Every Plume of Smoke Is Telling

Cape Times (South Africa), December 13, 2013 | Go to article overview

Every Plume of Smoke Is Telling


BYLINE: REVIEW: Andre Brink

Edited by Bill Nasson & Albert Grundlingh

Tafelberg

Commemorating the centenary of the National Women's Monument in Bloemfontein, the essays and photographs collected in The War at Home give a fresh, inclusive insight into the experience of civilians of all backgrounds in and around the concentration camps of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.

All contributions are thoroughly researched and well-written. The editors of the volume, Albert Grundlingh and Bill Nasson, offer chapters on the origins of concentration camps (contrary to common belief, they were first introduced as an integral strategy of total warfare by a Spanish general in Cuba in 1896), on the experience of black people in the South African camps, on the meaning of the Women's Monument throughout the century of its existence, and on Emily Hobhouse's speech which was read out to the people gathered at the inauguration of the monument on December 16, 1913.

Ill at the time, Hobhouse could not attend herself, but eventually her ashes were buried at the foot of the monument in 1926, alongside graves of others who were instrumental in its creation.

The book's noteworthy cover image of a Boer woman staring straight into the camera and a black woman leaning on her shoulder and looking in the same direction announces one of the vital preoccupations of the collection: the experience in and around the camps for all people, black and white alike. Most records of the black concentration camps were destroyed after the war, but the authors are able to present a very intricate picture of the life and interaction of all inmates independent of their skin colour, subverting many misconceptions about the meaning of race in the camps.

Helen Bradford's chapter on the bittereinder women undercuts the usual portrayals of masculinity in wartime and discusses the survival strategies and the unexpected opportunities the war presented to these highly patriotic and resourceful women.

Zelda Rowan's contribution focuses on the life of the legendary Nonnie de la Rey, whose values, courage and endurance made her the epitome of the figure central to Afrikaner nationalism in the next century: the volksmoeder.

Two chapters by Elizabeth van Heyningen recount the different challenges of daily life in the camps and the conflicting attitudes of British doctors and Boer women to practising medicine.

The most numerous victims of the camps were white and black children. In her chapter on the "faded flowers", as Hobhouse referred to children wasting away in the camps, SE Duff demonstrates that despite the staggering death toll, children's resilience and adaptation skills to camp life were remarkable and should not be forgotten. …

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