Almost forgotten piece of South African history

Review: Archie Henderson

Afrikaner Sondebok? Die Lewe van Hans van Rensburg Ossewagbrandwagleier, by Albert Blake (Jonathan Ball)

Hans van Rensburg is one of the most tragic figures of South African history in a country that is full of them. And he was also one of the most mysterious.

The title sondebok means scapegoat.

Over the past 80 years or so, Van Rensburg has not had a good press; now he gets a sympathetic hearing. Blake’s book is no hagiography, but the author goes the extra mile in attempting to understand this strange man, what motivated him and how he escaped justice.

At the height of his popularity  – the war years of 1939 to 1945 – Van Rensburg led what was the most popular grouping of white people in South Africa at the time. The Ossewabrandwag (Oxwagon Sentinels) grew from the rise of Afrikaner nationalism around the time of the centenary of the Groot Trek. In 1938 there was a bitterness among many Afrikaners against anything British or English and strong generational trauma stemming from the Boer War that had deprived them of their two republics and plunged many into poverty.

The OB at its high point had about 300 000 members, men and women. It had two offshoots, the Stormjaers and the Terreurgroep, that led the OB’s campaign of sabotage, assassination and general “opstokery” against Jan Smuts’s war effort. In the end it failed and the story remains obscure to most South Africans of today, many of whom suffer generational trauma of their own because of apartheid.

Van Rensburg grew up in the Free State town of Winburg with a grandfather who refused to join the Boers in their war against the British and a father who was a pacifist but joined the Boer forces as an unarmed medic. If that was confusing for a young Afrikaner boy, at the age of 16 he was drawn on to the side of the government in suppressing the Afrikaner rebellion of 1914. He was present at Mushroom Valley near Winburg where the Afrikaner rebels were routed amid much bloodshed. It was a turning point in Van Rensburg’s life. He became a passionate anti-British republican and a devotee of JBM Hertzog, prime minister from 1924 to 1939. Hertzog first made him secretary of justice when Van Rensburg was still in his 30s, then later administrator of the Free State before he’d turned 40.

When war broke out and Hertzog was ousted as prime minister, Van Rensburg turned traitor, undermining the war effort wherever he could without getting his hands too dirty. How he avoided incarceration remains one of the great mysteries of his life. Did he secretly collaborate with Smuts, who had succeeded Hertzog, and thereby prevent a general Afrikaner insurrection? Blake believes not and found no evidence of this. The most likely explanation is that Smuts did not want to make Van Rensburg a martyr (he had learnt his lesson with the execution of Jopie Fourie in World War I) and believed in giving the man enough rope. 

In the end, Van Rensburg might not have quite hanged himself, but he failed to achieve his political ambitions. Blake clearly sketches the great Afrikaner broedertwis of the time in which backstabbing, innuendo and calumny ran rife. He also gives a good understanding of the great ideological divide between the two conflicting Afrikaner elements: DF Malan’s National Party believed in parliamentary democracy while Van Rensburg’s OB, with its thuggish offshoots, believed in a kind of hybrid Nazi-Calvinist ideology. The former would prevail in the 1948 general election, but not without some elements of the latter.

Blake’s book is written in accessible Afrikaans and should not intimidate even unconfident English readers. It will be well worth the effort.

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