That Blêddie Spider
Nee kyk, Emmarenske Petronella Margaretha Heystek-du Plessis had NO time for the English. She was not alone in her disgust for one group of people… On the other side of town a certain Gert du Plessis’ daughter, Celestine, was as virulantly anti-Boer as Emmie was anti-Brit. (Were they the cousins of Emmie’s Du Plessis-husband?).
On June 13, 1900, Celestine wrote in her diary about the “great excitement” in town following rumours of the imminent arrival of the British troops: “To think that tomorrow night the the old Union Jack will probably be flying over Rustenburg.” Sure enough, on June 14, the “Kakies” entered Rustenburg and started patrolling the streets. “The excitement was tremendous, especially amongst the children. …the main body had camped behind a little hill some distance behind the town, and there was only a portion of mounted men at the Landdrost’s office. The horses were mostly ugly Boer ones, and the men in khaki and travel-stained.” (In fact, the English discovered their European thoroughbreds were no match for field life in South Africa and that the Boere did much better with their Basotho ponies, so the Brits then made a trade deal with the Basothos for these hardy creatures. The breed was nearly wiped out in this process, since the Brits bought 15,000 stallions and gelded them all. During the First Boer War in 1880 the Brits had also learnt that their red uniforms made them the worst target for their enemy in the new unconventional warfare of the Boer tactics. Khaki was a drab material used first in wars in India—the Urdu/Hindi word “khaki” means earth or dust color. Thus started this particular Boer nickname for the British soldiers.) Celestine continued: “At about 09h00 the old Union Jack was put up [in front of the Landdrost Kantoor], and a faint cheer went up, but there was no demonstration as General Baden-Powell had given orders to have everything done as quietly as possible, he thought the Boer inhabitants must be feeling it keenly, giving up one of their strongholds, as this is supposed to be. Most of the townspeople went up then and the ladies had a nice place opposite the office where we could see most of the men…”. (Swoon!).
During the following days a new British civil administration took over in town, and law and order continued as before. Old Landdrost Brink, who often received butter from the Heysteks, was reinstated in his post until his English replacement arrived. Some pro-British townspeople offered to sell eggs, chickens, bread, vegetables and oranges from their gardens and orchards to the English soldiers. In his book, “Rustenburg at War”, Wulfsohn writes that Celestine “must have been in her seventh heaven of delight, when she and her family entertained all the well known British officers.” (Can’t you just imagine the movie scene for this?)
Emotions on the Boer side were running upside-down. English reinforcements had arrived in February of 1900, breaking a series of Boer sieges of towns in the Z.A.R. where the English soldiers had been garrisoned. The fall of Mafeking in particular hit our Rustenburg people hard: many of them were part of this siege with the hope of ending the British annexation of the Boer Republics. Some Boere– including Pres. Paul Kruger’s own son Piet who had been captured–were heartsick enough to defect and sign the British oath of neutrality. They were ready to sit the war out on their farms. As the Kakies marched into town on June 14, the Rustenburg Commando was on the verge of collapse. State Attorney Jan Smuts and General Botha wrote letters encouraging these defectors to join the commandos again. Gen. de la Rey (we will hear more about his involvement with our family later), was told to return to the western Transvaal and encourage the defectors to join up again—which he did with a sjambok and the whip of his tongue, apparently…
To help inspire the doubtful Rustenburgers back into the Commando, Jan Smuts suggested the recapture of Rustenburg. A false rumor of an impending attack on nearby Pretoria was circulated, sending the Brits in a mad rush to fortify two passes and leaving Rustenburg quite defenseless… Celestine wrote in her diary that July 4 was a “day of dread” for the British sympathisers when they woke up to the town completely devoid of British soldiers, and the Z.A.R “Vierkleur” (four-color) flag flying in front of the Landdrost office. Thus started the game of musical flags: the Kakies returned and hoisted their flag; the Boere took advantage of ensuing battles that drew the Kakies out of town again and replaced the Union Jack with the Vierkleur.
During one of these absences, on the other side of town…
Emmarenske Heystek-du Plessis had her own personal issues with the Kakies in addition to the almost-century-long family animosity against the English. After all, Emmie’s great-grandmother was part of the company of women who, after the British annexed Port Natal in 1843, declared that they would trek “liever barravoets over de Drakensberg dan onder de Britsche vlag” (rather barefoot over the Drakensberg mountains than [live] under the British flag”). They had been living in Port Natal in relative peace since their victory over the Zulus in 1838.
Back in Rustenburg, Emmie’s husband, Theunis, was trying to slip away to join the Boer commandos in the hills. Theunis had just been commandeered to continue his administrative work at the Landdrost office for the new British administration, but he refused to work for his enemy. Emmie had hidden a Z.A.R Vierkleur flag (four colors) in their baby boy’s pram while visiting her sister, our Ouma Hannie.
The two sisters walked past the Landdrost offices, disgusted with that hated Union Jack flying over Rustenburg. No Kakie was in sight, and Emmie realized that they had forgotten “die spinnekop” (spider—their curse word for the Union Jack) on the flag pole. Emmie and Hannie brazenly plucked the “spider” off the pole, tore it into shreds and strew the pieces on the ground. They took the Vierkleur out of her baby’s pram and hoisted it, “there rises our never-forgotten Vierkleur up on the pole where it had been flying for years”… By nightfall the Vierkleur was of course gone and Celestine’s beloved Union Jack flew high over Rustenburg again. The next day Theunis was taken captive. Years later, as she wrote about this episode, Emmie wondered which Englishman might still be in possession of that Vierkleur.
It seems many a British (in this case Canadian) soldier relished taking the Vierkleur home as their personal keepsake. This particular company was recorded as having been in Rustenburg, although the article speculates on a more heroic version of where the flag was taken from.
Lionel Wulfsohn, “Rustenburg at War”
Emmarenske Heystek-du-Plessis’ letter to her family
Article on the Basoto Pony in the “New Scientist”, 18 Feb 1982, p. 458.
The comment about barefoot women is attributed to Susanna Smit, sister of Voortrekker leader Gert Maritz.
Previously published on: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Lampens/