The South African War

To this day the reasons for this conflict remain the source of much emotive debate (read more). Regardless of who provoked the war, conflict in southern Africa would have been inevitable before the mining industry could become a more important driving force in the regional economy. Although an initial attempt was made by some mine owners and the ZAR government to find common working ground, when this failed almost all of the population of Johannesburg packed their goods and left, many going no further that Cape Town and Durban to await developments.

At the onset of hostilities in October 1899 three separate migrations took place out of Johannesburg. These had important repercussions upon the later history and development of the town. The first was that of the Uitlander community, which moved to the Cape and Natal and, in some cases, did not return after the cessation of hostilities; the second was that of Dutch men on their way to commando duty; and the third involved Black mine workers who returned to their rural homes following the closure of the gold mines. Their effect was felt not only economically, but also in the demographic make-up of the town, most particularly in the subsequent composition of the work force on the mines.

With these exceptions, however, and the temporary loss of income from decreased gold production, the conflict can be said to have had a minimal effect upon Johannesburg. Curfews imposed by successive Republican and British military governments were singularly successful in curtailing the burglary of abandoned houses and shops, with the exception of the Castle Brewery, whose stocks of light ale were liberally plundered by thirsty Dutch burghers. Even the momentary confusion surrounding the British take over of the town on 31 May 1900 saw comparatively little arson and looting. Johannesburg also witnessed very little in the way of actual fighting, and remained relatively tranquil throughout the battle for the town, which took place some 21km to its south before the main body of Republican forces retreated to Pretoria. To the east the rail junction at Elandsfontein was strategically crucial and its fall virtually ensured a British victory on the day. One attempt was made by retreating Republican forces to dynamite the mine shafts, but the plot was foiled by local residents led by Dutch officials and by 1902 the gold industry had once again resumed full production. Significantly, among the last Republican troops to vacate Johannesburg on 31 May 1900 prior to the handing over to the British was the German Volunteer Corps.

Last updated : 28-Apr-2016

This article was produced by South African History Online on 19-Oct-2011

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