Bitter Laughter

04 Feb

Every culture, every country, it seems, has to undergo a period of strife, war, rebellion and suffering to forge a new identity. The United States had its Revolutionary War and its Civil War, Europe had more wars that we can even begin to count. They have names such as “The Hundred Years’ War”, “The Eighty years’ War,” “The Thirty Years’ War”, and of course all the others that followed and became global conflicts, World War I and II. There has in fact not been a single day of peace since then, and there probably never was before then either.

South Africa was no exception and the history of the country is bathed in blood, strife and pain. I grew up in the early sixties, in a country stratified not only by class, but separated by color, and even worse, language.

The country underwent a terrible time in the Boer Wars against Britain. I have mentioned in another, earlier blog, that my grandmother had been incarcerated in a British Concentration Camp.


The Brits practiced a “scorched earth policy” which meant they burned every farm down to the ground, if it suited their purpose. That meant crops too, and they would take the cattle.

I came across this incredibly sad excerpt by Emily Hobhouse, 

an Englishwoman who had fought against the cruel treatment of women and children in the camps. She describes the survivors of the war in this article that brought tears to my eyes.




The terrible laughter of the Afrikaner

A young Boer guerrilla fighter, Deneys Reitz, described the defeated Boer commandos drifting into the camps in May 1902, as a rabble of “starving, ragged men, clad in skins or sacking, their bodies covered with sores, from lack of salt and food…their appearance was a great shock to us, who came from the better conditioned forces in the Cape.” In the aftermath of the South African War (1899–1902), the Afrikaner seemed defeated—the rural economy was shattered, family farms were destroyed and more than 25 000 Boer women and children were dead in the concentration camps. Yet in this apocalyptic post-war world, something strange was happening. Afrikaners were laughing.

This phenomenon was observed with wonder by English philanthropist Emily Hobhouse, who had reported on the conditions in the camps and the aftermath of the scorched earth policy. She wrote, for example, of the Van Graan brothers, who had both suffered enormous losses during the war. One “had seven little mouths to feed. He got seed potatoes from Repatriation for a promissory note, but the drought killed them. His brother lent him oxen to plough with, so he put in a little seed, but till it is ripe he has nothing to live upon. His beautiful house is in ruins, his blue gums all but two cut down, his fruit trees chopped.” “But”, Hobhouse continued, “how he laughed, and how his brother laughed.” Hobhouse further observed that “[l]ike all the other burghers [Boer General] De Wet is laughing. If he did not, he says, he should die. It makes him great fun. I do regret not being quick enough to catch all the Dutch proverbs which spice his conversation, nor the humour which runs through all the family talk— they speak so quickly”. In a rural hamlet in the Orange Free State, Hobhouse encountered “a poor man”, who—when she offered him some meal—said: “I shall be so glad that I shall laugh without feeling any inclination to laugh.” In Pretoria, Hobhouse noted, the Boers “say little and only laugh.” She concluded:
“There is getting to be something quite terrible to me in this laugh of the Boers which meets me everywhere. It is not all humour, nor all bitter, though partly both; it is more like the laughter of despair.We sit in a row by these stable walls and discuss every project possible and impossible, and then we laugh. Now and again the tears come into the men’s eyes, but never into the women’s except when they speak of children lost in the camps.”


This attitude, this grim laughter was the strength that saw them through, and made them strong in the face of opposition. It made the nation determined to rise from the bitter ashes of defeat and create something out of the ruins of the country.

South Africa gained its independence from Britain in 1960, and then another era of oppression began, when Apartheid was written into the law books. Was it to protect themselves, was it fear or was it truly racial hatred? Of course the question, and the answer is far more complex than that. It is rooted in the history of European greed and expansion, a belief that Africa, and in fact, India, North and South America, China, Australia, all were fair game for the taking, abusing and plunder. They established themselves as rulers, suppressed the native people and took what they wanted.

The legacy of this is the immense poverty and suffering in many countries in Africa that have never really recovered from colonization. In Australia, the Aboriginals were only granted CITIZENSHIP in the 1970’s. Elsewhere, such as Asia, there is still immense strife after boundaries were enforced by the the European colonizers that caused tragic rifts and divisions.

What made the world focus on South Africa as the scapegoat? The fact that the country was richly endowed with gold, diamonds, uranium and other precious metals? It is laughable, and I can hear those old Boers laughing right now, that the country developed their own oil from coal, their own armaments (which they sold to the Israelis, one of two allies during Apartheid), and an infrastructure of roads, harbors, and cities that made it the jewel of Africa.

The release of Nelson Mandela and the subsequent rise to power by the African National Congress has been marred by the terrible corruption and murder and crime rate in the country. I do believe that someday Africa will regain its honor, that the violent history that seems to self perpetuate will come to an end, that there will be peace on this beautiful planet we call home.


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Posted by on February 4, 2014 in Uncategorized


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