a talk presented on 19 July 2018 to the Friends of Smuts House
BY NICK COWLEY
Deneys Reitz is perhaps best known today for his book ‘Commando’ (pic1). It is a South Africanclassic, a truly wonderful account of the Anglo-Boer War from the perspective of an ordinary fighterin the Boer ranks, but one with extraordinary literary gifts – gifts well beyond his years, as Reitz wasonly 17 when the conflict began and 20 when it ended. I’ll be drawing heavily on his book and itsrich store of anecdotes, amplifying where necessary, as I describe for you how the precociousteenager experienced the war that shaped the future of our country. The war was the backdrop forwhat I believe Reitz saw as the most vivid and intense part of his life, and for this reason I’ll bedevoting more than half of my talk to his part in it, and the rest to his remaining 40-odd years, whichwere eventful and significant, but not quite as compelling as those action-packed 33 months at theend of his teenage years.
Deneys Reitz (pic2) came from what we might call the Boer aristocracy, and had a streak ofcosmopolitan sophistication from the start. He was born in Bloemfontein in 1882, the son of thethen president of the Orange Free State Republic, Francis Reitz, while his mother was a Thesen, fromthe Norwegian family well known at Knysna. He tells us that as a boy he and his brothers enjoyed a‘Tom Sawyer-like existence’. The phrase is revealing of both the mental and physical advantages inhis upbringing: he learned to ride, swim, fish and shoot at a very early age, and went on longcamping and hunting expeditions across plains teeming with game; but he was also brought upreading classic English-language literature, obviously including Mark Twain. At twelve, as part of thepresidential family, he went on a European tour of the Netherlands, Belgium, England and Scotland –the last reflecting a strong affinity, because his father and grandfather had both studied in Scotland,his grandfather had met Sir Walter Scott and the family read almost every evening from Scott’snovels. This wide reading would exhibit itself at some strange junctures in Deneys’s life, as we willsee; and of course his command of English went a very long way beyond mere bilingualism.
When the Anglo-Boer war arrived in 1899, the 17-year-old Reitz was actually too young to fight; butby that time his father was State Secretary of the ZAR, or Transvaal republic and they were living inPretoria, so the teenager simply went to President Kruger himself (pic3), who growlingly pulled thenecessary strings while stipulating to young Deneys that he had to take out at least three rooineks,as that was the ratio by which the Boers were outnumbered. Reitz was enrolled in the ZAR forces,and a few days later boarded a train for the Natal border, as part of the Pretoria Commando. Atypical Boer commando looked like this (pic4)
His first taste of action was a small skirmish near Dundee, which saw the Boers forcing a Britishdetachment to surrender. Two of his observations are immediately worth noting: he wasdisappointed that the enemy troops were wearing drab khaki, not the bright scarlet coatsthat he’d seen on his trip to Britain, which somehow made the war less glamorous; andsecondly that he went out of his way to chat to any of the captured British troops whowanted to talk, as he would do throughout the war.
Reitz was with the Boer forces for the entire Siege of Ladysmith, but the one major Natal battle hetook part in was the most terrible and confused of the war – the one on top of Spion Kop inFebruary 1900. He was among the Boers and Brits who both lay pinned down by each other’s fire anentire day and both retreated down the slopes overnight – but with the dawn he was among thefirst Boers who reclaimed the summit. With a truce called, Reitz helped the British stretcherbearers, many of them Indians, remove their dead and wounded (pic5) – and so, though he doesn’tmention it, might well have seen the then Mohandas Gandhi. He probably didn’t see anotherseminal figure of the 20th century, Winston Churchill, who was at Spion Kop as a courier but not onthe crest; (pic6) however, Reitz had met him some two months ago in Sunnyside, Pretoria, where hewas on home leave and Churchill was briefly a prisoner in Boer hands, with Reitz’s father censoringhis newspaper dispatches.
(Pic7) After the war in Natal ended with the Relief of Ladysmith, Reitz embarked on an odyssey thattook him thousands of kilometres the length and breadth of South Africa, mainly on horsebackthough often on foot, during which time he managed to take part in several significant battles veryfar apart. If you see me gesturing in the air, it’s on an imaginary map of the country, which Reitz willcriss-cross for the remainder of the war. From Natal, he initially went in stages to Pretoria, one stepahead of the advancing British juggernaut; then after the fall of the capital, headed east to find hisfather and President Kruger, who were running a sort of fugitive mobile government and had withthem the Transvaal treasury, which supposedly became the Kruger Millions - and he found them atMachadodorp. Soon afterwards, not far away near Belfast, he took part in the Boers’ last stand in apitched battle before turning to guerilla warfare (pic8), - which we call the Battle of Bergendal orDalmanutha: we’ve probably all seen this monument from the N4 highway – the kids always say itlooks like a space rocket, and have to be briefed to show respect. Reitz came close to the borderwith then Portuguese Mozambique before turning north. The Lowveld made a deep impression onhim, as a direct quote from his book shows: “Our road ran through the Sabi low country, teemingwith big game…By day great herds of zebra, wildebeest and sable stood fearlessly gazing at us, andat night lions prowled roaring around our camps….to me this journey through a strange and remoteregion was full of fascination….our way leading by Graskop and Pilgrim’s Rest amid mountains andforests and gorges more beautiful than any I know of in South Africa.” This lasting fascination withthe Lowveld would have a great effect later in his life, as we’ll see.
Meanwhile, the war continued. Reitz now doubled back westwards some 300 kilometres toWarmbaths, now Bela Bela, where General Louis Botha was re-organising the Boer forces for theguerilla war, and joined a unit that pushed further west to the Magaliesberg. Here he found himselfserving under the most formidable Boer general of all (pic9), Jacobus Herculaas - the name meansHercules – de la Rey – the Lion of the Western Transvaal, who in the 21 st century could still stopbraaivleis conversations with that catchy but controversial song resurrecting him. Under De la Reyand General Christiaan De Wet, Reitz was part of a Boer force that overwhelmed a British convoy onthe south side of the Magaliesberg, in what we call the Battle of Nooitgedacht – the last major Boervictory of the war.
It was after this battle that Reitz happened to walk past two lightly wounded British officers whowere awaiting evacuation cheerfully enough – the Boers had no facilities for holding prisoners. Oneof them said to the other: “Here comes a typical young Boer for you”. Finding he could speakEnglish, they asked Reitz why the Boers were continuing with an unwinnable war. He astonishedthem by replying with a reference to one of the then most popular English novels ‘DavidCopperfield’, “You see, we’re like Mr Micawber, waiting for something to turn up”. The gobsmackedEnglish officers burst out laughing, and one said to his companion “I told you this was a funnycountry, and now here’s your typical young Boer quoting Dickens”.
Reitz yo-yo’d east and west across the Transvaal again, then spent the next year or so traversingmost of the Western Transvaal and then his native Orange Free State. For several months he was stillunder the command of De la Rey; Reitz greatly respected the doughty warrior, but saw a flaw in theconstant presence at his side of a self-proclaimed prophet known as ‘Siener’ van Rensburg (pic10).Reitz thought him a charlatan, and tells a story debunking him with relish. A brilliant twin-tailedcomet or meteor was seen in the sky once night; and Van Rensburg proclaimed that its double tailformed a V, which he said stood for Vrede, meaning peace was at hand. But in fact the Boers werebeing increasingly harried by the ever growing British forces in the area, and one of the men assceptical as Reitz piped up, “No, Mr Van Rensburg, that V must stand for Vlug” – meaning flight.
Reitz was later without affiliation to any fixed unit in the haphazard Boer organization, until one dayin mid-1901 he came across a not too dated newspaper, which brought him up to date on recentevents, including the invasion of the Cape Colony by a number of Boer forces. Reitz – always eagerto travel - decided there and then to find and join such a force. To telescope events, he crossed theOrange River near Zastron and entered the north-eastern comer of the Cape Colony, near present-day Lesotho, where he found a Boer commando under none other than the erstwhile ZAR StateAttorney turned senior Boer general, Jan Christian Smuts (pic11). Reitz, who had known Smuts as acolleague of his father’s, would follow his commando, though often separated from them, cleanacross from the east to the west in an invasion which is one of the most interesting and least wellknown episodes of this war.
It was nearly aborted early on in the Dordrecht area, when Smuts himself went with three horsemento scout a farm with the ominous name of Moordenaars Poort and came back many hours lateralone and on foot – an enemy patrol had ambushed them, and only Smuts escaped, profoundlyaffecting South African history. Smuts lost his horse and saddle – and that saddle is today kept -anybody know? – here in the Big House museum. By huge coincidence, the enemy patrol, whichReitz generically calls British, was in fact part of a colonial militia commanded by Smuts’s futureneighbouring landowner here on this side of Irene – the diamond magnate Thomas Cullinan, whospent the war in his native Eastern Cape.
(Pic12) From there the commando, and Reitz individually, moved in a generally south-west directionacross the vast Cape Colony. They had an epic journey of enormous hardships, sleeping rough inrugged mountains, often in the worst of weather, usually hungry and sleepless, avoiding theubiquitous British forces and occasionally clashing with them. Of his many hair-raising adventures, Ican only tell you a few.
To cross the first big obstacle, the Stormberg, while evading the British, they had to take their horsesdown a near-vertical slope in pitch darkness. By the time they’d crossed the next range, theWinterberg, their clothing, food, horses and weapons were so worn and depleted that Smutsdecreed that they had to attack a small British camp to replenish. This happened near Tarkastad inwhat we call the battle of Elands River, in which the commando overwhelmed a British cavalry unitin their camp, the 17th Lancers. Reitz’s usual post-battle sociability with the enemy won him ahandsome reward here: a wounded aristocratic British officer, Lord Vivian, pointed to his bivouactent and told Deneys to help himself, saying a gift was better than loot. Reitz says he entered thetent wearing a grain bag and rotting sandals, armed with a rusty old Mauser rifle and one clip ofammunition; he emerged kitted out in a smart cavalry tunic, breeches and boots, with a new LeeEnfield rife and two full bandoliers.
Later, in the heavily wooded Zuurberg mountains – whose scenic beauty Reitz had time to note -many of the hungry Boers devoured a type of cycad called Hottentotsbrood, deceived by its name;many of them, including Smuts, had to struggle on with severe food poisoning for several days. Theycame close enough to Grahamstown to drive its authorities to desperate measures; with very fewregular troops left in town, schoolboy cadets at St Andrew’s, Kingswood and other now famousschools were ordered to dig and man trenches; if Reitz had had to fight the schoolboys, he wouldhave told himself that he was only 17 when he went to war.
Not much later the Boers could see the lights of Port Elizabeth in the distance, and speculatedwhether Smuts would attack the town and try to capture the harbour at which so many Britishtroops were landing to torment them. Instead, Smuts told them they were heading for the far westof the Cape Colony, where there were more burghers of Dutch descent who might sympathise withthem.
Pushing on westwards as the coast fell away to the south, in the vicinity of Oudtshoorn they had tocross the worst mountain range of all – the rugged Swartberg. It was here that Reitz and a smallgroup he was then with, harried by British patrols, made a steep and treacherous descent into analmost inaccessible valley. His vivid narrative here deserves to be quoted: “a shaggy giant ingoatskins appeared and spoke to us in strange outlandish Dutch. He was a white man namedCordier, who lived here with his wife and a brood of half-wild children, in complete isolation fromthe outside world….. “ After being entertained with goats’ meat, milk and wild honey, they spentthe night with what Reitz, well read as ever, describes as ‘this curious Swiss Family Robinson’. Hedoesn’t name this remote spot, but we know where it was (pic13) and here’s the oldest extantpicture of a dwelling there, probably much like the one where they slept - can anyone figure outwhere it was? Gamkaskloof, or Die Hel, which was only linked to the outside world by a gravel roadin the 1930s.
Once across the Swartberg, they pushed westwards, and the closest they came (here) to Cape Townwas Riebeek Kasteel – can anyone guess why? Yes, and Smuts tapped his father for funds, more likea university student than a general in the field. From there, not venturing closer to Cape Town, theymoved northward roughly along today’s N7 road towards Clanwilliam. With the British lesspervasive in this area, they had time for a little fun. Reitz tells us that somewhere near Clanwilliam,Smuts ordered all his men who’d never seen the sea in their lives to report to him; about sixty menreported, and Smuts then led them to the coast at the mouth of the Olifants River. The landsmen fellsilent on seeing the vast expanse, then all rushed forward and galloped their horses into the waves.Reitz writes that the excited Boers shouted “‘The sea, the sea’, like the Greek soldiers.” (pic14). Thisthrowaway allusion once again shows the breadth of his reading – it refers to an incident recordedby the Ancient Greek historian Xenophon, who describes how a Greek mercenary force that hadmarched right across Asia Minor from present-day Iran finally reached the Mediterranean coast, andseeing this familiar element at last, likewise yelled in their tongue ‘The sea, the sea!’. No, Reitzcouldn’t read Classical Greek – unlike Smuts, who, as you may know, had to write an entrance examin it for Cambridge having never studied the language in his life; he locked himself in his rooms for aweek before the exam and then came top in the Cape Colony! Reitz wasn’t in quite that league: hemust have read Xenophon translated into English, or maybe Dutch or German.(Pic15) Smuts’s Boer landsmen exuberantly rode their horses into the sea; this picture is actually ofAustralian mounted soldiers in the First World War, but it must have looked much the same. Reitzjokingly asked a local fisherman the way to England; he told him they were going to ride across thesea and take London the next day. Some days later, they told the story to Commandant ManieMaritz, a somewhat controversial figure who’d been leading a separate Boer force near the WestCoast. Maritz responded with a sea story of his own: two of his men had been riding on the beachnear Lamberts Bay when they saw a British cruiser just offshore; they daringly fired at it with theirrifles, but the bullets merely spattered on the ship’s armour. The British crew began to train one oftheir ship’s guns on the Boer horsemen, who then thought it wiser to scarper inland. They returnedto Maritz‘s force boasting that they’d fought the only naval action of the Anglo-Boer war!
(Pic16) From this area Smuts and his commando, including Reitz, moved further north intoNamaqualand, as he wanted to target the three copper-mining sister villages of Springbok,Concordia and O’okiep, all close together. They took Springbok and Concordia easily, but O’okiep –then the biggest of the three – held out. Reitz was sent by Smuts to call on the garrison tosurrender: he was told “Surrender be damned” by a bunch of ‘Brummagem boys’’ - anyone herefrom Birmingham? So Reitz’s war ended as it had begun, with a siege – he’d come a long way fromLadysmith to O’okiep - for by now it was May 1902, and a message came under a white flag fromKitchener to Smuts, bidding him to the peace talks in Vereeniging, with the necessary safe conductand transport provided. Smuts, knowing Reitz’s father would be at the talks, chose Deneys to comealong as his Orderly. This post gave him some trouble with the strict hierarchic protocol of theBritish military, as they decided an orderly was a batman with a lowly rank, and placed him in anopen cattle truck with the luggage at the end of the train! Learning who Reitz was, the Britishfortunately then decided he was more like Smut’s chief-of-staff, a post of commissioned rank –which Reitz describes as a record rapid promotion! He spent the rest of the journey in far greaterluxury than he’d enjoyed for the past 32 months in the veld.
Reitz was duly re-united with his father, who was still the State Secretary of the beleaguered ZAR,and took part in the peace negotiations and final signing of the treaty at Melrose House (pic 17). Inthis historic painting, Francis Reitz is the last Boer standing, with pen in hand; you may recognisenear him Botha, Delarey, and at the top left corner De Wet next to a glowering Kitchener andsatisfied Lord Milner. Deneys, who’d waited on the sidelines during these high proceedings, thenwent with his father to Balmoral in what is now Mpumalanga to convey the news of the Boersurrender and help demobilize the commando with which Francis Reitz had been serving. Therefollowed a rough ceremony under a bushveld tree at which the Boers had to hand in their rifles andsign an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. Francis Reitz, a doyen of both Boer republics, refusedto sign, and therefore had to go into exile. Deneys tells us he had no strong convictions on thematter, but felt he had to stand by his father - one wonders if he would had signed had his father notbeen present. Be that as it may, he too was deported, and ended up eking out a living as a transportdriver in Madagascar. This was perhaps the worst year of his life, as he was sick with malaria ordengue fever for much of the time, and never took to the island. He did, however, manage to writedown his memoirs of the war, initially in Dutch, which would become the book ‘Commando’. Hekept in touch with Smuts, and when a letter arrived from the lady of this house, Tannie Issie,suggesting he return home, accept the new dispensation, and live with them, he decided to accept.Racked with fever on his way home, he passed out at Pretoria station, where fortunately somebodyrecognized him and brought him to the Smuts home – not yet the Big House, as this was 1903 andthey moved into it in 1909.
Reitz was nursed back to health by the Smutses, and stayed with them for three years (pic18); in hismid-20s he’d already lost most of his hair, as you see. He also studied law like his father; and by1908 he was back in his native Free State, now the Orange River Colony, practising law in the smalltown of Heilbron. The name means ‘healthy spring’, but in August 1914 it suddenly became a veryunhealthy place for Reitz. The reason was that the new Union of South Africa’s decision to join theFirst World War on the British side had triggered what we call the Boer Rebellion, the uprising byAfrikaners who saw it as an opportunity to throw off the British yoke and restore their lost republics.Heilbron was a hotbed of the rebellion; and Reitz, as the most prominent loyalist in the area, oneday received word that a band of rebels were on their way to seize and perhaps shoot him. Reitzmade an escape worthy of later cowboy films: he leaped onto horseback, galloped to the railway linewith the rebels thundering behind, and sprang from his horse onto a moving train – perhaps his widereading had included some early Wild West novels!
Reitz soon found himself in charge of a loyalist unit fighting the rebels, his first military command.When he heard that government forces had used motor cars to chase down the famous former Boergeneral Christiaan de Wet at the head of horse-mounted rebels, Reitz expressed sadness, less at DeWet’s capture than at seeing the end of a great and picturesque era of Boers waging war onhorseback.
Reitz then moved on to the international Great War: (pic19) his second book would later recount hisrole in it. Serving under Smuts again, he was with the Union forces that invaded German South WestAfrica. He tells us the German commander at Windhoek, seeing the agile South African horsemen –many from Boer backgrounds - harrying his troops from all directions, complained ‘This isn’t war; it’sa hippodrome” – which Reitz possibly saw as the real last hurrah for Boer horse-mounted warfare.He then followed Smuts to East Africa, a tough campaign where he was on the staff and saw littlecombat. In 1917 he asked to go to Europe, and joined the terrible conflict on the Western Front forthe final year of the war. By now a Major, he commanded first an English unit from Shropshire, thenthe Royal Irish Rifles. This was at a time of mounting tension in Ireland itself; and Reitz more thanonce had to defuse clashes between his men, from the Catholic South, and other troops from theProtestant North or Ulster, often called Orangemen in a mocking reference to an earlier Dutch kingof England. Reitz thought it more prudent not to tell them he came from the Orange Free State,ultimately named after the same Dutch royal house.
His last command was as Colonel of a Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers – a distinction he sharedwith - anybody? –Churchill. Reitz found with English, Scottish and Irish troops alike, even those fromthe countryside, that, with his Boer background, he had a great deal to tell them about bushcraft,bivouacking in the open and the like. It was for this sort of reason that, despite his senior rank, heopted to go and locate a pesky well-concealed German machine gun nest for himself instead ofentrusting the task to any of his Scots. He was badly wounded as a result, while earning what hesays was his only military decoration, which he calls the ‘Bronze Sprig’. I cannot find any such awardamong British, South African, French or Belgian decorations, and wonder if this was a bit of typicalReitz humour, suggesting he never was decorated. Be that as it may, he spent some time in hospitaland then returned to the Fusiliers, by now near the hotly contested town of Cambrai, in the secondweek of November 1918 – just in time for the Armistice, which forcibly impressed Reitz, like everyother soldier in the field, with that almost surreal, eerie quiet when the guns fell silent.
Back in South Africa after the war, he resumed his legal career and also entered politics, of whichmore in a moment. Not yet married, he found himself one of the cleverest and most driven womenin South Africa (pic20). Leila Agnes Buissiné Wright, here seen in later life, grew up in Cape Town andwon a scholarship to Newnham College at Cambridge, where she graduated with an MA in history,and then returned home to lecture at UCT. She also became a determined activist for women’srights, especially their right to vote and rights within a marriage – while herself marrying a trainedlawyer: she met Deneys Reitz when he came to Cape Town as part of Parliament, and they weremarried in 1920. More of Leila later.
Reitz moved from war back to law, and his post-war legal career went so well that in 1922 he set uphis own law firm – no prizes for guessing its name. Deneys Reitz Inc prospered from the start, aswe’ll see later. Reitz also took to politics, siding with his mentor Smuts, then Prime Minister, and hisSouth African Party. The cartoonist Boonzaaier (pic20a) drew him, capturing his energy and humour.Reitz was soon promoted to the cabinet as Minister of Agriculture, which also covered Land Affairs.His most lasting achievement was to negotiate the purchase from farmers in the then EasternTransvaal of land for the Kruger National Park. This had a significant effect on his private life: hedeveloped the fascination with the Lowveld region that he’d first conceived during the Anglo-BoerWar, and this led him to buy a farm for himself close to the Park but not required for it, near thepresent-day Orpen Gate. (pic21) Though the terrain, seen here, couldn’t have been less like a royalpalace estate in eastern England, he gave it the grand name of Sandringham, and thereafter took hisfamily there for holidays most years. Today, it’s the Sandringham Private Nature Reserve.
Once out of cabinet when Smuts lost the 1924 election, Reitz found a new political reason for visitingthe Lowveld frequently: he stood in 1929 for the constituency of Barberton, then sprawling over ahuge area beyond the town. Two good stories illustrate the challenges of election roadshows in theregion at the time. Once, Reitz and a companion were driving on a country road to a campaignmeeting, when an aggressive-looking lion blocked their way. Unarmed, they had to stop and let thelion glower at them for some minutes, until – perhaps deciding it didn’t like the taste of politicians –it slunk off. When Reitz addressed the meeting later, he started by telling the audience he’d alreadymet one of his potential constituents who had clearly disapproved of him – but luckily this onewasn’t on the voters’ roll! On another occasion, he went to a deep rural valley to canvass the votesof an isolated Afrikaner, or Boer, community for whom, like the family at Gamkaskloof three decadesearlier, time had stood still. Their leader addressed him in High Dutch, which they still used forformal occasions, and began with the pointed question: under which generals had the candidatefought during the late war? Reitz named Botha and Smuts, getting a lukewarm reaction, but thenwas very hesitant to mention any of the British top brass – until the questioner added “But did thecandidate also fight under De Wet and Delarey?” Reitz then knew which war was meant and couldanswer truthfully, Yes.
Reitz was convincing enough to be elected as MP for Barberton in 1929 and again in 1934, when hereturned to government as part of the newly formed United Party – the same one some of you mayremember as the Official Opposition up to the 70s.
He became a cabinet minister again, serving in various portfolios until the fateful year of 1939, whenthe Union Parliament voted narrowly to join the Second World War on the British side. With Smutsas Prime Minister again, Reitz became Deputy Prime Minister. This was especially important duringthe war years, because Smuts was often in England as Churchill’s virtual deputy, leaving Reitz intemporary charge of the Union of South Africa – the pinnacle of his career. (Pic23) One way to solvea tough political problem at that time was to put it in your pipe and smoke it. From today’sperspective, his most significant act in that office was a 1941 meeting with a delegation from theANC, then neither militant nor banned, and led by Mr Xuma – spelt with an X, not a Z. The meetingwas cordial, and Reitz agreed with the black leaders on two ideas decades ahead of their time – thatthe pass laws should be abolished, and that representation of Africans should be extended. Reitzagreed to take up these points with Smuts when wartime circumstances permitted, potentiallyaltering the history of our country. Circumstances never did permit: Reitz’s health began to fail,soon afterwards; he left government in 1943, and was handed a plum job at the nerve centre of thewar, as the Union’s High Commissioner in London. He went out of his way to visit any of the SouthAfrican military he could find in Britain, (pic24), including this tour of a South African warship thathad docked in Portsmouth.
The next winter in England, the fifth of the war, was a very cold and wet one, and sadly the weatherwas too much for his now fragile health. Reitz died in London in 1944. Remember he loved theLowveld: his ashes were buried in this lush glade on the slopes of Mariepskop (pic25), a woodedeminence near the Blyde River Canyon that would later host a radar station. As you see, there arethree plaques on this mound in the glade, and we’ll look more closely at them (pic26). The Latin onthe top plaque describes Deneys Reitz as “a vigorous and brave man who had no fear of death”.Directly underneath is the plaque of his younger son, Claude Michael, who died tragically young as apilot. I hear mental cogs whirring, as mine did, at the words ‘South African Air Force’ and ‘1952’, but,no, he didn’t go to Korea – he was killed in a mid-air collision over Barberton, where his father hadonce been the MP.
We return now to Leila Reitz (pic27), who, you’ll recall, was a noted women’s rights campaigner. Shebecame co-leader of the South African suffragette movement – the ‘Saffragettes’ as someonedubbed them. Less militant than their English sisters, they eventually prevailed when the Union ofSouth Africaenacted votes for women in 1930. This of course also meant women could now sit inParliament; and Leila herself was elected as South Africa’s first woman MP in 1933. She representedParktown in Johannesburg, where the couple lived when they weren’t in Cape Town, up to 1943,when she followed her husband on his appointment to London. After his untimely death, shereturned to her native Cape Town and retired from public life, although she continued to involveherself in many causes up to her death.
Her plaque (pic28) - the one set slightly apart from the others – has Latin phrases noting that her MAwas from Cambridge and her qualities of humanity and wisdom. It is strange to find the old societycustom of styling a woman with her husband’s first name as well as surname, as late as 1959 andespecially for such an independent and liberated woman; perhaps she still wanted to be associatedwith Reitz for posterity. The marriage seems to have been happy; and in public life the Reitzescertainly made what today we would call a ‘power couple’.
Deneys Reitz left a wide legacy. (Pic29) The small town of Deneysville on the shores of the Vaal Damis named after him – anyone been there? The town was built in the 30s around the Reitz family’s oldhunting lodge in the northern Free State, seen here, which, after a couple of makeovers, is still in usetoday as the St Peter’s United Church. There was even a move to name the Vaal Dam itself LakeDeneys, but with our South African habit of speaking of ‘dams’ rather than lakes or reservoirs, thisnever happened; however, the idea lives on with the Lake Deneys Yacht Club at Deneysville.
His law firm became one of the so-called Big Five in South Africa (pic30). It lasted 89 years up to2011, when it was absorbed by the international firm, Norton Rose, which later became Norton RoseFulbright. The Deneys Reitz Law Library still exists in their South African premises in Sandton, and itstill houses many books that once belonged to Reitz.
(Pic31) Not merely a reader, he wrote a trilogy of books about his life. You’ll note that the secondand third books have titles evoking his people’s Voortrekker heritage, probably with some nostalgia.‘Commando’, as I said earlier, is in a class of its own, but the other two books are highly readableand almost as full of memorable anecdotes.
(Pic32) To conclude: can we agree with Smuts’s eulogy of Deneys Reitz, in which he called him a‘great South African’? I think so: he worked for reconciliation of South Africans all his life; he madehuge contributions to both our wildlife conservation and our equally globally respected legalsystem; he had humour and humanity, mixing easily with peasant or prime minister alike; and hewrote one of our most compelling books. To conclude on a light note, as he would have liked, I thinkthere can have been few people with whom one would rather spend a night around a campfire,listening to all his true stories. Thank you.
Incidents of this kind happened more than once during the Anglo-Boer War, possibly due to asense of fair play, sportsmanship and respect for one’s enemy that the Late Victorian soldier tookfrom the cricket field to the battlefield. I’m going to take the excuse to recite two verses from afavourite Afrikaans poem, Ritrympie by Toon van den Heever. It describes a very similar scenario,but this time the British officer not only orders his men to hold their fire, but calls for ‘Three cheersfor the Boer’’ and on the fourth ‘hurrah’ the Tommies throw their helmets up into the air, turning ityellow.
By this time, his clothes were in tatters and his boots had disintegrated. The latter problem wassolved by a the extreme kindness of a rural Boer they came across – a takhaar as Reitz calls him,using the Afrikaans word without a trace of the derision a word like ‘hillbilly’ might imply; for theman walked twenty miles to fetch a large piece of leather which he knew about, twenty miles back,and with his own hands made Reitz a stout pair of sandals from it.