Whilst leading the military History Tours pilgrimage to the South African War Battlefields in May and June 2014, I took the time to note the changing approach to war memorial preservation in South Africa. Some of the changing approach is very positive. The Ditsong National Museum system has delivered much needed funding for the professional preservation and presentation of historical artefacts. The funding and volunteer maintenance of sites by Afrikaner businesses and groups has not faded. In other cases, there was evidence of neglect, and in the case of President Brand Cemetery Bloemfontein a decision you would have to describe as irrational.
Let us start with the positive. The Ditsong Museums of South Africa are eight national museums, seven in Tshwane (Pretoria) and one in Johannesburg. Two were of specific interest to the Boer War. Paul Kruger’s House in Pretoria, and the Museum of Military History at Saxonwold in Johannesburg.
The Paul Kruger House is a great window into what the President’s life would have been like in the period leading up to and during the Second Boer War. The modesty of the building is striking. Most of the furniture came from the house, all of it is contemporary. There are many portraits of the man and his family. The back yard houses the train that carried him over the Delgola Bay Railway toward Europe.
The Museum of Military History at Saxonwold had a number of items that dated from the Second Boer War, however, as a former soldier who spent most of his service in the RAAC, it was the extensive collection of armoured vehicles, their condition and the facilities for display that really impressed.
In Mafikeng, the Museum is being refurbished. This is rather essential, when I visited in 2012, torches were issued to see parts of the Museum as the wiring was water damaged, and there were other serious problems with the building.
Sites with an Afrikaner link are still very well maintained. The best example is the Voortrekker monument in the hills that dominate Pretoria. This monument does have one room that deals in-part with the Second Boer War, the Basement museum. Every aspect of the monument is in excellent condition and it is maintained with limited (if any) current government funding. You know that it was built to glorify a repressive regime but you cannot help being impressed. The scale, the marble frieze that tells the story of the trek, the stone wagons in the courtyard. It is a must visit. And yes if Hitler had survived long enough for Germania to have been completed, we would probably be impressed there too.
Kroonstad was another example of local Afrikaners maintaining links with the Second Boer War. The group of citizens, in this case not funded at all by government, maintain two boer war cemeteries. One is 50 metres by 50 metres walled and topped with razor wire. Here you will see most of the original metal grave markers in tact and standing above the grave sites. The group also maintain the concentration camp cemetery. This they would very much like to find the funds to fence. I must admit that every time I go there a donation is given from my own pocket.
The Ovnerwacht monument and Ermelo cemeteries are further Afrikaner group high maintenance examples. Here in conjunction with and cooperation from the local councils in the interest of developing tourist interest and infrastructure, a model that is deserving of more universal application.
Klerksdorp was a good find. There the cemetery is mostly neglected, but is quite a size, and a local contact indicated the local council was helping with maintenance. The local council funded town museum is also well worth a visit.
The Strange Situation in Bloemfontein
Bloemfontein is home to the magnificent Women’s Monument and the Museum of the Boer Republics. The Museum of the Boer Republics is a little incongruous. It was closed down two years ago for refurbishment. This year it was again open. No sign whatsoever of the "refurbishment" no change in the displays, maybe a vacuum cleaner passed through the halls. Sad as the displays are magnificent but show a need for preservation work, and the huge paintings in particular need brightening. No photos of course, this is generally the case with Museums in South Africa, however, the Boer Republics Museum is the only one that applies it with a degree of paranoia. Eyes everywhere to ensure that ‘phone or camera is not uncased. I also noted the display on John Brooks has not been updated, it still has him as of Aboriginal not West Indian descent and makes no mention of John Searle. After my last visit I noted this in their comments log, and wrote when I got home, this time Dr Dale Kerwin is writing; perhaps someone whose grandmother is Aboriginal rather than Bavarian may be listened to.
Perhaps the no photography rule is so heavily enforced to cover-up the fact that there was no refurbishment.
Then we get to the President Brand Cemetery. This cemetery has more British dead than any other, the advance on Bloemfontein resulted in many dead, as did the pause to allow supplies to catch up. Most deaths were typhoid related. Some years ago, the cemetery had been vandalised with grave markers strewn all over the site. Not knowing the grave site each marker represented, the markers were refurbished and laid out in a squared-off U to the north east and west of the central plinth. This gave an exceptional impression of the scope of the carnage.
This was the case in 2012 when I took the time to photograph all of the Australian and New Zealand markers. By 2014, all of the markers had disappeared. The policy appeared deliberate. Many of the marker centrepieces being used to decorate ornamental bridges into the site. All had been desecrated by having the names plated over, some further by being cut in half. The action is almost incomprehensible. The decision and subsequent action is hard to understand.
John Howells 2014
© National Boer War Memorial Association Inc ABN 29 293 433 202