The war for south africa, the anglo-boer war, 1899-1902 Essay


agrarian conflict with a distinctly industrial radiation” (p. 17). This is a point

worth contemplating for the tension between the old and the new permeated

the clash throughout, both within and without republican society, from the

contrast between the military methods of the older patriarchs and the more

ruthless younger commanders like Botha and Smuts to combat, at once, a

“traditional countryside war of movement” and one which was dependent


New Contree, No. 60 (November 2010)

on the railway, electronic communication, aerial observation and modern

firearms. In other respects, too, this was a “war of modernity” (p. 28) with

echoes of the suffering and destruction of the great industrial campaigns of

the twentieth century. As in the Algerian case, the notorious concentration

camps were regarded by the imperialists as a means of educating country

people whose way of life seemed worse than antiquated, actively dangerous in

their flouting of “modern” public health practices.

One of the difficulties in dealing with this war is that the first period, with

its set battles, is much easier to describe than the elusive guerrilla war. Most

historians, like Pakenham, tend to concentrate on the first year but Nasson

has dealt a little more even-handedly with the two parts. He has not, however",

devoted much attention to the Cape invasions and such folk heroes as Gideon

Scheepers receive no mention. The strength of this book, then, lies less in the

military history than in Nasson’s understanding of the broader context.

Nasson is, for instance, alert to the gendered aspects although he deals with

it lightly. Wartime attitudes, he points out, were often shaped by gender (p.

281). Thus, at the end, when the land was devastated and families incarcerated",

what remained to the men was “to be men”; those who did not stay in the

fight were not fully men (p. 246). Women like Hendrina Joubert and Hester

Cronjé were doing more than carrying domesticity to the front. They were

identifying actively with the republican war effort (p. 111). As one would

expect from a historian who has dealt extensively with the participation of

blacks, their part is treated with judicious intelligence. His discussion of the

role of the agterryers, for instance, gives full weight to their essential role in the

field, when “war is a form of work” (p. 86).

Much of the book contemplates the meaning of the war in a modern South

Africa in which Afrikaners have lost the political independence for which

they had been fighting. Nasson concludes that the war remains of historical

significance. The last two chapters, particularly, are devoted to a consideration

of the impact of the conflict since 1902, taking into account many of the

recent debates. Nasson is less concerned with the role of the war in the making

of Afrikaner nationalism than with its role in the making of the new South

Africa. He is well aware of African, and Afrikaner, ambivalence about the

meaning of the war, noting the tendency of Afrikaner writers like Antje Krog

to see the war as a “hinge” of national reconciliation. He is sceptical, however",

that its peace was a lost opportunity, agreeing with the argument that the

alternative outcome of counterfactual history is likely to be the same as the


Book review

one that took place (p. 299). And he gives short shrift to the suggestion that

blacks were merely common victims of suffering. They were also active agents",

collaborating with the British, serving the Boers and acting independently;

commemoration has tended to hide this from full recognition, he suggests.

References are provided both in the form of footnotes and in an annotated

select bibliography in which Nasson’s shrewd comments are a delight. Thus

Tabitha Jackson’s The White Man’s War offers a rounded view “which may be

too round” (p. 340). Above all, Nasson is known for his distinctive style and

this book is a pleasure to read, with its ironic

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