/ 12 December 2006

History’s burning issue

During the Anglo-Boer South African War, which took place 100 years ago, as many as 160 000 women and children died in British concentration camps, despite official statistics proposing a much lower figure.

Scorched Earth (with an Afrikaans version for kykNET titled Verskroeide Aarde) is a new local documentary, directed by Herman Binge. It focuses on the British scorched-earth policy, which involved the destruction of Boer property and the detention of women, children and black farm workers in concentration camps.

The research was coordinated by Fransjohan Pretorius, professor of history at the University of Pretoria and author of a new book, Scorched Earth/Verskroeide Aarde.

Many features on the Anglo-Boer South African War have been made. What makes this one different?

Pretorius: Many of these have been made in Britain, but I think this is the first major South African effort to get to the bottom of what really happened with the scorched-earth policy. We know about the policy, the camps and the suffering, but do we really understand what happened there?

What do you aim to achieve with this documentary?

Pretorius: It’s 100 years after the war and Herman Binge wanted people to start new discussions on it, to get the emotions out of it and talk with the sobriety and distance that 100 years have brought. People must understand what happened and not just condemn it.

What are the main themes addressed in the documentary?

Pretorius: It was a ghastly war, one of the first of the 21st century’s total wars, which means that it affected white and black civilians immensely. The programme hinges on the fact that both white and black civilians suffered because of the war. It’s not the type of Afrikaner emotional programme that would have been made 50 years ago. What comes through clearly are the stark, naked facts.

What research went into the production?

Pretorius: Herman Binge conducted about 80 interviews with South African and British historical experts and politicians. He was very interested in the British point of view and went to Britain to try to meet as many knowledgeable people and people of influence as possible. People need to be made aware of the facts. It was gross negligence on the British army’s side — until 1901 the concentration camps were under its control and Lord Kitchener was not concerned about the civilians. He just wanted to get them off the land and break the spirit of the Boer forces so the war could end.

How does your book complement the documentary?

Pretorius: The book offers a more nuanced picture with as much balance as possible. There were, for example, also British officers in the war concerned about the situation. A positive aspect of the war described in the book is that the British started a schooling system in the camps where many Afrikaners got an education they would otherwise never have had. The book also shows how what happened during the war was against the spirit of the Hague convention, signed a few months before the war.

Verskroeide Aarde airs on kykNET on July 31 at 8.30pm and Scorched Earth airs on M-Net on August 2 at 8.30pm. The book is published by Human & Rousseau