by Marthinus van Bart
This year marks the centenary of an event that shook South Africa to its foundations. The 1914 rebellion – an armed uprising involving more than 12 000 Afrikaners – erupted at the end of October 1914 as an understandable outpouring of opposition to South Africa’s participation in the Great War on the side of Britain, which had been a bitter enemy of the Boer Republics a mere 12 years before. By Christmas 1914 the rebellion had been crushed, but not without considerable violence, bloodshed and loss of life. Leading former Anglo-Boer War generals, such as Christiaan de Wet, Koos de la Rey, Manie Maritz, Kemp and Beyers were involved. De la Rey and Beyers were shot dead; others landed in jail and were fined; and yet others, such as Maritz, fled the country.
Not only were thousands of rebels fined, they had to pay enormous ‘war-debts’ as a result of damage to property and the commandeering of supplies. Most of the rebels were poor and could not afford to pay, and many faced court action to recover what was owed, with the auction of their houses and belongings dangling over their heads like a sword. Fate intervened, however, in the form of an auction of a very different kind. This auction did not take place at the instance of any judgment creditor; quite the opposite, it was a spontaneous, communal attempt by Afrikaners to help each other – a helpmekaar to save many former rebels from financial ruin.
On Wednesday, 4 August 1915, some 6 000 Afrikaner women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to deliver a petition, signed by 65 000 women across the country, to the Governor-General, Lord Buxton. They marched arm-in-arm, in lines of six, with men on either side to prevent intimidation or molestation, and they demanded the release of rebel officers and the reduction of fines and damages claims. The leader of the protest was Mrs Hendrienna Joubert, widow of Commandant-General Piet Joubert, head of the former Transvaal Republic army under President Paul Kruger at the beginning of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).
Lord Buxton did not wish to react to the petition without consulting the Prime Minister, General Louis Botha, and the Minister of Justice and War, General Jan Smuts, so the women gave him a day within which to respond.
Next morning the women were addressed by their leaders, in order to keep their spirits strong, and the Helpmekaar Fund, which had been initiated at Reitz in the Free State a short while before, was promoted as a means whereby Afrikaners could help each other financially so that the fines and the damages could be paid.
It was then that the eighty-five-year-old Mrs Joubert, who had lived through the Great Trek as a child, the First Boer War of 1880-1881 as the young wife of General Joubert, and the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 as the mature companion of the Commandant-General, rose to address the gathering. She donated a Voortrekker Rag Doll, clad in typical Voortrekker dress, to be auctioned for the benefit of the Helpmekaar Fund. The highest bid – six pounds and 5 shillings, an enormous sum in those days of poverty and struggle – came from Mrs G W van Heerden, of the farm Beestekraal in Victoria-West.
No response was forthcoming from Lord Buxton, and on top of this Botha and Smuts were angry that these women, who had neither the vote nor any legal standing in the community, had dared to make demands of the government. (The vote was first granted to white women in 1930 by the government of General J M B Hertzog.)
The Helpmekaar Fund became so successful that not only was all the rebel debt fully paid, but the Helpmekaar Study Fund was established for Afrikaner youth, to enable them to further their studies. Professor Christiaan Barnard, the famous heart surgeon, was one of these Helpmekaar students.