Attempting to get the first word on the South African War,(and given the quality of speakers and the quality of the conference organisation, it would appear also the last), UNISA ran a symposium on "Rethinking the South African War" from the third to the fifth of August.
If one could imagine going to a psychology conference and being lectured to by Freud, followed by Jung and Pavlov, one gets an idea of what attending the conference was like.
The speakers, from every corner of the globe, from as far away as Canada, every one having written the textbook on one aspect of the war. Many biographers who had written on the major role players were also there signing books and sharing notes.
What was ironic was the attention payed to the conference by the local Afrikaans press (front page of the BEELD, and overseas media (Twenty-Twenty television), while it received scant mention in the English media, and when it did it was often misreported.
From the outset the conference was going to be contentious. While the main things historians are usually concerned with (the causes, the course of individual battles and consequences) were refreshingly ignored. Over sixty two papers delivered over the three day period..
The majority of papers concentrated on the social and cultural history of the war many of which are "hot topics" in the nineties but need to be considered. This included issues of gender and identity, all too often ignored. How should the war be remembered? (substitute commemorated), and what was the role of the media in the war? How did this affect the literature of the age? Many of these questions remain unanswered, but are relevant. Also refreshing was the emphasis given to the history of health and nursing.
Albert Grundigh of Unisa, (and author of Abrahm Essau’s War), set the tone in the opening plenary by questioning the whether it was possible to "rethink" a war, and then went on to prove it could be done. What was the effect on afrikaner nationalism, and societal perspectives of today.
Possibly the most important paper was delivered by Helen Bradford also from U.C.T. who highlighted gender issues and some of the problems that historians have with looking critically at war from a gender perspective."For too long the South African war has seen as a white mans war." Is it not true that some men were encouraged by messages from their women in concentration camps to continue fighting and become the "biterre-eindes". By the same token many of the men were encouraged to stop the war to end the suffering of women and children in the camps.
The final day of the congress looked at regional and global effects of the war. This prompted some interesting papers from the University of the North West, concerning the role of the Bakgatla in the Pilansberg as well as the Ferreira raid of 1906 and its effect on international relations.
All in all it was fascinating, very academic and way over my head most of the time. If the quality of organisation and papers delivered at this conference is indicative of things to come, we are in for a great centenary.