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1999  

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Series cast summary:
Fransjohan Pretorius ...
 Himself - Grandson of Boer fighters 3 episodes, 1999
Janice Farquharson ...
 Herself - Historian 2 episodes, 1999
Manie Maritz ...
 Himself - Son of Boer General / ... 2 episodes, 1999
Ada Prinsloo ...
 Herself - Daughter of Boer fighter / ... 2 episodes, 1999
Kay de Velliers ...
 Himself - Medical Historian / ... 2 episodes, 1999
Gideon Mdlalose ...
 Himself - Father fought with British 2 episodes, 1999
Christina Nienaber ...
 Herself - Born 1898 / ... 2 episodes, 1999
Abrie Oosthuizen ...
 Himself - Family in concentration camp 2 episodes, 1999
Mary Liverseed ...
 Herself - Born 1890 2 episodes, 1999
Rose Briers ...
 Herself - Born 1893 2 episodes, 1999
John Buist ...
 Himself - Son of British Army doctor 2 episodes, 1999
Phole Mokoena ...
 Himself - Father fought with Boers / ... 2 episodes, 1999
Michael Reitz ...
 Himself / ... 2 episodes, 1999
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Guerrillas.

Part One of this long documentary opens with a nice, white-haired English lady, born in 1890, referring to the Boers: "Not being as civilized as we were, they tended to be a bit cruel." That simple statement is a summary of the entire war, judging from the film we see.

There's no point in going through the entire history of the war, which occupied a few years around 1900, about the time Teddy Roosevelt was leading his Rough Riders up Kettle Hill.

Basically, Dutch farmers (Boer is cognate with German Bauer) settled in Transvaal and the Orange Free State, north of the British colony at Capetown in South Africa. The Brits didn't treat the native blacks with much respect, but the Boers were worse. Blacks (routinely referred to with the "N word" by both sides) weren't allowed to walk on the pavement in Boer territory. Nobody in Boer territory had voting rights, neither the blacks nor the whites.

The Brits didn't care. All the Boers to the north did was raise sheep. Evidently, when gold was discovered in Transvaal, British interest perked up. Time to liberate the blacks from penal servitude.

The Brits outnumbered the Boers by several orders of magnitude, but the Boers had bought modern weapons from European countries like France, and the first British expedition under Jameson was wiped out. War ensued.

But it was nothing like the American Civil War that had preceded it, or like World War I which was to follow. Except for a few engagements at the start, it was a guerrilla war, or "asymmetric warfare" as we call it now. It was more like modern colonial warfare -- like Vietnam or Algeria -- with a powerful military force fighting hit-and-run "commando" units. The more numerous occupying force built the usual series of fortified outposts and walls protected by rolls of barbed wire. The emperor Hadrian built them in Britain in AD 122 to keep the barbaric Picts from Scotland out of Roman territory. They've been around ever since and are used in Afghanistan today.

On their side, the Boers had mobility, horses, the freedom of the veld. Boer families kept them supplied with food and other goods until the Brits did what General Sherman did in the Shenandoah Valley. They killed what they couldn't eat, burned 30,000 Boer farms, and put the women and children in what they called "concentration camps." It's easier to build a city and an empire in a video game than it is in real life, which Kitchener didn't seem to realize.

The Boers were finally worn down, after much death and suffering. Ten percent of the white population of South Africa died from starvation and lack of public health measures in the concentration camps. Blacks fought on both sides, without much reward at the end. But nobody escaped the prevailing misery. Two thirds of all Brits who died during the war were felled not by bullets but by disease, especially typhoid fever. Finally, with hardly any of their original number left, the Boers signed a peace agreement and surrendered their arms. The blacks went back to being second-class citizens. No one seems to have benefited much, unless national honor and decorations are units of currency.

I thought the film, long as it is, was reasonably informative. Who knows anything about the Boer War? The survivors (and there seem to be some, more than 100 years old now) but certainly not me. All I knew was that Winston Churchill had been involved, and only because I watched a movie called "Young Winston." The film itself is balanced, as far as I could tell, in the sense that both parties were bull headed and arrogant.

It's also repetitious and a little dull. Hours spent on the conditions in the concentration camps, when half that time might have done just as good a job. The motion pictures and photos are interesting though -- the Dutch women with these elaborate bonnets, just like cartoons, the emaciated children, the pompous generals, the British soldiers marching along wearing those odd, bell-shaped helmets of the period.

I didn't find the interviews with the offspring of the survivors exactly fascinating, especially since old anecdotes are so frequently subject to embroidering. But who knows? It all appears in retrospect to have been a more than usually dumb war. Some wars are necessary, from the point of view of the particular group being attacked. We can't let Genghis Khan ride in and kill all of us. That's self defense. Every group must have the equivalent of an immune system that rejects alien invasion. But some wars seem pointless from beginning to end, and this is one of them. This film make clear that the Boers wanted "freedom" (mainly, it seems, to mistreat their blacks) but what did the Brits want? Why was the war fought? Who gained from the result? There are some things man was never meant to know.


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