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War and Food

Surviving a Concentration Camp in South Africa

Dawn van Rensburg


The story of Gertie van Rensburg, told by her daughter-in-law, Dawn van Rensburg
written by Meryl Grebe

The long drive up to the 'Gelykwater' (meaning 'Level Water' in Afrikaans) farmhouse is a delight with indigenous wooly creatures scuttling out of the way of the car, and hundreds of birds swooping at meals hidden in the long African grass. Their excited song expresses delight at each new stolen morsel.

Originally built in 1896, the enormous farmhouse that once served as a school, a Red Cross hospital proclaimed by A G Dannhauser himself, headquarters for General Louis Botha as well as a homestead to the de Jager family, exudes a rich history. Her huge stone frontage and wrap around 'stoep' or verandah with its breathtaking vista over the hills of Babanango has endured the footsteps of families, soldiers, scholars and the wounded for more than a century.Ben van Rensburgs mother, Gertie, was a girl of 5 when war came to the peaceful Zululand hills. We are privileged to be able to glean a glimpse of life in the majestic old house, as well as her time spent in an English concentration camp in Durban, Natal through her memoirs."A child of 5 years old cannot be relied on to give a clear description but certain incidences clearly stand out," she wrote in her clear, bold hand shortly before her death. The year was 1901, and the Anglo Boer war was in full thrust although little Gertina 'Gertie' Anna de Jager and her siblings felt safe and secure in their sturdy farmhouse surrounded by acres of lush and yielding land. Her parents Geesje and Lodewyk worked hard to make the farm productive and provide for their large family. They had experienced much disruption to their serene if hard working lives before the war. Right now, the house served as a makeshift Red Cross hospital for wounded soldiers, and Ma (mother) Geesje and two of her daughters, Siena and Johanna did the housework and assisted the doctors and nursing staff by collecting and disposing of bloodied bandages, providing clean bedding and despite the poverty experienced during times of war, wholesome food for all.Times were hard and the resolute Boer women had what it took to not only endure the dearth of foodstuffs, but make the most of what they had. Gertie remembered the Austrian doctor, Dr. Albrecht, walking into the kitchen and peering into the steaming pots. In pot number one 'stamp mielies' (dried corn) boiled, pot number two held 'mielies' (corn on the cob) and in the third pot he found a half cooked 'mielie brood' (corn bread). Shaking his head, all the man could say was 'Good Lord!'It all ended with the arrival of two open wagons guarded by British soldiers. The family was loaded on in just the clothes they wore, their travelling companions, two wounded Boer soldiers, both recent amputees, unceremoniously taken from their hospital beds. Bare to the wintery elements, the sad group was taken to a neighbouring farm to await more prisoners. It was from there that little Gertie remembered seeing the thin ribbon of black smoke and realised that their home was being burnt down. Little did the family know then, but the proud Gelykwater farmhouse was only prepared to forsake weak bricks, mortar and tin. Her sturdy stone façade stayed erect and would later form the front of the new homestead.Joined by more prisoners of war, and still in open wagons, the family was taken to a prisoner of war camp in Eshowe where they stayed for 2 months, enduring meagre meals of weevil infested mielie pap (corn porridge). Little Gertie was struck down by 'maagkoers' or diarrhea but miraculously she survived. It took 2 months before those afflicted by the outbreak of diarrhea had recovered sufficiently enough to travel, and they were transported to a large concentration camp in Merebank, Durban which was to become their home for the next 9 months.The de Jager family survived the war and their term in the concentration camp. They returned to their beloved Gelykwater and rebuilt their home around the stone façade that had withstood the fire. Gertie grew up and married, giving birth to five children including Ben. She died in 1985 and was buried along with her husband in the family graveyard situated a short distance from the main house, joining the remains of 15 Boer soldiers who had died during the battle of Itala as well as the 21 'burghers' (Afrikaans pioneers) also buried there.

In 1955 Ben married Dawn Kuhn and settled down happily in the old farm house where Dawn gave birth to three daughters, Christa, Annette and Guida. Tea in the sprawling farmhouse is a delight, with no trace of the scarcity of food once experienced by her much loved mother-in-law. The tea table is laden with delicious home-baked cake, koeksusters (twists of plaited dough, deep fried and dunked in a sugar syrup, served cold) and other delectable tit-bits. When asked for a recipe, Dawn didn't hesitate for a second before answering 'Mielie bread!' and we both chuckled, remembering Dr. Albrechts horror at three pots, all filled with different variations of corn!


For more articles about South Africa:

tannie babs of babanango
a fishy tale on valentine's day in 1956
sunup in south africa
cape malay cooking (with recipes)


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