WOMEN'S VOICES: The Anglo-Boer War
by Michelle Kim Hoffman
Today there is so much literature, fiction and non-fiction, written about the voice of the women during the Anglo-Boer (South African) War and the Afrikaans market is bombarded with successful plays and movies depicting them. After reading War Without Glamour, a collection of Boer women’s narratives during the war compiled by Emily Hobhouse, I saw first-hand what these books, movies and plays were depicting: immense suffering, sickness, alarming death rates, food shortages or in the words of Miss van den Berg “The usual course of things: daily fetching food and wood, burying the dead and tending the sick"… but I also saw something else… something I have not seen in many of these books, plays, movies… and it can be perfectly sum up as “hierdie vrouens was glad nie op die bek geval nie”.
In many of the narratives I noticed a collective amount of strong, independent, don’t take shit attitude from the women. Circumstances were kak, but they didn’t CHOOSE to go down without a fight. Beyond the initial nods and compliance, eventually came a force to be reckoned with. Just like Mrs de Kock who demonstrated a strong form of resistance when she sat on the trunk being confiscated from her which contained valuable family items. She was forcefully parted from it. Mrs de Kock describes that incident as a “fierce struggle” where the trunk was “wrenched” from her which was difficult for her considering she was “half starved and in ill-health”. Mrs de Kock was just plain gatvol. This well-off and educated tannie had five children, her sister and her 76-year-old father to look after, and after all supplies were cut off, in her weak state, I imagine, she looked at these tyrannous and ill-mannered men and thought “this is the fucking last straw” and parked herself on the box.
My favourite response came from Mrs Malan who when asked by the English officers where they were being transported to, responded with “The English wish to fight us women but you ought first to give us arms, as you are too weak to fight our men.” This is the type of fiery woman that would make every feminist jump up into the air and freeze just to make an elaborate air punch because GODDAMMIT can you believe it? Women from the late 1800s who were being mocked and compared to the standards of Victorian women from England by the Fawcett Commission had mouths on them! Steadfast in their beliefs, flourishing in their sudden independence from their men, a strong sense of patriotism, and their ‘sisterhood’ attitude is something every woman can learn something from.
So what did the women receive after the war? A monument! The unveiling was a glorious moment. Finally the women (and children) had a place of remembrance, a place where they would be represented and acknowledged for their contribution to the war. Just kidding. I agree with Cuthbertson when he states that the monument started out as a space where women were honoured and then somehow the symbolic meaning of the statues starting being contorted and reinterpreted as “the silent victims who sacrificed their lives on the altar of freedom and love of the fatherland”. There we go… these are the women we know and love? These are the women we recognise from the books and movies! Muted women in the service of male nationalism.
These bad-ass motherfuckers stood up to officers. OFFICERS! These women had bigger balls than many of their men on the field… and they knew it too! Miss van der Berg tells of a woman named Katie Krige who went to speak to the Superintendent Gardiner, a Boer hands-upper, who responded to her harshly and which prompted her to reply “We would rather die than remain longer under a hands-upper Commandant, who shelters behind Boer Blood-yes under such a man will we not remain- rather would we have a Khaki”.
There is a side to these women that hasn’t been told often enough. Beyond the meek and mild depiction there is power. A power that I assume has been trampled by men for political purposes, because it’s easier to sympathise with a sweet little lamb than a strong roaring lioness.