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LIZZIE VAN ZYL (1894 – 9TH MAY 1901)

This photograph of a starved Boer child, Lizzie van Zyl, was passed on by Conan Doyle to British Prime Minister, Chamberlain, serving to tell a tale to a willful British public – an example of how Boer women neglect (sic) their children.

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Lizzie van Zyl



Transmission of Trauma

A British smear campaign
againts the Afrikaners...

Scorched Earth

On Forgiveness...

Moral Reasoning

Brief Biography of a 'quite
civilized Afrikaner'






Their audiences were told the photograph had been taken before mother and child entered the camp, thereby implying that it was due to the mother’s neglect that the child looked as she did. It was a popular British line: to project guilt and accuse the mothers of neglect. (A cover-up for British abuses of Boer women and children in the Anglo-Boer War concentration camps.)

Chamberlain went so far as to present a speech to the British public, quoted in The Times of 5th March 1902, stating that  this was the state in which the children arrived in the camps, and that Lizzie’s mother was prosecuted for mistreating her child. When Doyle was asked to provide the name of his ‘reliable informant’, he was unable to do so. No documentary evidence of any such prosecution could be found. The truth revealed in an investigation done by Emily Hobhouse, is rather telling.

Hobhouse reported that she found Doyle’s tale about Lizzie pure fabrication. She also refuted the claim that Lizzie’s mother had mistreated the child, saying there was no doubt that Lizzie’s condition was due to malnutrition ….let us call it by its name…  hunger, in the camp.

Hobhouse located the photographer, a certain Mr. de Klerk, who confirmed that the photograph had been taken two months after Lizzie had entered the camp.
Unable to speak English, she was labeled an "idiot" by the English hospital staff. Daring to ask for her mother just before she died, she was called a nuisance. (For more details see Chapter on Conan Doyle)


Black schoolgirls crying during the Soweto uprising of 16th June 1976, when black school children refused   to continue to be taught in Afrikaans at High school. In the pandemonium that followed many black children lost their lives.

Photo by ©BAHA Drum Photographer; Baily’s African History Archive.
Note: These two photographs underpin the historical narrative of transgenerational trauma in South Africa. 1901 – 1976.



What does trauma do to a people? What is the effect of not decades but centuries of humiliation? What compelled the Afrikaner, a people traumatized by British barbarism, to inflict the legalized racism of Apartheid on their fellow black South Africans? With this question in mind, I was inspired to research Afrikaners’ 300-year historical journey. My conclusion, and the central theme of this book, is how the humiliation Afrikaners experienced, starting with the arrival of the British in 1795 -- compounded by unprocessed grief for the losses suffered in the Anglo-Boer Wars (1881 & 1899-1902) – led to a fierce nationalism and a re-enactment of their trauma, in the institution of Apartheid. My aim is not to justify Apartheid, but to shed light on the historical events and psychological impact which informed its origination.

Looking at my own past, I find it difficult to pinpoint where my awareness of this humiliation by the British, and more recently by English-speaking South Africans, came into being. Growing up on a farm in northern Namibia, meeting English-speaking people was a rarity. Most white Namibians were Afrikaners and Germans, and there was no animosity between us. In school we learnt English, of course: our teachers thought us hopeless at English pronunciation and grammar, and drilled us constantly on our conjugations. But I grew up blissfully unaware of English prejudice towards us, and can recall only one childhood incident, when I was eleven years old, when my father referred to “the bleddie English”. I recall being shocked. The only English person I knew then was the magistrate’s daughter, a dear friend. So I simply decided that my father was weird – an opinion which, given the authoritarian patriarch he was, I kept to myself.

It was only in the 1980s, when I was in my late thirties and living in the southern suburbs of Cape Town, that the ‘English attitude’ of some English-speaking South Africans struck me. Some of their remarks left me speechless. I’ve often heard comments like: “You know how Afrikaners are?” or “he’s a typical Afrikaner”. When I ask, “What is a typical Afrikaner like?” an uninhibited, derogatory description follows, even when the speaker knows I am an Afrikaner. “But I am one,” I sometimes say, to which the speaker responds: “No, not like you”. Considering themselves fair-minded, non-judgmental and liberal, these people operate in complacent unawareness of their stereotyping.  Their arrogance and sense of superiority, no doubt, partly derives from the tendency of many English-speaking South Africans to disavow any responsibility for or culpability towards the creation of Apartheid. The myth of English innocence persists. They left it to the Afrikaners to totally shoulder the blame, even though they initiated many of the inequalities, colluded in the implementation of, and like the Afrikaners, profited greatly from white privilege under Apartheid.

Acclaimed historian Hermann Giliomee in his introduction to his book The Afrikaners 2003 [1] refers to David Yudelman, whom he calls a ‘perceptive English-speaking South-African historian’ who criticized  South African Anglophiles for ‘disseminating a distorted picture’ of Afrikaners to the outside world. Giliomee says Yudelman commented that although English-speaking South Africans perceive themselves as liberal, they are not ‘significantly more liberal than Afrikaners on race questions’ although they present the Afrikaner as ‘the villain, the fanatic, who created or at least institutionalized racial discrimination’. ‘Whites of British extraction supposedly only passively accepted segregation, and Apartheid’, Yudelman commented. He suggests that they were quite prepared to ‘use apartheid as a pretext for indirectly expressing their culturally chauvinistic distaste for the Afrikaners while continuing to enjoy the benefits of white supremacy.’ [1]

This view is shared by struggle hero Mamphela Ramphele who wrote in her book, Laying Ghosts To Rest (2008): ‘It is amazing how many English-speaking white South Africans have woven a web of denial around their role in the dispossession and impoverishment of black people over the centuries of white rule. (…) It is often suggested that all had been well in the colonial period until the National Party came to power in 1948.’ [1]
An Afrikaner friend recalls how they, as students, were guilt stricken about Apartheid and used to sneak into St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. This was the gathering place for outspoken liberals and for upholders of freedom. When there were Freedom Rallies or marches, brave speakers and banned ‘revolutionaries’ talking, people released after arrests welcomed, …  Afrikaners who joined in used to feel like lepers, fearing that they would be accused of being Apartheid spies and government informers should somebody discover that they were Afrikaans. Why did they feel they had no right to identify with the goals of a free society? On the wall of St George’s Cathedral, in pride of place is a plaque honouring Alfred Milner, the man who said “You have only to sacrifice the nigger absolutely, and the game is easy.” Yet it is the Afrikaners that feel the shame, hiding like untouchables, unobtrusively trying to share in the hopes. And in their parental homes they had to hide these same hopes or injure the defences constructed by their elders.

One person fully understood the Afrikaners’ both heroic and disastrous journey: South Africa’s late first black President Nelson Mandela. Because he knew their history (better than most Afrikaners do), and while strongly condemning their actions, he understood their fears and the force of their longing for ‘freedom’.  With his very fabric he recognized the striving for self-determination.   This explains his efforts to embrace Afrikaners - the very people who had sent him to jail for 27 years – as part of his vision for the future of South Africa. Searching for dignity for all was his life’s calling, for which he will be remembered. 
The one question often asked by black people is why the Afrikaners, who were utterly humiliated by the English, did the same to the black people. The answer to that question – the timeless human question - the reader will find in this book.  

The cycle of humiliation will continue in South Africa if we Afrikaners do not understand and confront our own suffering and shame – and the English do not acknowledge their huge part in it. The same goes for black people in South Africa, whose own enactment is in full swing. Thirteen years of research for this book has yielded evidence of at least 200 years of prejudice, still on-going. My counselling practice in Cape Town and Swellendam continues to uncover many stories of humiliation. What is interesting, though, is that most Afrikaners are unaware of certain English opinions about them – not necessarily a bad thing. While the humiliator needs to feed his vulnerable ego, his targets get on with life. It is now more important than ever that Afrikaners understand their own history. Otherwise how do you go on? How do you explain the past to your children – without creating new ghosts and falsehoods? How do you mourn and heal without knowing about the past which has shaped who you are today? It needs to be noted, however, that though this analysis is about one group, the Afrikaners, transgenerational re-enactment of trauma and humiliation is a universal theme, playing itself out all over the world. A lack of understanding of transgenerational trauma and the impact of humiliation on nations is one reason why ‘people never learn from history’.  This book is an attempt to learn from ours.

Searching for dignity, like Nelson Mandela, Afrikaans author Karel Schoeman wrote many years ago [1]: ‘What matters more than your human dignity? I believe’, he said, ‘you don’t only have the right to insist on the acknowledgement of your humanity and dignity, but actually have a duty to undertake the acknowledgement of it – with all justifiable means available to you.’ [1] This book is part of that attempt.

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