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The Cold War

Our last instalment ended with Marthinus Wessel Pretorius having emerged as the new supreme Commandant-General of the Transvaal Boers following the July 23, 1853 death of his father Andries.

From the outset the younger Pretorius proved energetic in his efforts to realise his father’s vision of uniting the interior Boers into a “South African Republic” (“Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek” or ZAR).

In the aftermath of Sechele’s return from Cape Town, Pretorius was determined to consolidate Jan Viljoen’s tenuous ceasefire agreement into a more durable peace. In this respect, he recognised that securing the ZAR western border was prerequisite for his broader political ambitions.

But, throughout the austral winter months of 1853, further negotiations between the Batswana and Boers remained on hold, with neither side willing to venture into the other’s strongholds. The killing of three Boers along the Limpopo in reprisal for the killing of two Batswana aggravated the situation; but an all out return to hostilities was averted.

In September-October Viljoen, who had by then been promoted to Commandant, was finally dispatched to negotiate peace and friendship treaties (“vredensbesluit tusschen”) with the Bakwena, Bangwaketse and Barolong.

After reaching an understanding with the Bangwaketse ruler, Kgosi Senthufe, Viljoen met the Barolong ruler, Kgosi Montshiwa at Mathebe on October 14, 1853. There, the Commandant was recorded to have said:

“Our new Head, Marthinus Wessel Pretorius sent me, on behalf of the South African Republic, to make peace with you and all the other tribes, for war has no home, war has no sleep, war has no child, war has no sheep or harvest.

The President wants peace so that all of us can return to our residences unafraid, and he wishes to make this peace never-ending, so that the children born now, can grow up and bear children themselves and educate them and that peace will still be there, so that when the blacks meet the whites or the whites meet the blacks, they will greet each other as friends.

This is the news President Pretorius sends to Your Honour through me.”

Viljoen then proposed, and Montshiwa agreed, to the following:

“Your territory will remain yours as was promised to you before the head of the first Emigrants, Commandant Hendrick Potgeiter and his successors, the territory of the whites will remain in their possession in as far as it is inhabited by them now.” Sechele, however, initially refused to sign up.

He demanded that the Boers must first make a full account of all the women and children who were still missing and who had presumably been captured from his and other merafe during the war. The Mokwena was also not convinced that

the Boers had lost their appetite for land grabbing.

When Viljoen tried in invite Sechele to ZAR-held territory for direct negotiations with M.W. Pretorius, the Motswana, fearing a possible trap, instead sent an emissary. Pretorius likewise, rejected Sechele’s entreaties to come into Kweneng.

The Mokwena’s own determination undoubtedly grew as ranks of those living directly under him increased through the absorption of refugees. The ivory trader, William Baldwin noted that in the aftermath of the fighting, some 20,000 people were concentrated at the Mokwena’s Dithubaruba stronghold, adding: “They are an independent lot of Kaffirs and have no end of guns”.

Sechele leveraged onto his growing strength in numbers by insisting that any peace settlement with the ZAR should include his allies. In an October 15, 1854 letter to Viljoen, Sechele thus spoke of bringing Dikgosi Mahura and Gasebonwe of the Batlhaping, Adam Kok and Nicolaas Waterboer of the Griqua, and Morena Moshoeshoe of the Basotho, as well as his more immediate neighbours to the table.

For a time there were fears amongst at least some the white settlers in the region that Sechele would link up with other Sesotho-Tswana rulers to drive them out of the interior Highveld altogether. From the Natal Mercury, of January the 17, 1855:

“We learn from private sources that a very extensive combination of native tribes, including Secheli and other powerful chiefs is forming against the Boers; and some anticipate that they will be ultimately driven from the country- a just retribution for their oppressive cruelties towards the natives.”

In the end, the survival of the ZAR, and thus the fate of many black communities still living under its rule, was to a great extent decided by its parallel struggle with the Bapedi on its northern border.

In addition to the raw memory of Sechele’s raiders pillaging of their farms in the Madikwe region, the Boers had been unnerved by the failed December 1852 invasion of Lesotho by a British army numbering 2,500 under the command of Major General George Cathcart himself.

The relative success of armed Basotho and Batswana raised hopes and fears that a coalition of Sotho-Tswana speaking “tribes with guns” might yet succeed in liberating the South African Highveld of white settler hegemony.

Rumours of such a development were further fanned by news that, following his humbling of Cathcart’s force, Moshoeshoe had dispatched messengers to spread the news to the independent merafe of Botswana and the northern Transvaal.

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