Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.”
Today South Africa marks the launch of the 2015 Reconciliation Month under the theme, “Bridging the Divide: Building a Common South African Nationhood towards a national developmental state.”
The theme reminds us that we must strengthen relations with fellow South Africans and those who reside in the country, building a future where we all live together in harmony.
Furthermore, Reconciliation Month directs us to embrace the common ties that binds us as human beings, rather than focus on that which divides us. This theme enjoins citizens to unite in a sense of belonging and pride.
The theme seeks to open the doors for dialogue and conversation and building bridges between us as we celebrate our common nationhood as those who reside under the same sun, on the same soil, the same continent and inhabit the same universe.
Reconciliation Month says that we ought to be walking this common road hand in hand conscious of our past and confident of our future, no longer at the mercy of systems that divided us into black and white and men and women and saw no measure of equality between us.
Reconciliation Month reminds us that in 1994 with the first democratic elections, we set South Africa on the pathway towards a United, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous reality characterized by nation-building and social cohesion and a better life for all.
Today we are gathered here in Bloemfontein to ensure that we continue to recognize the injustices of the past and that we honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land.
The Garden of remembrance symbolizes the efforts of South African to correct the wrongs of the past by including the names of those South Africans who were excluded in the past from the wall of remembrance.
We are here to give due recognition, as part of our national efforts to transform the heritage landscape of our country to reflect the demographics of our society.
We will need to consider the change of the name of the Museum to South African War Museum as part of the transformation of our heritage, also in recognition of the fact that, that war affected every South African.
Today we recognize those whom apartheid history had chosen to obliterate from the pages of the South African story. It had wanted us to forget about their contribution.
On the global stage we have started the process of correcting the wrongs committed by apartheid. In the battle of Deville Woods many South Africans lost their lives both black and white. The apartheid government only recognized the white South Africans and could not be buried in the same cemetery with their fellow black combatants. We have since corrected this. Next year we will be celebrating the centenary of that battle.
The truths of a nation are its realities. For us, even the truths of the realities of the past must be told, as these shape the present and the future.
Without us being able to grasp history and its facts and figures at our fingertips, we cannot fully grasp ourselves and understand the present in its totality. Because the past is never only the past.
We can only overcome and transform that which we know and not that which we do not know or that which is hidden from view. This is why it is important that the full truths of our history are told.
Ben Okri said that:
“A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves. Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose it’s moorings or orientation… Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger.”
We are here at the War Museum to tell the South African story of the South African war, a war which for a very long time had been known as the Anglo-Boer War and labeled as a “White man’s war”.
Recent studies in the last 30 years by revisionist historians have brought other historical facts to light, leading to the war being seen in a very different way.
The traditional interpretation has been to see the war as that between Britsh and Afrikaners characterized by the deaths of thousands of soldiers on both sides, the death of thousands of women and children in concentrations camps and the adoption of a scorched earth policy on the part of the British who brutally torched Afrikaners and black owned farms, animals and land.
However the full horror of this war on the lives of everyone who resided in the country at that time had not been told.
We know now that the San people played a role in the war. Black South Africans played their part as combatants in the war, as auxiliaries, as workers and domestic workers. There were also approximately 100 000 black people in British uniform and others were used as scouts on both sides of the war. Indians in South Africa formed the Natal Indian Volunteer Ambulance Corps (stretcher bearers) by Mahatma Gandhi to assist the British cause. Other luminaries, like Sol T Plaatje who later became the first Secretary General of the ANC, worked as an administrator in what was then called Mafeking and is present-day Mahikeng.
With the outbreak of the South African War and the commencement of guerilla warfare by the two republics, the British military strategy began to be that of laying waste the entire two republics.
Civilians – black and white South African women and children – as well as some elderly men, were herded from their homes and carted off to concentration camps. This was done for fear of them supporting the Republican freedom struggle against the British Empire by means of information and supplying foodstuffs.
The hardship endured by the ‘Republican’ forces was also applied to rural black South Africans in the two republics of what was then called the Free State and the Transvaal. Property such as stock, lands, crops and infrastructure was totally destroyed, including 40 towns and more than 30 000 farms.
A labour force was needed by the mighty British Empire to assist in their war effort, and for this concentration camps for rural black South Africans were established all along the railway line which transported vast amounts of war material to the war zones in the two republics.
Concentrations camps had first been used to quell resistance in Cuba by the Spanish colonists in 1895.
As in the Cuban case, in South Africa, the overall neglect, starvation and diseases resulted in a very high death rate of civilians.
A few years later Imperial Germany repeated the same exercise in the colony of what was then called German South West Africa (Namibia) during the Herero Wars of 1904 – 1907. Women and children were incarcerated in the Shark Island concentration camp where many of them died.
Much later the Nazis used the concentration camp system during the Second World War of 1939 – 1945 against the Jewish community in Germany and the occupied territories.
As Stowell Kessler writes in his book, The Black Concentration Camps of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902:
“The South African War has sometimes been called ‘The last gentlemen’s war.’ Yet when the smoke cleared from the battlefields, from the burnt out farms and kraals, and all the soldiers had gone home, the death toll revealed that almost twice as many women and children had died in the South African War as the number of soldiers who died on the battlefield. Black and white mothers, and especially their children, died like flies in the concentration camps established by the British Army during the South African War.”
In 114 concentration camps, there were 65 camps for black people and 49 for white people and approximately 285 089 people, mainly women and children were forced into these camps with 140 154 in the white camps and 144 944 interned in black camps.
In these camps, revisionist historians tell us that approximately 51 927 people died, with 27 927 in the white camps and 24 000 in camps for black South Africans. Many of these were children.
This book we are launching today contributes to our understanding of the past by telling a fuller and richer story of the war and provides a fuller picture of the participation of all who lived in South Africa during that time.
Today is also significant because through the unveiling of the plaque listing the names of white and black South Africans who died in concentration camps, we are giving back the dignity to these people, restoring respect and acknowledging their suffering.
Also during the same month of reconciliation, world humanity will also be observing the second anniversary of Madiba’s passing, reminding us to honour the late former President Nelson Mandela’s unwavering commitment to justice, equality, non-racialism, nation building, social cohesion, selflessness and service to humanity.
As a champion of change, the first President of a free South African was instrumental in reconciliation and encouraging South Africans to become active citizens that work together to develop a cohesive society.
Guided by our Constitution, we must work towards eradicating the divisions and injustices of the past and we must do more to build an inclusive society and economic freedom in our lifetime.
We must push for a recognition of shared symbols and values; and promote a countrywide conscious sense of being proudly South African.