by Marthinus van Bart
General James Barry Munnik Hertzog – one of the pre-eminent Boer leaders during the Anglo-Boer War and South Africa’s third Prime Minister after Union – had been an advocate, and thereafter a judge, before the outbreak of war in October 1899. Immediately after the war, in June 1902, he reverted briefly to his role as advocate in order to defend Commandant Hennie van Rensburg, head of the renowned Theron’s Scouts, who was court-martialed after the Peace of Vereeniging for having been a Cape Rebel.
The founder of Theron’s Scouts, Commandant Danie Theron, had been born in Tulbagh in the Cape, but was an attorney practising in Krugersdorp, and a Transvaal citizen, during the pre-war years. When Mr Moneypenny, editor of The Star, made insulting remarks about the Boers in his newspaper column, Theron went to his office and confronted him about the lies he had published. Moneypenny then personalised his insults, which resulted in Theron resorting to his fists. In due course Theron was convicted of assault and sentenced to a fine, but a hat was passed around in court the moment his sentence was pronounced and – midst much laughter – the amount of the fine was collected, there and then, in the public gallery of the Magistrates Court.
Theron’s Scouts became legendary and remained so throughout the war, despite the fact that Theron himself died in battle on 5 September 1900 at Gatsrand, on the West Rand, less than a year after the start of the war.
At the end of the war the head of Theron’s Scouts was Commandant Hennie van Rensburg. Like Theron, he had been born in the Cape Colony. He came from the farm Langnek, near Modderfontein, in the Eastern Cape district of Cradock, and when war broke out he was still resident there, and a British subject. In May 1901, at the age of just twenty-one, Van Rensburg joined Commandant Wynand Malan’s commando, and a month later he was seriously wounded in an attack on Richmond. An English bullet entered his face in the region of his nose and departed just below his left ear. This Boer was a tough customer, however, for he refused to leave his commando, and in due course his wound healed, although deafness would follow later on. He continued fighting in the Cape midlands until September 1901, at one stage with the commando of Gideon Scheepers, and thereafter he fought under General Manie Maritz in the district of Calvinia. It was Maritz who promoted Van Rensburg to the rank of Field Cornet, and soon thereafter General Malan promoted him to the rank of commandant and appointed him as the head of Theron’s Scouts.
When the Boers finally laid down their arms on 5 June 1902, almost a week after the Peace of Vereeniging, the British arrested and imprisoned Van Rensburg at Cradock because he had fought as a Cape Rebel. Charged before a court-martial with high treason and nine counts of murder, he approached General Smuts – one of the principal negotiators at Vereeniging, and the former Transvaal State Attorney – to defend him. Smuts declined, however, saying: ‘I’m sorry, but the peace terms have been negotiated, and the commandant can be prosecuted.’ (At Vereeniging Smuts and the other negotiators had acceded to Lord Kitchener’s insistence that there be no amnesty for Cape Rebels, against the express wishes of President Kruger and President Steyn.)
Smuts knew the young Rebel personally, but nevertheless declined to represent him.
Learning of Smuts’s refusal, Van Rensburg approached General Hertzog, whom he had never met, to act on his behalf. Hertzog knew that Van Rensburg had fought bravely, and that he had been a worthy commandant of Theron’s Scouts, and the former advocate-turned-judge immediately agreed to represent Van Rensburg. He travelled to Cradock for this purpose, and with great difficulty secured Van Rensburg’s release on bail of £4 000. Before the main trial began, however, fate intervened. The Cape Parliament voted to grant amnesty to Van Rensburg, and the prosecution was accordingly dropped.
When Van Rensburg inquired about Hertzog’s fee, the general demurred, saying: ‘What Hennie van Rensburg did for our people can never be repaid.’ This noble gesture matched that of Van Rensburg, who had risked his life – as a Cape Rebel – to champion justice and right for his fellow-Afrikaners in the Boer Republics.