Searching for Tshwane
It is not a smooth expedition trying to trace down the footsteps of Chief Tshwane, after whom the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality is named. And if you’re particularly interested in unearthing physical evidence of the chief’s rein in what is now South Africa’s capital city, you’re guaranteed one thing: futility.
Little is recorded of the man, and even the city’s tourism authorities refer to him only in passing. The City of Tshwane’s tourism office say in leaflets handed out to tourists that Chief Tshwane was the son of Chief Mushi, who moved from Zululand and settled in the area before the arrival in the 1830s of the Voortrekkers.
Little else is said of the chief, whose name has now been eternalised in history, given to the capital city of the biggest economy on African soil – a capital city that carries immense political and historic weight not only in Africa, but the world, housing the second-largest number of foreign diplomatic missions after Washington, DC.
So my three-day mission to find physical evidence of Chief Tshwane eventually went off course, leading me to two important figures in the history of South Africa: President Paul Kruger and Prime Minister Jan Smuts. The houses of these two important South African statesmen still stand in their original form and have been turned into museums.
My first stop is at Paul Kruger House along Church Street, half a kilometre or so west of Church Square in Pretoria. From the outside, without the posters and the distinctly white paint, the house could be any other building. But wait until you explore the house inside, you’d be fascinated – or, in my case, even get frightened.
President Kruger’s belief in Afrikaner nationalism and his determination for self-governance made him deeply suspicious of “outsiders” – particularly the English – and/or any other “outside” influence. He is even said to have suspected that the woman depicted at the roof of the Old Raadsaal building (the seat of government during his time, situated at Church Square) was Queen Victoria of England.
It was only after assurances that the figure depicted the Greek goddess Athena and after she was named “Die Beeld Van Vryheid” (The Statue of Freedom) that President Kruger and fellow Afrikaner diehards accepted the statue’s presence at the roof of the seat of their government. If it were indeed Queen Victoria in the depiction, President Kruger’s reaction would have been predictable: “Bring her down,” he would have bawled in Afrikaans.
Throughout his tenure as President, Kruger established strong relations with many countries across the world. During the Anglo-Boer War, messages of support, often accompanied by an assortment of tokens of honour, poured in from governments, organizations and individuals from all over the world, including Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, the United States, Australia, France and other countries.
The Russians sent a token of sympathy (a one-and-half metre tall depiction of a mountain with soldiers on horsebacks) to President Kruger in the year 1900, just in time before Lord Roberts of England and his forces, under the command of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, advanced on the ZAR’s capital.
The story of President Kruger’s overthrow is recited grudgingly by Afrikaner historians, and when I asked one old woman at Prime Minister Jan Smuts’ house if this occasion signified a coup, the answer was a straight no. “Coup is not the word,” she said. “It wasn’t a coup. The government was intact even in President Kruger’s absence.” And, to a certain degree, the Boers, never the type to admit defeat, were still indeed in charge.
When British forces hoisted the Union Jack at the Old Raadsaal on 05 June 1900 to officially mark the overthrow of President Kruger’s rule (and, with it, the end of Afrikaner political dominance and purity), the old man was on his way out of the country through Mozambique in a luxurious railway carriage designed specifically for him by the French.
Before crossing the border at Komatipoort into Mozambique on 11 September 1900 to board a ship destined for Marsailles in France, President Kruger is said to have shed tears in front of his most trusted aides, in particular General Louis Botha. This must have been a deeply emotional moment for the Boer hero, compounded by the fact that he left home an ailing wife, Gezina Suzanna du Plessis, with whom he had 16 children.
Fascinated and impressed
As I leave the museum with mixed feelings (sad that the story of the man is not being told to a wider audience, but sadder that my own people, Chief Tshwane amongst them, were not only defeated but totally obliterated as well, and sadder still that no one seems to care), I glance at the visitors’ book to see what others who came before me had to say about the museum and the man it is dedicated to.
The overwhelming response from visitors, from far and near, is that they were fascinated and very impressed. They write of their experience of the museum: “Very interesting,” “mooi,” “pragtig”, “uitstekend”. But not everybody leaves congratulatory notes. “Ek hoor spoke (I hear ghosts)”, says one.
The Kruger ghost tale is also briefly narrated in journalist GH Wilson’s memoir, available at the house of Jan Smuts – now also a museum, situated at the suburb of Irene in Pretoria. When he visited The Big House in Middelburg, which belonged to British officers, Wilson claims to have woken up one morning to see “a benign old gentleman, rather like President Kruger in appearance.” When he stretched his hand to touch him, Wilson says the man disappeared.
Walking through the farm where General Smuts’ house remains, you’d be forgiven for overlooking it. I first walked past the house before seeking directions from a woman standing at its door. “This is the house; welcome,” she said, pointing to the big tin house under the shades of plantation trees.
From the outside, the house looks like a temporary structure, let alone an historic home of what should be one of South Africa’s most illustrious families.
Having served as South Africa’s Prime Minister twice (1919 – 1924 and 1939 – 1948), General Jan Smuts remains, to this day, a vital historical figure in the life of South Africa and in global politics.
Smuts, a Cambridge scholar, was appointed Attorney-General by President Kruger at the age of 28. He became a founder member of the League of Nations, which later developed into the United Nations. The wooden table from which he single-handedly drafted the constitution of the Union of South Africa remains at his house.
Apart from being an accomplished scholar, Smuts was also a brave military leader whose role in President Kruger’s government directly precipitated the Anglo-Boer War. The war broke out in 1899 after the British failed to respond satisfactorily to an ultimatum, written by Smuts as the Attorney-General of the ZAR, demanding the withdrawal of British troops from the Cape and Natal colonies.
The ultimatum proposed “friendly arbitration” to the dispute over territories, but Her Majesty’s government ignored it, and so the war ensued. General Smuts’ military regalia is still available at the house, including pictures of him greeting Boer troops in the Vry Staad (the Free State).
So highly regarded within military ranks was General Smith’s family that his wife, Mrs. JC Smuts (fondly referred to by Afrikaners as the “Ouma of Our People”) got a song dedicated to her by the soldiers. The military used the song in their recruitment drive, and one line out of its lyrics declares: “Now’s the time to right the wrongs (meaning British occupation and colonialism).”
As I left General Smuts’ house, now thoroughly enticed by Afrikaner history, somehow I didn’t regret abandoning my search for Chief Tshwane.
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