The terrible laughter of the Afrikaner

A young Boer guerrilla fighter, Deneys Reitz, described the defeated Boer commandos drifting into the camps in May 1902, as a rabble of “starving, ragged men, clad in skins or sacking, their bodies covered with sores, from lack of salt and food…their appearance was a great shock to us, who came from the betterconditioned forces in the Cape.” In the aftermath of the South African War (1899–1902), the Afrikaner seemed defeated—the rural economy was shattered, family farms were destroyed and more than 25 000 Boer women and children were dead in the concentration camps. Yet in this apocalyptic post-war world, something strange was happening. Afrikaners were laughing.

This phenomenon was observed with wonder by English philanthropist Emily Hobhouse, who had reported on the conditions in the camps and the aftermath of the scorched earth policy. She wrote, for example, of the Van Graan brothers, who had both suffered enormous losses during the war. One “had seven little mouths to feed. He got seed potatoes from Repatriation for a promissory note, but the drought killed them. His brother lent him oxen to plough with, so he put in a little seed, but till it is ripe he has nothing to live upon. His beautiful house is in ruins, his blue gums all but two cut down, his fruit trees chopped.” “But”, Hobhouse continued, “how he laughed, and how his brother laughed.” Hobhouse further observed that “[l]ike all the other burghers [Boer General] De Wet is laughing. If he did not, he says, he should die. It makes him great fun. I do regret not being quick enough to catch all the Dutch proverbs which spice his conversation, nor the humour which runs through all the family talk— they speak so quickly”. In a rural hamlet in the Orange Free State, Hobhouse encountered “a poor man”, who—when she offered him some meal—said: “I shall be so glad that I shall laugh without feeling any inclination to laugh.” In Pretoria, Hobhouse noted, the Boers “say little and only laugh.” She concluded:
“There is getting to be something quite terrible to me in this laugh of the Boers which meets me everywhere. It is not all humour, nor all bitter, though partly both; it is more like the laughter of despair.We sit in a row by these stable walls and discuss every project possible and impossible, and then we laugh. Now and again the tears come into the men’s eyes, but never into the women’s except when they speak of children lost in the camps.”

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