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The Last Stand of a South African Hero

by Gary Mathews / 14.10.2011

The question of restitution and the redistribution of land in Southern Africa is emotive and divisive. It’s an issue that spawns online battles and verbal skirmishes from parliamentary benches to barstools, with opposing factions often brandishing abstraction and half remembered stories. The problem with these stories is that while they are often lost in a direct narrative sense, they are still threaded into the genetic memory of many people. This is in part what makes the land debate so fractious, complicated and potentially violent.

Though there may be no single truth, a better understanding of South African history can illuminate and inform the debate.

Luka Jantjie died in battle facing overwhelming odds. On the morning of 30 July 1897, fewer than 500 starving and exhausted men still stood against some 2,000 colonial troops. Armed with old muzzle loaders and a sprinkling of repeating rifles, the defenders were massively out-gunned. Not only did the colonial troops all have repeating rifles, they also had 7 and 12 pounder artillery along with Maxim machine guns. It had been a severely lopsided contest, and yet somehow the intrepid Batswana men had managed to hold the British Empire at bay for six months.

Luka Jantjie

Few South African stories are as compelling as that of Luka Jantjie, a man who resisted the subjugation of his people to his last breath, and nobody knows the story better than Kevin Shillington. Shillington wrote his Ph.D. thesis while at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, focusing on the colonization of the Southern Tswana. During his research, the name “Luka Jantjie” kept cropping up. Intrigued as to the nature of the man, Shillington thought Jantjie’s story might make a fine book. Shillington described the meeting that finally pushed him past the tipping point – “…but the key that was the motivation that committed me to definitely getting this story written was his 98-year-old great nephew. In 1978, being so moved by my knowledge of and respect for Luka, he was unable to speak. His tapping me on the knee in silent emotion was my living link with Luka Jantjie – that emotion has haunted me ever since with constant reminders that this book must be written.”

According to Shillington, the rebellion was sparked by the colonial police shooting dead 17 cattle belonging to the Batlhaping of Phokwani, which had strayed out of the reserve onto a white-owned private farm. Shillington said “The rinderpest control policy of shooting all cattle of a herd in which a case of rinderpest had been discovered had in fact been abandoned shortly beforehand, but restrictions on cattle movement still applied. Petlhu, Galeshewe’s cousin demanded compensation. Compensation had been paid for the shooting of infected herds, but the magistrate in Taung ruled that the Batlhaping had failed to properly look after their cattle and compensation was not liable.”

Shillington continued “The leading men of Phokwani then roamed the reserve announcing that no government officials would be allowed into the reserve. When the police came to investigate, they were forcibly barred from entering. The government then considered the whole of the Phokwani section of the reserve to be ‘in rebellion’. They launched an attack which was beaten off, and volunteer regiments were brought up from Kimberley. On 26-7 December 1896, they forcibly entered Phokwani, to discover that 3 traders and their Khoesan servant, held as hostages against such an attack, had been killed. Galeshewe, who was across the border in the Transvaal at the time trying unsuccessfully to get Boer support for any British attack was personally held responsible for ‘rebellion’ and ‘murder’ and was pursued to the Langeberg – thus dragging Luka Jantjie into this conflict. But the underlying causes went much deeper.”

In the aftermath of the battle, even though he died with courage and honour, Luka Jantjie’s body was treated abominably. This is illustrated by a report in the Cape Argus of Wednesday the 25th of August 1897:

The incident has been increased in its horror by the statement of a Volunteer who had the misfortune to get drunk last night, that Luka Jantjie’s back was broken, and that the mutilated body was treated with great disrespect. This Volunteer was not drunk when he made the statement this morning, a night in the cells had perfectly sobered him. Happening to be in the Police Court yard, the representative of the Argus who wrote the original paragraph saw the unlucky warriors cooling their heels against the wall, awaiting slight punishment for drunkenness.

Without announcing his mission, our representative asked one of them :-

Do you happen to know anything of the burial of Luka Jantjie?

Yes he replied; he was buried face downwards.

Was his head cut off?

Well I don’t know, but I heard that it was. I helped to take him up so that Dokwa and the other chiefs
might identify him.

How deep was the grave?

About a foot deep.

Didn’t you see what was going on? – No, there was a crowd about and a good deal of noise, but I was told that his back was broken and he was tossed about.

What became of the head? – Oh, some said it had been put in spirits of wine for preservation. I never saw him after he was taken up.

Another Volunteer – an officer – vouches for the truth of a paragraph published yesterday, and says that in addition to the decapitation, Luka Jantjie’s hands and feet were cut off.

For the people Batlhaping and Batlharo people of the Batswana, the misery continued. Fully 2,000 of those still alive were indentured to farmers in the Western Cape. John Aldridge, the publisher of the book explains “Those who died during the siege were buried, if at all, there in the Langeberg, mainly in Twaai Kloof. However, many more died of starvation, sickness or their wounds walking from Langeberg via Kuruman to Vryburg, there to be entrained to Cape Town and indentured.”

Luka Jantjie

The British at that time had a penchant for making their conquests pay the military costs of their own subjugation. In Benin in the same year, 1897, Admiral Sir Harry Rawson led a punitive expedition in response to the massacre of a previous British-led invasion force. Some 1,200 men captured and then looted and burned Benin city. The war booty, including the pieces now know as the Benin Bronzes were confiscated by the British Admiralty and auctioned off to defray the costs of the expedition.

In his book, Shillington describes the confiscation of ‘rebel’ land. “The decision to pursue a policy of collective land confiscation for acts of rebellion in Bechuanaland was taken virtually the moment that the Phokwani reserve was declared to be ‘in rebellion’ in late December 1896.”

The trouble was that collective land confiscation was against colonial law, so a special confiscation act was signed into law on 25 June 1897, six months after the confiscation.

Sephai Mngqolo, director of the McGregor Museum in Kimberly, who is actively engaged in helping the Jantjie family investigate their heritage said “The history of the revolt was suppressed because the government of the Cape at that time couldn’t afford heroes.”

Khosi [King] Jantjie, current leader of the Jantjie branch of the Batlhaping never made any land claims on behalf of his people before the deadline of the 31st December, 1998. When pressed about the reason for his failure to claim, he simply said “I didn’t know about my history, I didn’t know about the Langeberg site or our other land during the land claim process.”

South Africa needs its heroes because its past is the foundation upon which it must seek to build its future.

“Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us, the labyrinth is fully known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the centre of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

— Joseph Campbell from The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Read More:

Luka Jantjie, resistance hero of the South African frontier by Kevin Shillington, available at Exclusives.

Images courtesy Wendy Goddard.

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