A letter to Jacob Rees-Mogg

Pieter Cronjé responds to the Tory MP's defence of British concentration camps in the Anglo-Boer war

British Conservative MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, sparked outrage in news media and on social media with comments on BBC’s Question Time about the concentration camps of the Anglo Boer War where more than 26 000 women and children died. He said the camps were there to protect and feed the women and children whose husbands and fathers were fighting the war. He likened the mortality rate in concentration camps to that of Glasgow at the turn of century, when the SA figures were in fact ten times higher. The following is the letter Pieter Cronjé, former London correspondent now business consultant, wrote to him in reply:

Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg M.P.

House of Commons


Dear Mr Rees-Mogg

I have recently watched some of your impressive debates on YouTube.

As a result, your comments about the Anglo Boer War concentration camps during a BBC interview, reported in the South African media, immediately caught my eye. I watched the video clip and read news reports.

Your arguments about the higher mortality rate at the turn of the century may be accurate.

Your comparison with Glasgow is "misleading at best", says The Herald in Scotland (in 1901 the mortality rate in the concentration was 24% compared to Glasgow’s 2.1%).

Your claims about the women and children in Anglo Boer War concentration Camps - "people were being taken there to be fed because the farmers were away fighting the Boer War"; "they were interned for their safety"; and they were taken there "for their protection" - are inaccurate and cynical.

Concentration camps were part of a deliberate “scorched earth” policy by Lord Kitchener. The death of 26 251 women and children in those camps were the result of near starvation rations, miserable tented accommodation in extreme temperatures, malnutrition, and an appalling lack of proper hygiene and medical care. 

To portray the camps as a place to feed them is both inaccurate and patronising. Boer families and especially Boer women, were strong, self-sufficient, hardy and very skilled at producing and preserving food and manufacturing tools for production, hunting and self-defence. 

Their suffering is portrayed in the Women’s Monument in the city of my birth, Bloemfontein. 

Emily Hobhouse produced damning evidence against the British military for the treatment of concentration camp victims. 

Thomas Pakenham in his internationally acclaimed history “The Boer War” describes the misery. Pakenham writes on p. 495 (Jonathan Ball edition): “The camps have left a gigantic scar across the minds of the Afrikaners: a symbol of deliberate genocide.” 

Lest we forget, there were also concentration camps where some 130 000 black South Africans were interned

My close friend and eminent South African documentary photographer, the late Paul Alberts, compiled, catalogued, published extensively and exhibited in Europe the shocking images of life in the concentration camps. I stood with him on his farm in the concentration camp graveyard outside the Free State town of Brandfort, looking at the tombstones of seven young children from the same family who died in a period of nine months.

The forced removal of Boer women and children was preceded by the trauma of British troops destroying their homes, burning their crops and killing their livestock while they had to watch – to deprive the Boer fighters of supplies and to break their spirit, knowing their loved ones were incarcerated.

My grandmother narrowly escaped a scorched earth raid and lived with a group of Boer families in a cave for seven months.

I spent three wonderful years in London as a foreign correspondent (1978 – 1981) and toured the British Isles. Your late father was editor of The Times, a paper I read every day. My mother was a Sinclair, originally from Caithness. 

I am an Afrikaner. I played an active role in South Africa’s transformation from apartheid to democracy and worked for the Independent Electoral Commission in South Africa's first democratic election in 1994. 

Your comments in the interview were inaccurate, inappropriate, insensitive and hurtful.


Pieter Cronjé

Pieter Cronjé is a former journalist and now international business consultant