It was a very important day in South Africa. The Second Boer War — otherwise known as the South African War, waged by the British Empire against the Boer descendents of Dutch South African settlers — had occurred between 11 October 1899 and 31 May 1902, resulting in the deaths of many Boers and other South Africans. Eight years later, in 1910, the country became part of the British Empire. May 31st became known as "Union Day," and was declared a public holiday. South Africa would fight on the side of Britain in World War I, and Jan Christiaan Smuts of South Africa would be among the architects of the "League Of Nations," an association of countries established in 1919 by the Treaty of Versailles to promote international cooperation and achieve international peace and security! When it was replaced by the United Nations in 1945, it was Smuts who drafted the Covenant of the United Nations, which is considered to have been his major achievement; but it should also not be forgotten that as a Field Marshal of the Allied Forces during World War II, he enjoyed the respect and friendship of both General Eisenhower and the King of England. Until recently changed, the main airport in South Africa bore his name.
In 1994 that changed, and although the bombing of Park Station in Johannesburg in the 1960s had become my personal 9/11, it was the thirty-first day of May that remained a red-letter day for me, and not the one associated with what I regarded as terrorism.
By the time my sister was born, South Africa—like Canada, India and Australia — was a proud dominion of the British Empire. Our home language was English, though we could also speak Afrikaans, and whereas my sister and my father could communicate in Latin (I envied them), I seem to think that my first language was actually Sesuto (SeSotho); particularly as I loved my Basotho nanny more than anyone else on Earth, and because my father was involved in public life, I saw more of Lizzie than I did of my parents. I also recall being the only white child in a black farm school at one stage.
Although the Boer War happened so long ago, books conjure up images of it that are enough to give the hardiest reader nightmares. If the fact that Queen Elizabeth made a formal apology to the people of South Africa in 1999 for the atrocities of the Boer War had not been enough to set at rest the doubts of any sceptics who might read this, eyewitness accounts, provided not only by Boers, but also by appalled British people, are numerous and harrowing; most compelling among them the writings of an indomitable Cornish humanitarian and welfare worker by the name of Emily Hobhouse, and two other women, a Mrs Badenhorst and a Mrs Botha, in whom Emily found friends and allies. In her book, which is a veritable a mine of information, Emily Hobhouse would write: “It was late in the summer of 1900, that I first learnt of the hundreds of Boer women who became impoverished and were left ragged by our military operations … the poor women who were being driven from pillar to post, needed protection and organized assistance."
I was overwhelmed with excitement when I recently discovered that the Hobhouse books are now obtainable at Amazon. A book written by the Afrikaans woman Alida Badenhorst under the pseudonym of “Tant Alie of Transvaal” and her “Diary 1880-1902" translated by Hobhouse, is also available. The descriptions in the “diary” conjure up images that are enough to give the most hardened reader nightmares.
Childhood dread of being labelled a “Boer’
Until I was six, my life was as perfect as any child would wish, and all that marred my blissful existence was my surname. How I hated having a Dutch name, which might (horror of horrors!) have labelled me a "Boer" — especially as my father consorted with people like the Duke of Connaught, I had an aunt who had been presented at court, and, as a member of a Brownie pack, I had once proudly seen my father welcome Lord and Lady Clarendon on the steps of our Town Hall.
How, I would wonder, could he possibly have run away at the age of sixteen from his prestigious English private school in Bloemfontein and contrived to find himself a horse in order to fight against the British, when we had a large portrait of him in the dining room, standing, shoulders squared, in his uniform as a major in the South African Forces during the Great War — on the side of the British? Truly one would have to understand the history of South Africa very well indeed, in order to be able to appreciate with what forgiving hearts its people had been blessed.
May 31, 2009
On this day, in this year it also became my day for finally "letting go" of Hemochromatosis. I was basking in a rosy glow of satisfaction on account of the fact that seven of my books had just become eBooks on both Mobipocket and Kindle (a feature some of my correspondents are evidently very pleased to discover, for it is easier to search through an electronic book with an index.) The very next day, I determined, I would begin work on this, my final Hemochromatosis article for this excellent online magazine which has provided me the privilege of writing a series on the subject.
"Thank You, Meidjie!"
As I sat on the edge of my bed before going to sleep that night, a wave of remembrance seemed to sweep over me. It suddenly hit me that it was 76 years, to the day, since my father had collapsed on the golf course, never to recover… I relived the sounds I heard in the house when I came in from running in the school sports; saw my shattered, sixteen-year-old sister as she looked that day, and then I remembered pouring my father a glass of water, three months later, on the day he died. Although I was very little, I had been left to sit with him in the afternoon because everyone else was so tired, and I remembered the way he said, "Thank you, Meidjie!" (Little maid. A Dutch or Afrikaans term of endearment.) I also clearly remember now how blue his eyes were — and how dark his face! Surely as dark as that of Black Jack Bouvier, the father of Jackie Onassis, about whom I had written in one of my recent articles! A picture in which he is shown with a group of soldiers during WWI adds to that impression. All of a sudden, as I saw again those wonderful blue, blue eyes in that bronzed face, I knew what had killed him, at the age of 46….Hemochromatosis!
Perhaps it was because I knew that, among the Huguenot population of the Western Cape Province of South Africa, the carrier rate for the disorder was one of the highest in the world, I had always assumed that the gene I had passed on to my descendants was that brought to the country by ancestors who arrived there in 1688, having miraculously escaped another holocaust: the massacre of Huguenots throughout France, and burning at the stake in Laguedoc. Now I know that I was wrong. The gene my father passed on to me was Dutch!
How short was the time that incredible man was spared for me to know him. I am so proud to read in a very old newspaper, that flags flew at half-mast and all places of business in the town were closed on the day of his funeral.
I still have the Brownie uniform I wore that day. It had already been handed down many times by several preceding generations, and is now possibly the oldest in the world.
The campaign to promote the Control and Prevention of Hemochromatosis has demanded more than 30 years of my life — but I do not regret a single moment of it!
I think of my mother, the little eight-year-old of long ago, imprisoned in the Johannesburg Fort together with her mother, grandmother (who would later die in a concentration camp), and her younger siblings, and it is agonizing to realize that she and I were both robbed of our husbands by a monster with a grinning face of evil hiding behind a mask of virtue…IRON!