Shaykh Daoud’s Blog

Considering Injustices

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I suppose we all have something evocative that touches a nerve, and sums things up for us. To me, and about what has been inflicted on southern Africa, it is the song Sarie Marais.

I grew up with this song. People used to sing or hum it at home. We used to sing it at Boy Scouts’ camp fires. And it was generally a popular tune, vaguely associated in my mind with the early years of the twentieth century.

The story of the song is in itself a saga. It is, of course, a love song of sorts. The setting appears to be the Second Boer War about 1900, from the reference to British troops as die Kakies (“the Khakis”), and the hero has to flee from them “far across the sea” (ver oor die see wegstuur).

The girl likely ended up in a concentration camp from the inference in the chorus O bring my t’rug na die ou Transvaal, daar waar my Sarie woon…(“O bring me back to the old Transvaal, there where my Sarie lived…”); and died there, as thousands of women and children did, and was buried on the farm, which is what the Afrikaners did: daar onder in die mielies by die groen doring boom, daar woon my Sarie Marais (“down there in the mealies by the green thorn tree, there lives my Sarie Marais”).

Fortunately, none of my family was involved in the Boer Wars, although my grandmother’s eldest brother very nearly was. He was kicked on the shin by his horse and spent some time in hospital during which his regiment shipped to the Cape; so he went to America instead.

The two Boer Wars left deep scars both among the British and the Afrikaners. In a way it is an acknowledgement of how deeply the British themselves were affected by what was done, and how the Afrikaner farmers fought, that the song became so popular in a sad sort of way; and that the Royal Marines Commandos adopted it in 1953 as their particular march.

Even the use of the term Commando is a recognition of the Boers, because that is how they organised themselves – into horse-born Commandos armed with Mauser rifles, who struck swiftly and with daring. Their marksmanship was legendary, and the casualties sustained by British and Australian troops were high, as can be gauged from a read-up of the Battle of Spion Kop (Slag van Spioenkop) fought in January 1900.

The British invented the concentration camp during the Boer War. The idea perhaps was sound enough in theory, and was used in a more sensitive way during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) with the kampong baharu/new village programme. The families of the Afrikaner farmers were rounded up and concentrated in these camps away from the areas of operations, thus denying succour to the Commandos.

The tragedy was that logistically the British in southern Africa were incapable of administering these camps properly, and when contagious epidemic diseases started spreading they were unable to contain them or to treat them and so thousands of women and children died both of sickness and starvation. It was a shameful atrocity brought about by incompetence and indifference.

And yet, despite all, the South Africans, even the Boers, became a vital part of the British Empire and Commonwealth, and fought bravely in both the First and Second World Wars. My mother’s brother, who was a regimental medical officer with a Sikh battalion of the 8th (Indian) Infantry Division, used to remember being relieved at Monte Cassino by a South African division and how they marched forward past them with pride.

Sarie Marais really did live, although some time before the Second Boer War. She was born Sara Johanna Adriana Maré at Uitenhage, Cape Province, on 10 May 1840. She married Louis Jacobus Nel in 1857 at Pietermaritzburg and died, aged 37, and was buried on their farm Welgegund, near Stanger, KwaZulu-Natal, near the Drakensberg. One of her sons was Dominee Paul Nel, who was the field chaplain of one Commando under General Louis Botha, and the song was supposedly produced to honour him.

It is an adaptation of a song from the American Civil War, “Sweet Ellie Rhee”, which was included in a song album called the Cavendish Song Book that Ella de Wet, the wife of Botha’s military attaché Nicolaas Jacobus de Wet, used to play and sing on the piano. The adapted song for a long time was actually called My Sarie Maré and was relatively recently changed to Sarie Marais.

As we watch helplessly the appalling tragedies in southern Africa unfolding before us, and see uncomprehendingly our politicastro leaders doing nothing, or nothing very much of consequence, I wonder what and why was done to these peoples? If one follows that line of thinking too far one begins to feel that the catalogue of incompetence and support for the wrong people may not actually have been accidental; one begins to question just whose agenda has been served. And that verse from Souratu-l Isra that begins la tufsidunna fi-l ardi marratayn… keeps echoing in my mind.

Why was Bishop Muzorewa not supported, and Rhodesia-Zimbabwe handed over to the vicious thug Robert Mugabe? We knew exactly what he was like, and what his Zanu-PF would do. A first cousin of my mother’s spent many years in Umtali, and latterly in Harare, and told us all about Mugabe. He died this year very angry at the British government.

Why was Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Inkatha not supported; why was De Klerk coerced into handing over power to the Xhosa-dominated ANC? Because behind Mandela was a nasty coteries of extremely unpleasant people. We now see the consequences of that unfolding all over South Africa. Was it really about control of the gold fields, like Iraq involved oil?

And to me Sarie Marais sums it up. And forever the hero will sing

O bring my terug na die ou Transvaal
Daar waar my Sarie woon
Daar onder in die mielies by die groen doring boom
Daar woon my Sarie Marais.

But her grave stone has fallen over now, and the grave is neglected. And no-one is growing mealies anymore, and the thorn tree has died. What did we do? How will we answer for it?

Written by David Rosser Owen

June 28, 2008 at 5:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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