The state of war

2010-08-18 00:00

WHETHER the reader is looking for an introduction to, or seeking new interpretations of, the Anglo-Boer War, this book has much to offer. Bill Nasson’s writing is highly accessible with novel turns of phrase, droll comments and the occasional, jarring descent into slang. But it’s surprising that the publisher Tafelberg maps a mountain range called the Drakensburg.

Nasson explains the war’s origins through Britain’s global imperial ambitions. It was the first war of the industrial age, yet was largely fought and won in rural surroundings. This was barely a century ago, but in planning their pre-emptive strike, the Boers had to consider the quality of pasture. The British campaign was initially fought with a chronic lack of accurate maps and local information. Communication on both sides often relied on the heliograph, comical in its lack of security.

The question of whether the war was won by the British or lost by the Boers is wisely left open by the author. Had the Boers taken advantage of initial British blunders and lethargic­ amateurism, and not committed themselves to the farcical sieges of Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking­, it is easy to see, that with luck, they could have preserved their sovereignty.

Instead, although Pretoria fell in June 1900, a second war of opportunistic guerrilla strikes and scorched-earth reprisals wrecked much of South Africa and set up a virtual civil war among Transvalers and Free Staters. Nasson pays attention to Lord Kitchener’s peace initiatives and presents a sober analysis of the concentration camps. He points out that more British soldiers died of disease than from bullets and ordnance.

This was a European war fought in Africa, in which Africans­ were both short and long-term losers. Nasson provides a cautionary analysis of the war’s victimology and the poisonous nationalism it subsequently­ served. Even after liberation it was used to portray the Afrikaner and African­ populations­ as equal victims of imperialism, against all evidence.

In conclusion, Nasson quotes A. J. P. Taylor, who pointed out that victory went to the worst elements on each side — the mining houses and narrow Afrikaner nationalists. But for all that, it was this war that laid the foundations of the South African state.

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