The South African War and Union

The South African War 1899-1902

The flag of the Boer Republic of the Orange Free State

On 9 October 1899 the SAR issued an ultimatum to Britain and two days later, on 11 October the war was officially declared between Britain and the Boers. The British forces thought that the war would be won easily, but they were wrong. The two Boer republics that were involved in the conflict were the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

The first phase of the war was one of the set-piece battles, but from July 1900 onwards the Boers changed tactics and they conducted a very efficient guerrilla war that kept nearly 500 000 British troops occupied until 1902. The Boers were conquered in the end, but a great deal of property and lives were lost on both sides. It was the bloodiest, longest and most expensive war Britain engaged in between 1815 and 1915. It cost more than 200 million pounds and more than 22 000 men were lost to Britain. The Boers lost over 34 000 people. More than 15 000 black people were killed.

The British government was embarrassed by the army's initial lack of success against what they called a backward, incompetent and rural enemy. They underestimated the Boers who only had 27 000 men in their commandos. During the early stages of the war. Britain suffered a number of significant defeats.

The Boer offensive October 1899 – November 1899

The first battle took place at Talana, near Dundee in northern Natal on 29 October 1899. The battle was indecisive because both generals divided their forces. The outcome of the battle was not clear. On 30 October 1899 the second battle took place at Elandslaagte, and here the British army won. Other battles took place on the same day at Modderspruit and Nicholson’s Nek and here the Boers won. British forces went on the defensive and were besieged in Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking.

This war was much longer than the First Anglo-Boer War and more battles took place. During “Black Week” in December 1899 the British army lost many men. At this stage British army was divided into 3 main groups under General Sir Redvers Buller, who was the British commander-in-chief in South Africa at the beginning of the war, Lieutenant-General Lord Methuen and Lieutenant-General W F Gatacre, who controlled forces in the Cape Colony. The battles during "Black week" were at Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso. Buller suffered a humiliating loss and was replaced by Major-General Lord Kitchener on 16 December 1899, although he remained in charge in Natal. Battles at Spionkop on 24 January 1900 and Vaalkrans on 7 February 1900 were also Boer victories.

The British Offensive

After “Black Week” the British army sent for reinforcements from Britain and on 10 January 1900 the new soldiers arrived in Cape Town with Major-General Lord Kitchener and Lord Roberts. After the arrival of the extra men the British army quickly moved inland, defeating the Boers as they travelled.

The sieges in Kimberley ended on 15 February 1900, and the Ladysmith followed less than a fortnight later.

On 13 March 1900 the British army occupied Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State and on 1 June 1900 they took Johannesburg. They then marched into on Pretoria four days later and occupied the town on 5 June 1900. After Bloemfontein and Pretoria had fallen to Britain, as many as 13 900 Boers laid down their arms because they were so demoralized. Some felt it was hopeless to continue the war, while other Boers refused to surrender choosing to pursue guerilla war.

In March 1901 Lord Kitchener, the commander of the British forces, decided cut off the supply of food to the Boers. They were being supported by the people on the farms so he initiated the “scorched earth” policy. About 30 000 Boer farmhouses and more than 40 towns were destroyed. He also had animals like horses, cattle and sheep, killed. Children, women and black people were put in concentration camps.

Towards the end of the war there were more than 40 camps housing 116 000 white women and children, with another 60 camps housing 115 000 black people. These camps were overcrowded, the captives underfed and the conditions poor. There were limited medical supplies and staff and diseases like measles, whooping cough, typhoid fever, diphtheria and dysentery resulted in 1 in every 5 children dying. 26 370 white women and children died in the concentration camps, 81% of the casualties were children. It is estimated that more than 15 000 black people also died in the separate black concentration camps.

The plight of women, children and the edelry in the White Anglo-Boer concentration campsThe plight of women, children and the edelry in the Black Anglo-Boer concentration camps

Black involvement in the war

The South African War of 1899-1902 was essentially a “White Man’s” war, fought to determine which white authority had real power in South Africa but other populations groups like the Zulu, Xhosa, Swazis and Basotho and Sotho’s were also involved in the war. Although there was an unwritten agreement between the Boers and the British that Blacks would not be armed in the war, neither side adhered to this agreement.

It should be mentioned that the South African war was fought in a region where four fifths of the population was Black and that the conflict was over land that belonged to the various African tribes

Most politically conscious Blacks, Coloureds and Indian groups in South Africa believed that the defeat of the Boers would mean more political, educational and commercial opportunities would be afforded to them. They hoped that the Cape franchise would be extended throughout South Africa. The Indian community was encouraged by MK Gandhi to show loyalty to Britain if they wished to achieve their freedom. Thus, the Ambulance Corps was formed in Natal, was and became active on the British side during the early months of the war... read more

Direct Aftermath of the War

The Second Anglo-Boer War resulted in heavy loss of life for both the Boers and the British. The Boers had lost the war and peace negotiations begun in March 1902. On 11 April 1902 preliminary meetings among Boer representatives began in Klerksdorp, as well as with Lord Kitchener in Pretoria. Milner tried to prevent the talks because he felt that the Boers should surrender completely.

15 May 1902 saw the meeting of 30 representatives from each side meet at Vereeniging and by 31 May 1902 the peace agreement was official. The document was signed in Pretoria at Melrose House.

The Treaty of Vereeniging

Some Boers felt that it was worthwhile to continue fighting, but they didn't have enough resources to do so. The Transvaal and Orange Free State leaders also agreed not to divide the two former republics.

The Peace Treaty of Vereeniging included the following points:

  • Uitlanders could return to the Transvaal.
  • The Boers had to lay down their weapons.
  • Dutch would still be taught in schools and used in courts.
  • A civil government would replace the military administration.
  • Self-government would be promoted.
  • Voting rights for black people would only be discussed once the two new colonies could govern themselves.
  • Financial help would be provided for poor citizens.
  • The two new colonies? debts would be paid.

39 000 Uitlanders returned to the Transvaal and the mines opened again. This also meant that the two new British colonies could generate their own income and become financially independent.

We have scanned in a copy of the original 'Peace Treaty of Vereeniging'