Potchefstroom’s concentration camp

The concentration camp at Potchefstroom was one of many in the country and is sadly part and parcel of our South African history. These camps originated because of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and primarily because of the Scorched Earth Policy. Potchefstroom's camp was the largest in the Transvaal.

The concentration camp at Potchefstroom was one of many in the country and is sadly part and parcel of our South African history. These camps originated because of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and primarily because of the Scorched Earth Policy.

Homes, fields and livestock were destroyed to force the Boer soldiers to surrender to the British. Women, children and the elderly were sent to concentration camps where they tried to survive on the meagre means at their disposal.
Twenty years ago (1999) Prof. Gert van den Berg wrote a brochure on facts about the Potchefstroom concentration camp as a centenary commemorance of the Anglo-Boer War.

Prof. Van den Berg was a lecturer at the History Department at the North-West University until his retirement in 1992. He was particularly interested in the history of the Anglo-Boer War in the North-West Province.
We want to share his research from the brochure, “The Potchefstroom Concentration Camp”, with those who never knew about this sad history in our midst precisely 120 years ago.

The concentration camp system
The concentration camp system is still one of the most tragic aspects of the Anglo-Boer War. There were sixteen camps in the Transvaal (the area north of the Vaal River) and thirteen in the Orange Free State, and it originated due to two factors:
Firstly, the British who conquered the Republics (Transvaal and Orange Free State), felt the need to protect those citizens of the Republics who laid down their arms, (Hensoppers), against the commandos carrying on with the armed struggle.
Secondly, the Scorched Earth Policy of the British against the people who wanted to fight to the bitter end (Bittereinders) focused on the destruction of their farm and town residences. The non-fighting women and children whose husbands and fathers were “Bittereinders” were left without shelter. The camps were meant to provide accommodation for both parties who had opposite ideals.

Camp layout and administration
The Potchefstroom camp started to function in September 1901 and was the first of four camps in the North-West Province.

The first camp was established on the premises where the Potchefstroom High School for Boys is currently situated, and it covered an area of approximately 22 hectares. These premises were chosen because it was close to the railway station, where water could also be fetched running through one of the town’s canals.

The camp was laid out in four sectors, with two broad roads crossing in the middle. The offices, stores, hospital tents and staff houses were situated at the crossing of these roads. The toilets were on the perimeter of the tent village. There were no facilities for washing.

The military authorities initially man-aged all concentration camps, but in February 1901 the management of the camps was transferred to civil authorities. Potchefstroom’s first camp manager was Jacob Swart.
Inhabitants – Potchefstroom was the largest camp in the Transvaal

The total population of concentration camps in South Africa was 150 000. All the larger camps, like Potchefstroom, were always overpopulated.

Not all of those who were taken to Potchefstroom were accommodated in the camp itself; some were lodged in empty houses in town. By the end of February 1901, there were 2 245 of these people in town and 2 160 in the camp. Of the total 216 were men, 1 644 women and 2 545 children younger than 15 years.

By March the number had increased to 2 221 adults and 3 152 children. This meant that more than a quarter of the camp population in Transvaal, being 20 671 at the time, were in Potchefstroom. The Johannesburg camp was the only camp that was bigger at that stage.

By the end of April, the number in Potchefstroom had grown to 5 724. After that the population grew to 6 384 in June, and the Potchefstroom camp became the largest in the Transvaal.

By September the number had reached its peak – there were 7 545 people in the camp.

By August 1901 there were 3 651 people in the Potchefstroom camp and between 3 500 and 3 650 in town. After this, the total stabilized on between 7 000 and 7 250 people. This was partly due to the establishment of new camps in the Transvaal.

Approximately 2 500 of the women and their families who openly favoured the republican cause and who clashed with the “Hensoppers” were moved to camps in Natal.
In spite of this, Potchefstroom remained the largest camp in the Transvaal.

Read more about the life and conditions in the camp in next week’s follow-up article.

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