack up their wagon. Most people arrived here with just the stuff they could carry, and it wasn’t much. Most of the farm burnings happened in the summer, so when the people got to the camps they thought, well, its going to be another few months only. They weren’t prepared for the winter…

Where we are standing now is right in the middle of Camp No. 1. The camp extended for about 1 km to the south, to where the station is (he points), and a km to the north. It was just over a km wide, so it was quite a large camp.

There was one doctor. On a good day there were about 500 children sick, so it was impossible to get an appointment with the doctor. Disease was so widespread that the doctor wouldn’t see a child who could still walk or get up. He would only see the ones who were just about to die. The malnutrition and starvation were really, really bad. The children looked like skeletons. The food that was supplied to them was way, way under what you need to survive. A lot of times the food wouldn’t arrive, and so everyone in the camp would go for three or four days without food. That would severely affect especially children who would go into an anorexic state. You can’t get them to eat again. They would pretty much die from hunger.

A lot of children…they started losing their hair, so they didn’t have any hair left. Some of them even had their nails fall out.”

“It was really, really bad, it’s actually hard to imagine. If you read through diary of Henrietta Armstrong you can see. It’s just touching the stories that happened here. It’s really, really sad to see what happened here.

“There wasn’t even enough time to dig graves for those who died. So they would dig a grave and bury two or three of them together and they would bury them almost naked because the blanket or the clothes could still be used to save the life of another child. So the conditions in the camp were really, really, really bad.”

Lizzie van Zyl, an inmate of the Bloemfontein concentration camp. Emily Hobhouse visited this camp in 1901. (Source: Wikipedia Commons.)

Du Preez leads us across to a display near the cemetery gate, and gestures toward a notice board. On it are 22 pages each page neatly divided into columns, and filled in small type, in Afrikaans (download pdf of the list, in Afrikaans).

  1. Ahlers, Dorothea Susanna… Rustenburg … 17.05.1901… 2 years, 6 months…Cancer
  2. Ahlers, Jacobus…Dullstroom… 18.08.1901… 4 years… Pneumonia
  3. Alberts, Louis J… Pietersburg.. 62 yeas… Pneumonia
  4. Albert, Sarel Francois… Hartebeesfontein… 28.05.1901 … 2 months … Illness
  5. Annandale, C.F… (no home town) 28.06.1901… 3 years, 6 months… Pneumonia and measles

The list goes on and on, all the way to number 1238, Hester Maria Zietsman, aged 13, of the farm Sterkfontein near Krugersdorp, who died of unknown causes.

Memorial at Irene. The heading reads “List of children – 15 years of age and under – who died at the irene Concentration Camp during the 1899 – 1902 War and are buried in the Irene Memorial Garden.”

Conditions at Irene began to improve after 1901, largely as a result of a campaign waged by an intrepid British woman, Emily Hobhouse. A member of the Liberal Party, Hobhouse was a campaigner for universal suffrage at home, and an ardent opponent of the Anglo-BoerWar. After getting word of the concentration camps, she founded the Relief Fund for South African Women and Children, and set sail for South Africa to investigate conditions for herself. There she cajoled her way into visiting several concentration camps around the Orange Free State and the Cape Colony (she wasn’t allowed to visit Irene or any of the other camps in the Transvaal.) She chronicled in detail the conditions she found, and was scathing in her criticism of the government and ‘crass male ignorance, helplessness and muddling.’

Hobhouse’s words did not endear her to the British Government or to the military authorities, and when she arrived South Africa for a second time in late 1901 she was instantly deported. Undaunted, she retired to the south of France where she wrote a long and painstakingly documented book on conditions in the concentration camps, The Brunt of the War and Where it Fell.

It is worth noting that Emily Hobhouse was by no means a single-issue campaigner. In addition to her work on the concentration camps, she fought for female suffrage, and was a committed opponent of war in general. In the introduction to her book she wrote

To the plain man and woman, outside the political and military worlds, it seems as though in war an arbitrary line is drawn, one side of which is counted barbarism, the other civilization. May it not be that, in reality, all war is barbarous, varying only in degree? … None of us can claim to be wholly civilized till we have drawn the line above war itself and established universal arbitration in place of universal armaments.”

Hobhouse is accorded the status of heroine in the Afrikaner history, in a manner not dissimilar to that in which the“Righteous Gentiles” of the Nazi Holocaust are remembered. She was honored at the Vrouemonument (Women’s Monument) in Bloemfontein, and her ashes were interred there in 1926. In a further honor she would certainly not have appreciated, the apartheid government named the South African Navy’s first submarine after her. To add insult to injury, in 1994 the first democratically elected government of South Africa renamed the vessel SAS Umkontho. Umkontho is the Zulu word for spear.

Emily Hobhouse in 1902 (Photo: Wikipedia Commons.)

Sadly, Emily Hobhouse is not widely remembered today, and perhaps she owes her relative obscurity to the fact that history associates her name most closely with those whose cause she is best remembered for championing, the Afrikaners.

The spotlight Hobhouse shone on British practices in the War garnered great sympathy for the Boers (and infamy for the British government) around the world. A New York congressman even went to far as to propose that the Secretary of State “invite the whole Boer population to settle on the public lands of the United States,” and the governors of nine states were quick to offer land for this purpose. More significantly, the British came chastened to the table when the treaty ending the war was signed. Although the Boers had been defeated, the British agreed to pay damages to them, and undertook to grant independence, “after a suitable time,” to the Union of South Africa.

At the outset of hostilities in 1899, the British Governor-General, Lord Alfred Milner, gave two reasons for going to War. The first was to ‘secure for the Natives… protection against oppression and wrong;” the second was to unite the South African territories. As the war ended, it was clear that these two objectives were incompatible: one or the other had to be sacrificed. The dilemma wasn’t difficult to resolve. As Milner succinctly put it, ‘You only have to sacrifice the nigger absolutely, and the game is easy.’ And so it came to pass that the treaty that ended the war included a provision that the question of whether to give blacks a vote would be left to the (white) government of an independent South Africa to decide. Eight years later, in 1910, the independent Union of South Africa, came into being, under a government consisting of white South Africans, of both English and Afrikaans ancestry, only.

Nationalism and Apartheid: The Legacy of the War

It is probably not too much of a stretch to argue that the philosophy of apartheid (though not of white supremacy) was conceived in wake of the Anglo-Boer War. As many Afrikaners came to see it, the War marked the second time their freedom had been seized from them by the British. Only this time there could be no Great Trek. The only way to regain their freedom, and to keep it, was to gain exclusive political power in South Africa and to ensure that it could never be taken from them; a coalition with the English was not enough. This was the essence of Afrikaner nationalism. Afrikaner nationalism, in turn, is the movement that gave birth and a name to apartheid.

But apartheid was not immaculately conceived nor was it without a long lineage. We can trace its roots to the racial attitudes so pithily enunciated by Jan van Riebeeck and the the theology expounded by people like Anna Swanepoel. Its ancestry included those who had seen racial difference as a resource to be exploited, including slave traders, white farmers, and the VOC. And, present at apartheid’s conception as the War ended was industrial – and particularly mining – capital.

Alexandra Township, Johannesburg, in the 1920s. The township was established as a segregated residential area on the outskirts of the city, long before the word apartheid was coined.

If I allow myself a digression into the complex origins of apartheid, I may never return to the theme of this piece. Suffice it to say that, in the four decades or so after the end of the Anglo-Boer War – but before Afrikaner nationalists came to power – most of the elements of what later came to be called apartheid were put in place. The migrant labor system was devised by the (mainly English-owned) mining industry as a means of controlling both the conduct and the cost of its unskilled (black) labor force. The fundamental tenets of urban racial segregation were expounded by a Colonial government commission whose chairman, Sir Godfrey Lagden, as well as a majority of its members were English. In 1913, the predominantly English Unionist Party adopted a platform replete with segregationist provisions (It promised, inter alia, to “use every reasonable, humane and legal means…to prevent miscgenenation between White and Native or Coloured persons….to prevent the common use by White and Native or Coloured persons of public conveyances, lodgings, eating-houses, places of amusement, schools.”) The Unionists, led by Sir Leander Starr Jameson, were later subsumed into South Africa’s governing United Party.

While this was all going on, Afrikaner nationalists were hard at work organizing and planning their comeback. They created cultural organizations, labor unions, and even a secret society dedicated to advancing Afrikaners and Afrikaner nationalist ideology, in everything from business to the church and the press. Their ultimate goal, though, was the attainment of political power. This came in 1948 when, thanks to a quirk in South Africa’s electoral system that gave disproportionate representation to rural (and therefore predominantly Afrikaans) voters, the overwhelmingly Afrikaner National Party was elected as the government of South Africa.

National Party election publication, 1948

During the 1948 election campaign, the National Party coined a new word to describe their party’s philosophy on matters of race. The word was apartheid (literally ‘separateness’) which, an election pamphlet explained, was all about ‘Separation on the Christian Principles of Justice and Reasonableness.’ There was, of course, nothing Christian, just, or reasonable about apartheid, and all but the most blinkered Nationalists must have known this. Apartheid was about power, and in particular it was about making sure that Afrikaners did not again lose power in what they saw as their own land. In the nineteenth century, as the Great Trek and the Anglo Boer War showed, the greatest threat to Afrikaner independence came from the British. In the twentieth century, however, it came from black South Africans. So it was that black South Africans paid the price for the British defeat of the Afrikaners, and for the cruel injustice of the concentration camps.

Irene 2011

In the northwest corner of the Irene Concentration Camp Cemetery is a 40 foot metal cargo container, a sturdy padlock hanging from its doors. At the end of our tour, du Preez unlocks the container and opens its doors. Inside, it is lined with wooden shelves, and on each shelf is a stack of small pieces of slate. He picks up one of them, carries it out into the late afternoon sunlight, and holds it up reverentially.

The piece of slate – like the hundreds more than line the shelves in the cargo container – is a makeshift headstone, words chiseled onto it with a nail by a loving parent whose child has succumbed to the harsh conditions of the Irene camp.  In Dutch are the words “Here lies Daniel Rudolf vd Westhuizen. Born December 1899. Died 24 May 1900. Parents D.R. and S.E. vd Westhuizen.”

Daniel is one of  22 074 children under sixteen who died in the concentration camps of the Anglo-Boer War. Emily Hobhouse argued powerfully for their legacy:

Their innocent histories ought to become fully known and widely understood, and so implant a hatred of war and a shrinking from its horrors, which shall issue in a ripened determination amongst kingdoms of the world to settle future differences by methods more worthy of civilized men.

Cillier du Preez clamps the padlock onto the cemetery gate, perhaps to keep out for another night those who would steal a piece of metal railing for resale or a granite headstone for reuse. As we leave the cemetery I fear that Emily Hobhouse’s words have little hope of being realized. Little Daniel may, I fear, be forgotten. He paid once, with his life, for a conflict in which he was entirely innocent. Today he is paying again. His memory is the price exacted by history for the actions those of his contemporaries lucky enough to survive the camps, and perpetrate their own injustice on their black countrymen.

History is not very good at remembering injustices against those who themselves perpetuated injustice. Little Daniel, though, brought no harm to anyone, and it would be both tragic and unjust if he and those like him were to be forgotten.


Although the history of white concentration camps have been moved to the fringes of South African history, the black camps seem to almost to have been pushed into oblivion. Emily Hobhouse, in a brief final chapter in her book, notes the existence of ‘Native camps’ although she was unable to visit them ‘from lack of time and strength.’  I have not written about them here because they did not play a part in the evolution of apartheid, the central theme of this piece.  This in no way obviates the human tragedy they represent: more than 14,000 people died in the ‘Native camps,’ mainly due to medical neglect, exposure, infectious diseases and malnutrition. 81 percent of those who died were children.


I drew on a number of sources in writing this blog entry. I have provided links to some online sources in the body of the text. Other sources include:
Boer Concentration Camp Project. Undated. ‘Irene’. Online.
Erfenisvereniging van Centurion. undated. Irene Concentration Camp Cemetery and Garden of Remembrance. Undated (download pdf)
Grundlingh, Albert. 1999. ‘The Bitter Legacy of the Boer War.’ History Today. Vol. 49 Issue 11, 21-26.
Grundlingh, Albert. undated. The National Women’s Monument: the Making and Mutation of Meaning in Afrikaner Memory of the South African War. (Online)
Packenham, Thomas, 1998. Illustrated History of the Boer War.

The map ‘The Movement of the Rces into the Interior of South Africa’ is from Paul Giniewski’s The Two Faces of Apartheid,’ published in French in 1961 and in English translation by Henry Regenery Company, Chicago in 1965.

My sincere thanks to Cilliers du Preez for taking the time to show my students and me around the cemetery, sharing his considerable knowledge with us, answering my questions by e-mail after our visit, and for providing me with a copy of his group’s brochure and a list of the names of those who died at Irene (down pdf.)


  1. Mohammad September 12, 2011
  2. Bonita September 25, 2011
  3. net n boer December 7, 2011
  4. Donald Rallis February 7, 2012
  5. Victoria M March 19, 2013
  6. Donald Rallis March 20, 2013
  7. Michelle C. March 22, 2013
  8. Svyatoslav Petrov (Geog 101. Sec 1) March 31, 2013
  9. Svyatoslav Petrov (Geog 101. Sec 1) March 31, 2013
  10. Ado February 16, 2015
  11. Donald Rallis March 2, 2015

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