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Tourism News
The Karoo's eternal Commandant
09 October 2009

The Boer war split the Karoo community of Graaff-Reinet down cultural lines with tension between Afrikaners and English reaching an all time high. Besides Scheepers, seven other Afrikaners were executed here at that time. Commandant Gideon Scheepers led the Witkoppen commandos until his execution in 1902. His remains were never found and his mother searched for them until her own death. A controversial figure revered by Afrikaners, he is viewed as a traitor by many British descendants.


When a 23-year-old Boer officer was executed on the outskirts of Graaff- Reinet in early 1902, his death, posthumous disappearance and the search for his bones transformed a dead man into a Karoo legend. And as Mike Burgess discovered, the man still stirs the emotions of the town's locals.

When I reached the memorial to the legendary Commandant Gideon Scheepers near Graaff-Reinet, I found a small wreath at its base, a symbol of the enduring power of the man's legend. And so my story begins with Paul van den Berg, who in conjunction with an Afrikaner cultural organization - Die Rapportryers - places a wreath there each year. For Paul the commandant's execution, and its aftermath, is personal. As a young member of the then-South African National Defence Force's Regiment Gideon Scheepers, he was a coffin-bearer at the funeral of the commandant's mother, Sophie, in the Transvaal in 1956. "She was so light," he recalls. "They said she thought her boy would return to the very end." When I met Paul, he was clutching a flipfile bulging with information. The story of the commandant's military brilliance has been retold in his family since his grandfather Johannes, a Cape Rebel himself, watched Scheepers being carted off to his execution. "He was a young and brilliant military strategist," Paul explains.

He did as he pleased and fooled the British at will in the Karoo." On 16 December 1900, Scheepers crossed the Orange River into the Cape Colony, as a captain in a large Boer commando. War was raging north of the Orange and Vaal Rivers, and the idea was to open a new front in the British-controlled Cape. After recruiting local rebels to augment his Republican men, Scheepers was promoted to commandant and broke away at the head of a commando of about 150 men and boys sporting white hat bands. These "Witkoppen" quickly made a name for themselves derailing trains, cutting communications, capturing supplies and burning down homes. Later, as British troops closed in on them, Scheepers earned even their officers' respect as he continuously outwitted them in the vastness of the Karoo.


A controversial figure

However, although his military prowess is undeniable, Scheepers had a darker side which still attracts controversy, says Hermi Baartman of the Graaff-Reinet museum. Notoriously, he ordered the outright execution of dozens of black and coloured scouts hired by the British to gather intelligence on commando movements. "Many thought Scheepers was cruel," she says. "It's said he ordered the shooting of about 30 spies, but he was executed for murdering seven." Though Scheepers argued he had received his orders from superiors, he was destined to pay for their lives with his own - to the satisfaction of many loyalists. Many believe public malevolence sealed his fate before he was captured, cringing in pain from appendicitis near Prince Albert in October 1901. Such views seemed to have survived to this day. Chippie Joseph, owner of the Mossievale B&B in Graaff-Reinet, says his family always saw Scheepers as more of a traitorous bandit than a war hero. "We didn't really speak about him, because he was a traitor to the English people during the war," he says. "Well, that's what I was always told - I grew up in an English home."


Executed, exhumed and lost

On 18 January 1902, Commandant Gideon Scheepers sat blindfolded and tied to a chair in the Karoo veld. When the bullets struck and flung him clumsily next to his already-dug grave, Ivie Allan, a photographer and member of the local Home Guard, quietly captured the execution in disturbing, grainy photos, depicting the moment a martyr was born. "Scheepers lives because they shot him," says Hermi. "If they'd just sent him to Ceylon, he would have been one of many." Yet today his name lives on, thanks to the continual retelling of his story in books, pamphlets, newspapers and magazines, Allan's chilling photos, and the romanticised naming of Karoo farms like Scheeperskraal, Scheepersdrift and Scheepersrus. Even his personal items are treasured.

The Graaff-Reinet Museum features his rusted shaving blade. His Mauser rifle, a leg of the chair he was executed on, his hat and his diary are on display at the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein. It's ironic, and disturbing, that what truly fuelled the commandant's legend was his treatment after death. Intent on keeping his bones from Boer supporters, the British beat them to it, exhuming him a few days after his execution. Because the events of that night remain unknown, various colourful versions have emerged. My favourite depicts a group of British soldiers shovelling at the grave in the peculiar silence of the Karoo, directly in the path of an approaching thunderstorm. Soon they are silhouetted by flashes of lightning. As they reach the lime-laced corpse, the full force of the storm lashes down as if nature itself is horrified by the disturbance of the recent dead. Terrified, they stumble in the direction of the Sundays River, to rebury the commandant in a shallow grave that will never be found again, despite a long and desperate search by his parents.


A fruitless, tragic search

Nobody would have been any the wiser about the exhumation. However, after the war, and a long journey from Middleburg in the old Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR), Scheepers' parents Sophie and Jacobus arrived in Graaff- Reinet to claim their son's bones. The reality of an empty grave, besides bits of chair, rope, hair and lime, was horrific. To uncover the truth, Sophie began a life-long search for her boy. "As a mother, I understand the motivation she must have had to find his bones," says Hermi. "It would have given her closure on the tragedy." She relates how Sophie energetically pursued her son, lobbying newspapers and prominent individuals, and it is said, even writing letters to the British royal family. Presumably, these were never answered. So important was the recovery of Scheepers' remains to the Afrikaner public at large that as late as the 1920s, a search committee offered a reward for his bones. That reward attracted a colourful Karoo opportunist, Frederick de Beer.

De Beer was so skelm, says Baartman that he presented the committee with his own father's bones. Unfortunately for him, the two dead men had broken different legs, and instead of a reward De Beer received a hefty fine. With no bones, rumours began to circulate that the entire execution was a scam and that Scheepers had somehow escaped. Alleged sightings surfaced across the country and even as far afield as Germany. The intrigue only deepened with time. In 1935 a mentally unstable patient with a striking resemblance to Scheepers insisted he was the commandant. Sophie had to travel to Bloemfontein and inspect his ear for a birthmark before declaring him a fraud. Jacobus had died in 1934. When Sophie followed in 1956 at over 100 years of age, she died having failed to find her son. To this day, nobody knows Scheeper's final resting place - which only adds to the legend of the Karoo's eternal commandant. • Other Sources include: When the Ants get Angry! - The importance of Graaff-Reinet in the Anglo Boer War (Andrew McNaughton), Commandant Gideon Scheepers and the Search for his Grave (Taffy and David Shearing) Sword in the Sand (Johannes Meintjes), Scheepers se Dagboek en die Stryd in Kaapland (Gustav Preller), Van die Oewer, van die Dwyka na Graaff-Reinet se Sand (Relief Koch).

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