Government cannot unilaterally change Anglo Boer War to the South African War

Dr Pieter Mulder

Government cannot unilaterally and willy-nilly change the name of the Anglo Boer War to the South African War. Researchers, historiographers and historians determine such a name which is then established through usage. In the last couple of decades, the name Anglo Boer War has been established and a unilateral government decision will not change it that easily.

The question is whether it is the government’s task to change history and an acknowledged name in this fashion. If the Board of the War Museum in Bloemfontein decides to change their name to the South African War Museum, it is certainly within their powers. It however does not mean that the war now automatically has a new name.

Historians were not consulted anywhere, not in the parliamentary portfolio committee or through public participation, about such a name change. With the changing of town names, strict requirements are in place regarding the way in which and with whom consultation should take place.

In the period 1899 to 1902, during which the war took place, South Africa did not exist. South Africa is a concept which only came into being in 1910 with the establishment of the Union. It makes it problematic to refer to the war as the South African war. The war was declared between the governments of the Zuid-Afrikaanse Republic, the Republic of the Orange Free State and Britain. The former Natal and Cape Colonies did not declare war against anybody, although the war naturally also impacted on their residents.

With this, the role of the black people in the war is not being denied. Research has confirmed that there had been up to 65 concentration camps and 49 white camps, with black people fighting on both British and Boer sides. That is why the book which has been released by the museum, ‘Black Participation and Suffering in the South African War 1899-1902 – An Untold History’ is being welcomed. It places the large number of deaths and serious suffering of black people during the war in perspective.

The war has over the years had various names. My grandmother Maria Mulder, who suffered greatly in the British concentration camps, referred to the war as the “English War” or “Second Liberation War”, because she felt very strongly that the British had caused the war. She seriously objected to it being named the “Boer War”. The name “Anglo Boer War” has been established internationally and in South Africa in the past century.


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