Like faded flowers, thrown away: Steve Biko and the Boer women

A Boer woman with her dead child, the last of her children to die, photographed by Emily Hobhouse

The women are wonderful. They cry very little and never complain. The very magnitude of their sufferings, their indignities, loss and anxiety seems to lift them beyond tears… only when it cuts afresh at them through their children do their feelings flash out. Some people in town still assert that the Camp is a haven of bliss. I was at the camp to-day, and just in one little corner this is the sort of thing I found – The nurse, underfed and overworked, just sinking on to her bed, hardly able to hold herself up, after coping with some thirty typhoid and other patients, with only the untrained help of two Boer girls–cooking as well as nursing to do herself. Next tent, a six months’ baby gasping its life out on is mother’s knee. Two or three others drooping sick in that tent. Next, a girl of twenty-one lay dying on a stretcher. The father, a big, gentle Boer kneeling beside her; while, next tent, his wife was watching a child of six, also dying, and one of about five drooping. Already this couple had lost three children in the hospital and so would not let these go, though I begged hard to take them out of the hot tent. I can’t describe what it is to see these children lying about in a state of collapse. It’s just exactly like faded flowers thrown away. And one has to stand and look on at such misery, and be able to do almost nothing.

Having lived in Moorreesburg for the past eight years, I could not help but to know the prejudice and hatred that still exists against English-speaking people in South Africa.  Last night, as I watched Tony Jackman's excellent play "An Audience with Miss Hobhouse" the horror of the concentration camps had a new meaning for me.

Lynita Crofford is clearly on the top of her game, as she morphed between Miss Hobhouse, the Boer woman Tant Alie, assorted troops and war correspondents with the smallest of on-stage costume adjustments.

Tony's superb script had me chuckling and crying and, most importantly, made the experiences of the women stand out in stark reality.

Unfortunately Miss Hobhouse concentrated her efforts on the Boer women and children: it is perhaps a reflection of the times that the thousands of black people who died in separate camps were no more than a blip on her radar.

I left with a better understanding of our history, but less of an understanding of the people who perpetrated such injustices in the years following the South African war. I know that many English-speaking people were complicit in and benefited from apartheid, but its roots were in what was essentially an Afrikaner policy. And I know too that many Afrikaans speaking people were vocal opponents of the system, and suffered for their beliefs.

But today, on the anniversary of the murder of Steve Biko, I am wondering how people who had experienced such cruelty and suffering could have inflicted the same thing on others? The forced removals, the destroying of homes and communities, the deprivation of a nation of their basic human dignity.

And how is it possible that the same people, who remember the English with bitter hatred, are the same people who declare in their arrogant complacency that it has been 18 years and "people should be over apartheid by now".

If you are in Cape Town and want to book for An Audience with Miss Hobhouse, go to the Facebook page  or to


saaray said…
It seems that we are doomed to repeat history since we never learn from it. Thank you for making this link in our history. We need to look at the common things which unite us from our past and build on them for the future.
Lynne said…
thanks Saaray. I hope that we will eventually learn from our history... I hate to think of us being caught in a cycle of endless repetition!
Monique Buckner said…
The only way I see it is that Afrikaaners externalised their trauma by trying to maintain their very existence through the oppression and control of others who vastly outnumbered them. Many women and children were killed in the British genocide of the Afrikaaners, so this would have an impact on the birth rate and future demography- women bear the future population and children represent the future continuity of a people. An analogy of a persecuted people who committed genocide while having experienced it themselves, is the Jewish people against the Palestinians. This is ongoing but the world is mostly silent and indifferent about it. It is no wonder that Afrikaaners are bitter towards the English so much- no apology has ever been given for this war crime and my experience of trying to talk about it to British people has met with indifference (it was 'so long ago')- but does this get said to Jewish people?, or outright verbal abuse when I was called a 'boering (sic) bitch' by one man for mentioning it. But you will find that the Afrikaaners are more prepared to speak English to the English than the English are prepared to speak Afrikaans in South Africa. And would you be equally surprised about the hatred that indigenous South Africans have towards 'white' South Africans? Don't you think it makes a bit of sense that people are bitter? What of Britain's own history? The British suffered greatly under the class system and under the Roman occupation- but this did not stop British imperialism, even helped along by the working class, against other peoples. And by the way- British concentration camps in Kenya during the 1950s, and straight after a terrible war to supposedly stop tyranny, were far worse. Women there were raped with broken bottles, men rolled up in barbed wire and torn to pieces. Again, a refusal to take these horrific crimes seriously by the British. See how Cameron's government reacted to having to compensate Kenyan survivors. It seems that people- everywhere- do not like to memorialise the injustices they have committed against others (for instance the 'no Blacks, no Irish, no dogs' signs in England, forgotten about). The Afrikaaners, like the English, are not that different. You will find in England a widespread xenophobia against foreigners, Europe, even people from different parts of the Isles, because of an obsession to maintain a certain 'way of life', culture or existence. I'm not saying it's a desirable thing. I'm just saying that this is what people do when they are fearful.

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